In the olden days a tax-strapped celebrity would have moved to Switzerland
It's tricky for Mrs Brown's Boys staying salt of the earth when they're mentioned in the same breath as the Queen
It’s 1990 and we’re in the Rathmines Inn, a pub in Dublin. The impressively determined Brendan O’Carroll, unknown and in debt, is trying out his yarn-based stand-up. It is going well. He would, however, be surprised to discover that, a few decades hence, the merest association with an O’Carroll creation would be enough to elevate any person into the celebrity elite. You know what we mean. The life that was then still (just about) lived in Martini advertisements. Sharing parasols with Joan Collins at the Monaco Grand Prix. Yachting with Princess Margaret. Those sorts of things.
Something like this has come to pass. It has emerged that three cast members of Mrs Brown’s Boys – O’Carroll’s daughter Fiona Delany, her husband Martin Delaney and Paddy Houlihan – were paid through an offshore structure that sheltered them from paying income tax.
That’s posh enough. But just look at the company they’re keeping. The names appeared in the mass information leak dubbed the Paradise Papers. Also mentioned were racing driver Lewis Hamilton, actor Keira Knightley and the Queen. That’s right. Not Queen. Not the popular quasi-Wagnerian rock group. The Queen of England. By putting some money the way of a Lithuanian shopping mall, Bono has done the least rock‘n’roll thing that a rock‘n’roll star has done since Roger Daltry went into fish farming. Just about the only top-end celebrity missing is Madonna. Oh scratch that. It seems the papers name Madge as a shareholder in a medical supply company in Bermuda. The truss users of Hamilton and St George’s will be most grateful.
If you’re able to make sense of this stuff then you’ve every right to burst a blood vessel. The subjects’ wages get paid into a Macao casino that leases skyscrapers to Icelandic shipping magnates who run molasses to liquor speculators in Nicaragua. Madonna, the queen, Hamilton and the bloke who plays the priest in Mrs Brown’s Boys then get paid in cases of high-end rum. Do I have this right? Of course not. It takes hours to makes sense of these numbingly boring financial circumlocutions and, when all ends are untied, the operations prove perfectly legal. Who can be bothered with that? Others must be upset on my behalf.
In the olden days, a tax-strapped celebrity would be required to move to Switzerland. You couldn’t move for mountains of cash deposited round Lake Geneva by David Niven and Roger Moore. Now it is possible for harried millionaires to live somewhere more exciting, but their less lucky money has to finance tobacconists in Astana and hair salons in Helsingborg. This is better for them and worse for us. Yes? This has given me a raging headache. Get me Madonna’s Bermudan medical supplies company.
Anyway, the point here is that Mrs Brown’s Boys has just received an unwanted, but nonetheless impressive, imprimatur from the World Fame Police. Brendan O’Carroll is not involved with the (totally legal, m’lud) skyscrapers-for-molasses scheme, but he is unlikely to have enjoyed the current publicity.
Like Fifty Shades of Grey and André Rieu, the show became one of the great cultural two fingers to the critical elite
When the elitist mainstream media puts its boot into Mrs Brown’s Boys, the rejoinder is that this is an ordinary show for ordinary people. That image is a teeny bit tarnished by the news that some cast members are directing their wages through trust funds in Mauritius (that version isn’t made up).
Worse still is the current association with the likes of Madonna, Hamilton and the Queen. It’s tricky to retain salt-of-the-earth status when your people’s finances are being analysed beside those of the Duchy of Lancaster.
And yet. The Mrs Brown story remains astonishing. O’Carroll created the character, loosely based on his mother, the late TD Maureen O’Carroll, for a radio show in 1992. “Without getting too deep, I often wonder – remembering my mother was always out working – if Mrs Brown is the mother I wish my own mam had been,” he told me in 2014. She went through numerous incarnations – books, stage shows, a feature film starring Anjelica Huston – before finally landing with BBC Scotland in a co-production with RTE in 2010. Like Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code and André Rieu, the show became one of the great cultural two fingers to the critical elite.
“At the end of the day, I don’t do this for them. They’re the only ones who don’t pay for a f**king ticket. They get in for free,” O’Carroll said of the critics. Last August, readers of the Radio Times voted it the best British sitcom (relax, it’s a UK co-production) of the new century.
None of what happened this week does anything to dismantle the show’s reputation as the plucky underdog that demonstrates the virtue of sticking to your convictions. Its fans will continue to love everything about the phenomenon. The rest of us continue to love everything about the phenomenon apart from the show itself.