Brendan O’Carroll: ‘However funny you are, people can tire of you’
The comedian, who receives a lifetime-achievement Ifta next week, is finally doing ‘very, very well’. But his life and work have been defined by financial insecurity
Brendan O’Carroll: “It’s a cliche, but whatever about being a hit in England and South Africa and Canada and New Zealand and Australia, you want to be recognised at home.” Photograph: Barry McCall
Mrs Brown’s Boys: its prestigious Christmas slot is a testament to the popularity of Brendan O’Carroll’s gleefully potty-mouthed BBC sitcom
He has been a bona-fide star for years, but Brendan O’Carroll is never too far from a reminder of his old life. When he hears of people in financial distress he remembers the times he found himself in similarly dire straits. If he encounters an aspiring entrepreneur he recalls his own experiences as a cash-strapped producer. And whenever he bumps into old acquaintances from his years in the hotel business he gets asked the same question.
“They always joke that I must miss being a waiter, and I say, ‘Actually, I do,’ ” O’Carroll says. “I absolutely loved being a waiter. I especially used to love doing weddings. I would say to the staff, ‘If we do this wrong we can do it again tomorrow, but they’re getting one day at this, so let’s make it magic for them.’ I loved the camaraderie and the interaction. And also, I suppose, learning that there’s no difference between an audience of four in a restaurant and 4,000 in an arena. It’s the same performance; you want to make them happy.”
Spreading good cheer is important to O’Carroll. “Jenny” – Gibney, his wife – “calls me a come-on-a-we-all,” he says. “It’s not enough for me to have fun: we all need to be having fun.”
Sure enough, sipping coffee in Dublin, he is engagingly cheerful company, whether spinning shaggy-dog anecdotes or joshing about the impossibility of smoking indoors. When O’Carroll is like this, acting dour isn’t an option.
In recent years he has made an awful lot of people very happy. It’s not just audiences in Ireland, Britain and beyond that respond to the profane positivity of his matriarchal alter ego, Agnes Brown. (“During a recession people like to laugh,” he says.) It’s also television executives, cinema owners and theatre managers.
Since Mrs Brown’s Boys debuted, in 2011, the Dublin-born writer and comedian’s gleefully potty-mouthed BBC sitcom has been a huge hit, gaining millions of viewers; he has just finished shooting the show’s annual Christmas special, the prestigious slot a testament to its popularity.
His feature film Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie topped the UK and Irish box-office charts during an otherwise fallow summer for blockbusters. And his current stage show, How Now Mrs Brown Cow, has been touring all year; it will culminate in a six-night run at 3Arena, in Dublin, in December.
The Irish Film & and Television Academy is presenting him with a gong for lifetime achievement at its television-awards ceremony next week. O’Carroll says the award has been a surprise.
“I don’t feel I’ve had a lifetime yet, unless they’ve seen some medical report I wasn’t aware of. But it’s fabulous. It’s a cliche, but whatever about being a hit in England and South Africa and Canada and New Zealand and Australia, you want to be recognised at home.”
It might seem odd for someone with such broad appeal to be so keen about recognition. But then, behind his infectious cheerfulness, O’Carroll retains a streetwise wariness, taking nothing for granted while remaining on the alert for unjust slights. After all, if there is any caveat to O’Carroll’s feats, it’s that his immense popular success has been not matched by critical acclaim.
Nor is there any sense of him resting on his laurels. “If I get knocked back I just move on to the next thing,” he says. “As my mother used to say, the world turns every 24 hours. But you have to remember that when you’re on the top as well.”
It’s no coincidence that O’Carroll should mention his mother. Family plays a big part in his life, not least in his professional accomplishments. Mrs Brown’s Boys is, in the broadest sense, a family affair. The cast, on screen and on stage, includes Gibney, his daughter Fiona (who is married to the show’s producer Martin Delany) and his son Danny (who is married to their fellow cast member Amanda Woods). Other cast members are treated as relatives. O’Carroll and Gibney refer to Rory Cowan, a friend and business partner long before he acted in the show, as their “eldest boy”.
“Look, we all want to run away with the circus. And that’s what we’ve done,” O’Carroll says. “The fact that it’s a family within a family, I think people do respond to that. Also, we’re working together so long that they see a chemistry and warmth there, so they go, ‘I want to buy into that.’ ”
Defined by his family
More than most, O’Carroll was defined by his family when he was growing up, in particular by his mother. At a time when women were supposed to stop working when they were married, Maureen O’Carroll was a university-educated former nun who went on to become a Labour TD, a community activist and a trade-union official while raising 11 children, of whom Brendan was the youngest. As a child in Finglas, young Brendan, who lost his father at a young age, was always aware of his mother’s achievements.
“I spent my life being her son,” he says. “Where we lived a lot of the people were fans of her, because she got them housed. I don’t remember her ever paying a bus fare, for instance. But it wasn’t until I started reading about her later that I realised just how much she’d done.
“I wondered how come I didn’t learn about this woman in school, and then I realised, how much did we know about Countess Markievicz? F*** all. Women seem to get airbrushed out of our history.”
Growing up, O’Carroll says, he was “the classic kid who charged the others a penny into the back yard to do a show for them”, but it was his mother, whom he still calls his mentor, who shaped his instinct for making others feel good.
“Because my mam ran a shelter we’d all be down helping out. We volunteered whether we liked it or not,” he says. “So we all grew up with this idea of being able to serve without being servile, that giving service was good.”
After leaving school in his early teens, O’Carroll embarked on a picaresque working life, before debts from a failed pub venture prompted him to try comedy in the late 1980s.
“I’ve been knocked back – many times, and terrifying ones too,” he says. Chief among these traumas was the loss of his first son, Brendan, who died from spina bifida shortly after birth. (O’Carroll has three grown-up children from his marriage to his first wife, Doreen Dowdall.)
Even comedy initially proved an uneven path. He recalls being unable to afford the petrol to return to Dublin after a gig in Galway. “I look back now and wonder what motivated me to get up the next day and go to Waterford. Three kids, I guess.”
There were bigger setbacks. In the late 1990s he wrote and directed Sparrow’s Trap, a movie that never made it into cinemas, leaving him with enormous debts. “When that went down the tubes, for £2.1 million, I could never see it being righted; it scared the living daylights out of me,” he says. “I don’t get depressed, but I was certainly very down.”
He says that it was only when his mother turned up in a dream to offer advice – “She told me, ‘If you’re willing to get down on your knees and pray for a result, get off your knees and do something about it” – that he dusted himself down. “I got stuck in, kept working and just got little victories. And the little victories add up.”
A similar spirit of enforced improvisation gave rise to his most famous creation. Asked to write sketches for Gareth O’Callaghan’s 2FM radio show in the early 1990s, he suggested a matriarchal character he had just dreamed up, and ended up voicing Agnes Browne – the final E has since disappeared – only when an actor failed to show up. (O’Carroll adds a suitably Del Boy-esque twist by saying that 2FM paid him in T-shirts.)
He went on to write several novels featuring Agnes. The character even ended up in a Hollywood movie, coscripted by O’Carroll and directed by and starring Anjelica Huston. Although he has mixed feelings about the finished film, he used his screenwriter’s fee to pay off his debts.
Empathy for hardship
Such experiences underpin his empathy when it comes to the hardship of others. In 2011, after hearing Joe Duffy, on Liveline, speak to a man who owed €7,000 to moneylenders, O’Carroll paid off the debt because he remembered the sensation of “sitting up at night and wondering, ‘Is it going to be tomorrow?’ ”
Similarly, he has been known to help budding businesspeople with seed money, inspired by the example of Denis Desmond, the producer and promoter, who provided him with a loan for the first Mrs Brown theatre show, shortly after the collapse of Sparrow’s Trap. “He invested in me, and I think you should pass that on.”
Financial security is still a relatively recent phenomenon for O’Carroll. He says that when he shot the pilot episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys for the BBC he only had £6 in his pocket.
Since then, of course, all has changed. O’Carroll’s combination of unabashed profanity and cheeky slapstick has won over audiences. If the humour is hardly subtle – one of the show’s most famous moments involves a rectal thermometer – the energy of the performances and the inclusive generosity of spirit add to its appeal, as does its inclusion of every blooper, a nod to the show’s live roots. As a result, O’Carroll admits, somewhat charily, to doing “very, very well”.
But he still feels that he has been short-changed when it comes to critical recognition. He notes that, despite its commercial success, Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie didn’t receive a single Ifta nomination.
And then there are the reviews. Last summer, sitting in for Marian Finucane on RTÉ Radio 1, he took umbrage at a lukewarm review of his film by Donald Clarke, the Irish Times critic, even mistakenly saying that the writer had labelled it racist.
O’Carroll is slightly more philosophical about the matter now – “He said, ‘This is not my kind of film,’ to which I would say, ‘Then why are you reviewing it?’ ” – but the bad notices clearly sting. “I’d be a liar if I said it doesn’t hurt. Look, the Independent in London called Mrs Brown’s Boys the worst sitcom ever made. That didn’t hurt me. But in The Irish Times once, someone didn’t review the play, they reviewed me, and you think, Look at the work, please. That hurts.
“But age is great. The longer you do it, the more you realise we’re all just doing our gig here. So you stop taking things personally and it starts to get easier. So I don’t read them. I do hear them.”
O’Carroll is slightly circumspect about the future. There is a possibility of a second Mrs Brown movie, although he says he finds the process of film-making soul-destroying. And rather than produce a fourth full series of his sitcom he confines himself to festive specials. “It’s a great way to keep the pot warm without people getting sick of us. I don’t care how funny you are: people can tire of you.”
Live theatre remains O’Carroll’s first love. “Doing it in front of a live audience, instant reaction, fabulous nights – it’s my lifeblood.”
As long as people are happy O’Carroll knows he’s doing his job right. “I’m very conscious that our audience is very blue collar, and in many cases it’s their night out for the month, particularly with the prices for arenas,” he says.
“So you look at them and think, Don’t let us be the bit of the night that lets them down. So it’s about the audience: we do whatever it takes to fulfil our promise that if you come in and sit in the dark for two hours we will make you laugh. Whatever we do, let’s do that.
“After that we’ve no responsibility to anybody.”
The Irish Film & Television Academy’s television awards take place on Thursday, October 29th; ifta.ie; they will be shown on TV3 on Friday, October 23rd, at 9pm
* This article was amended to correct the date of transmission of the IFTA awards.