Knees up mother Brown
PROFILE: BRENDAN O’CARROLLMrs Brown, the foul-mouthed matriarch created by Brendan O’Carroll, has dismayed critics but won over audiences – and the Irish comedian’s TV show has been shortlisted for a Bafta, writes BRIAN BOYD
WHEN BRENDAN O’CARROLL took to the stage at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin last Monday for the opening night of his show show Good Mourning Mrs Brownit was in the knowledge that the three-week run had sold a recession-busting 20,000 tickets. He also knew that a big arena tour of the UK this June and July was on its way to selling out.
What he didn’t know, though, as he took the first of several standing ovations, was that over in London the British Academy of Film and Television Arts was drawing up its list of nominees for a prestigious Bafta award.
O’Carroll never expects much from the critics – “it’s a hate-hate relationship,” as he puts it – but his nomination for Mrs Brown’s Boys, an RTÉ-BBC co-production that has been on British screens recently, has him up against the likes of Steve Coogan and Peep Showfor the situation-comedy award at next month’s ceremony.
The sitcom has followed a familiar pattern for the 56-year-old from Finglas. UK broadsheet critics have had to reach for the vapours because of what they see as the show’s cliched and outdated style, but viewers are loving it. As well as being watched by an average of about three million viewers an episode – 28 per cent more people than usually watch a programme in its Monday-night slot – the BBC says the show has an A1 rating on its scale of audience appreciation.
The broadcaster has already ordered a second series, to be transmitted early next year – by when O’Carroll will be an even more familiar face on British television. Caroline Ahern, the woman behind Mrs Mertonand The Royle Family,has just finished writing her first TV comedy series in a decade. To be called The Security Men, and screened in a high-profile ITV slot this autumn, it will star O’Carroll alongside Bobby Ball, of Cannon and Ball, and the Ashes to Ashesstar Dean Andrews. If the show is as good as Ahern’s other series, O’Carroll will ascend to a new level of fame.
The US screenwriter William Goldman once summed up the entertainment industry by concluding “nobody knows anything”, but a 35-year-old TV executive named Danny Cohen, who last year became controller of BBC1, thought he did know something about TV sitcoms.
When he took up his job Cohen let it be known that he was no fan of hideously middle-class comedies (a genre-definer here is My Family); he believed the BBC was too focused on formats about families who reflected the lives of BBC staff as opposed to general viewers.
Cohen is a fan of shows such as Birds of a Feather(about two Essex sisters whose husbands are in prison) and Bread(about a working-class Liverpool family), and in O’Carroll he found someone who provided the type of entertainment he felt the BBC was ignoring.
O’Carroll’s only concern when his series was offered the BBC slot was that it should retain the energy and vitality of the stage show that preceded it. “I thought it was only fair to the audience that what they saw was a fair representation of what they would see if they came to the stage show,” he has said. “The last thing I wanted to do was do a sanitised version of Mrs Brown and have a nice audience coming to the theatre and saying, ‘Holy shit, what it this?’ But the BBC supported us all the way. We shoot it from start to finish without stopping. I wanted it to have a raw edge. It’s old-fashioned-style comedy but with a modern edge.”
Despite the now predictable press reviews of his work, the BBC is heralding O’Carroll’s show as the type of programme it used to be criticised for never trying to make. What is most exciting executives is that A1 rating of 85 out of 100 – the first time, apparently, that a sitcom has scored so highly for the station.
For Cohen the show is “laugh-out-loud funny”, and he was eager to tie O’Carroll down to a second series before the first series was screened.
MRS BROWN HAS been good to O’Carroll. The foul-mouthed Irish matriarch who delights in interfering in every move of her five grown children’s lives made her first appearance in a five-minute comedy slot on RTÉ Radio 2 in 1999. Since then she has spawned numerous stage shows, a small library of books and even a film starring Anjelica Huston.
The character is based on O’Carroll’s mother, Maureen, who was the first female Labour TD elected to the Dáil and was Labour’s chief whip from 1954 to 1957. O’Carroll sees Agnes Brown as “my mother – with all her wisdom but not her education”.
Brought up in Finglas as the youngest of 11 children, O’Carroll only did his first stand-up show when he was 35. For the previous 22 years he had worked as a waiter.
He has made and lost a fortune over the past 20 years, and was even involved in plans to create a new airline company, but, despite the heights he has now reached, he says he still wakes up every morning thinking “this is the day they will find out I am really a waiter and not a writer – and they’ll want their money back”.
He had to leave school at the age of 12 because of his dyslexia, and he says “being a writer is nothing to do with using the correct tense or being able to spell properly – those are things you can learn. Being a writer is about being able to tell a story, and you can’t learn that.”
For the last 12 years he has been telling Mrs Brown’s story to Irish audiences. But the plot has taken a dramatic turn, and O’Carroll is being described as Britain’s most exciting newcomer.
OccupationVariously a waiter and a milkman before a breakthrough appearance on The Late Late Showin the 1990s launched his comedy career.
Disliked byCritics who have described Mrs Brown’s Boysas “nauseating”, “lazy and self-indulgent”, “old-fashioned and corny”, “spectacularly unamusing and shockingly offensive”.
Loved byRTÉ, as his show pulls in consistently high viewing figures; the BBC, which has a hit on its hands and has commissioned a second series; the Bafta committee that has just nominated Mrs Brown’s Boysas its possible sitcom of the year; the paying public, who have made his three-week run at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin a sell-out and are beginning to do the same for his UK dates.
Little-known factHe has an IQ that places him in the top 2 per cent of the country’s population and is a member of Mensa.