Mrs Brown’s Boys – the best of sitcoms, or the worst?

Brian Boyd: I’d rather throw myself on top of a funeral pyre than watch Mrs Brown’s Boys. But the programme wasn’t commissioned with bitter cranks like me in mind

‘Just as with the Brexit vote, the BBC should be analysing these figures by socio-economic class and level of education and passing patronising judgment on same.’ Photograph: BBC

‘Just as with the Brexit vote, the BBC should be analysing these figures by socio-economic class and level of education and passing patronising judgment on same.’ Photograph: BBC

 

‘Worse than Brexit” was among the many considered responses to the news this week that Mrs Brown’s Boys was voted the Best Sitcom of the 21st century by members of the public in the UK. Worse than Brexit indeed – this the second time this year that the bloody awful public and their highly inconvenient voting have caused upset.

Just as with the Brexit vote, the BBC should be analysing these figures by socio-economic class and level of education and passing patronising judgment on same. And was it made explicitly clear in this voting process, that some of the losing sitcoms were actually written by people who had met at a creative writing class at university and actually starred actors who had been to Oxbridge?

The 14,000 people who voted online in the sitcom poll were treated in the same crude manner as Brexiters: quite obviously the uneducated working class who simply didn’t understand the ever so droll finesse of Peep Show or the dynamic metropolitan in-jokes of The Thick of It.

The poll, conducted by the Radio Times features other sitcoms with Irish writing contributions – Count Arthur Strong (no 4), The IT Crowd (no 5) and Black Books (no 12)

Declaration of Interest: I’d rather throw myself on top of a funeral pyre than watch Mrs Brown’s Boys. But the programme wasn’t commissioned with bitter cranks like me in mind. Why and how it was commissioned is instructive. Back in 2009 the BBC came to the realisation that it was making the sort of hideously middle-class sitcoms that only the staff of the BBC wanted to watch.

Its then flagship sitcom My Family (an anodyne suburban affair which even its two main actors, Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker publicly criticised as “dross”) was to be replaced with something that connected with audiences and didn’t leave them scurrying them for the remote control to find an Only Fools and Horses repeat on one of the satellite channels.

A BBC producer, Stephen McCrum, on the recommendation of Rab C Nesbitt actor, Ian Pattison went to a theatre in Glasgow where the liver version of Mrs Brown’s Boys was playing. “The audience was full of old women laughing, alongside ushers who were about 16 or 17 and also pissing themselves. It was immediately clear: there’s something happening here,” McCrum told the Guardian.

The producer put it on prime time BBC and the “worst sitcom ever made” (as one critic had it) went on to beat heavily hyped and marketed shows such as Dr Who in the ratings. BAFTAs and other awards rained down on the show described as another critic as making you embarrassed to be Irish.

The Metropolitan sneer directed at Mrs Brown’s Boys is symptomatic of a troubling disconnect. By virtue of signalling your opposition to a sitcom, you are arrogating to yourself a level of sophistication and wit that is tediously self-serving. That you furthermore disparage those who voted in good faith with appalling references to their perceived level of education is the liberal left at its most abhorrent and hypocritical.

This disconnect is not confined to the world of sitcoms. Music, film and literature coverage can often read like some Victorian parlour game where the winner is the one who is the most wryly recherché.

There are many good and valid reasons not to like Mrs Brown’s Boys. The fact that it isn’t Chris Morris’s Jam and it will hardly be screened in the Comedy Tent at Electric Picnic isn’t one of them.

Placing the back of your hand on your forehead and shrieking that Mrs Brown’s Boys is “ever so derivative” is missing the point that it’s purposefully derivative. As its creator, Brendan O’Carroll acknowledged this week “there is an audience out there that comedy forgot – that Are You Being Served? audience has been left behind”.

As O’Carroll correctly points out, some NME-reading metropolitan types at the BBC decreed that “Comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll” during what we shudderingly now recall as the Britpop years and since then TV comedy has been disappeared up its own punchline – intertextual twaddle with lashings of post-ironic detachment all based on an old Monty Python sketch you hope everyone has forgotten about.

Interestingly, this weekend sees the BBC re-booting and celebrating the type of comedy shows O’Carroll is referring to. To mark the 60th anniversary of the first British sitcom, Hancock’s Half-Hour, contemporary versions of Are You Being Served? Till Death Us To Part and Steptoe and Son are being screened.

Brendan O’Carroll as part of the comedy Zeitgeist – you read it here first.

As the “outrage” and our good social media friend, “offence”, continue to be expressed and taken this week over the Mrs Brown’s Boy award, there one other ignored consideration about O’Carroll’s show.

The main character, Agnes Browne, is based on O’Carroll’s own mother, Maureen O’Carroll. As a socialist firebrand from Finglas, Maureen O’Carroll became the first female Labour Party TD (elected to serve Dublin North-Central in 1954).

Apart from being chief whip of the Labour Party, she also took big food companies to court in a bid to stamp out overcharging. A mother of 10 children who fought long and hard to allow married women in the civil service the right to retain their job after the crime of marriage, she also campaigned tirelessly about domestic abuse of women.

By all accounts Maureen O’Carroll was a brave and courageous person. She challenged the status quo, upset vested interests and disturbed the moribund consensus. A lot like her son.

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