The appeal of Garth Brooks is destined to remain a mystery to people like us

Opinion: The tapenade-eaters are always going to remain immune to the charms of ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’


It seems we are a very severely divided nation. This should not come as any enormous surprise. Each week we read of red-faced property developers eating baby seals in Cancún while, back at home, their weary tenants carry fetid water from distant wells. But this week’s news reminds us the social rifts may be more dramatic than anybody had hitherto imagined.

Two days ago, 240,000 tickets were, in just 90 minutes, sold for Garth Brooks’s upcoming stadium concerts.

If we take the population of the island to be 6.4 million (and, in this context, we really, really do need to include Northern Ireland) then that comes out to about one in 26 of the population. Yet you’ve never met anybody who admits to liking him. Have you? You may not even be entirely sure who Mr Brooks is.

Perhaps, while serving as a judge, you have screwed up your face at some defendant’s passing mention. Mr Brooks, m’lud, is an enormously hatted country singer who, sometimes while flying sinisterly above the audience’s head, warbles cod-country atrocities about cows, plains and dying horses. He is, I believe, particularly popular with people from those Ulster counties that remain outside the occupied territories.

Tapenade and Arcade Fire
Those of us who pride ourselves on our pompous urban elitism have some difficulty getting our heads around the staggering popularity of Brooks. Indeed, the planet teems with puzzling phenomena rarely discussed in the places where tapenade is eaten to the strains of Arcade Fire. One sensed similar levels of bewilderment when Mrs Brown’s Boys – after years of ruthless pummelling by Irish critics – became a success on the other side of the Irish Sea.

While the media were busily wittering about Louis, The Thick of It and Breaking Bad, actual people with actual televisions were stubbornly watching a raw-honed blue comedy featuring a middle-aged man in an ill-fitting frock.

Why won’t the little people do what we tell them to do? Will they – as instructed – immerse themselves in the vast teeming novels of Thomas Pynchon, Eleanor Catton and Donna Tartt? No, they’re too busy ploughing through 50 Shades of Grey and the factory-farmed, ghost-written thrillers of James Patterson. The ingratitude!

Let’s approach this from another angle. Some years ago, it became impossible to open a broadsheet newspaper – say this organ or a certain English paper originally printed in Manchester – without encountering mention of the cable series Mad Men. The top-heavy Christina Hendricks graced every second masthead. We were all abuzz as to the murky past of Don Draper. The time has come to say the previously unsayable: nobody watched Mad Men.

To be more precise, the viewing figures were so low as to be statistically insignificant. Last year, the Daily Telegraph reported that, in the UK, about 58,000 people watched the first episode of the sixth series.

Pulling out our calculator, we deduce that this comes to about one in 1,000 of the British population. Garth Brooks hooks up his sky-cable, laughs drily and sails into the ionosphere.

Meanwhile, film critics such as your current correspondent feebly attempt to lure readers into admirable films about lonely yaks and obscure meetings round the bam-bam tree. The tumbleweed blows through art-house auditoriums, as queues form before the early evening screening of Rhino-Man versus the Bog Monster.

The divide is total.

Establishment suspicion
What is to be done? How do we jerks set about pretending to understand unacceptable popular sensations? When it comes to Mrs Brown’s Boys, an easy strategy is to draw attention towards the creator.

You would need a very hard heart to dislike Brendan O’Carroll. An immensely gifted storyteller who stubbornly defied establishment suspicion, he really does come across as a believable popular hero. (Just watch him standing up to some enormously patronising down-talking from Stephen Fry on a recent episode of QI.)

The other approach is to insinuate ironic meanings into the phenomenon. You know how this goes. All that stuff with the visible lighting and cameras indicates that O’Carroll has some sort of Brechtian mission in mind. The series is a self-aware commentary on common tropes of the situation comedy. Will this do?

Sadly, none of this works with Garth Brooks. His appeal remains a knotted mystery to those of us shouldering the heavy burden that comes with failing to dictate other folk’s opinion. There is no apparent irony.

The man himself seems to be just what he is. One is reminded of a withering quote by the late Alexander Walker about the critically lambasted programmes commissioned, in the early days of commercial television, by the charismatic head of ATV.

“The only people who seem to like Lew Grade’s shows seem to be people,” the late Armaghian quipped.

Well put. Society would be so much more agreeable if it wasn’t composed of “people”.

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