Cork was the first ever place to host a version of the Mrs Brown live show, recalls Brendan O’Carroll as he gets ready to return to Leeside, writes Marjorie Brennan
It has been one of the TV comedy sensations of the past decade. Featuring a sassy leading lady with a filthy tongue and a complicated family life, who has broken convention with her direct and knowing asides to the audience, this show has attracted millions of viewers worldwide and been laden with awards.
No, not Fleabag, but rather the homegrown hit Mrs Brown’s Boys, which earlier this year created quite the upset when it was voted Best Comedy at the National Television Awards in Britain, pipping the critics’ darling Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the post.
Mrs Brown’s Boys’ fifth NTA award was an even bigger surprise to the show’s creator Brendan O’Carroll, who says coming out top in a category also featuring Derry Girls and the Ricky Gervais Netflix show Afterlife made this one extra-special.
“After the ceremony, we went back to the hotel, I got into my pyjamas, and the award was there on a table and I just sat there staring at it — I didn’t even do that for the first one. There was just something about the field we were in, it was overwhelming. The award is voted for by the audience at home, and that is why it is our favourite.”
While Fleabag has been hailed for its originality, with much made of Waller-Bridge’s breaking of the ‘fourth wall’, Agnes Brown was doing the same thing five years earlier, and to a lot less fanfare from the critics.
“It has been great to see all the back-pedalling going on over the last few years,” says O’Carroll. “For instance, when it reviewed the first series, The Independent in London said it was the worst comedy ever made. And then in the last few years, they began saying, ‘wait a minute, this thing is a bit more sophisticated than it looks’.”
While the critical U-turn is gratifying for O’Carroll, from the beginning of Mrs Brown’s original incarnation as a radio show on RTÉ 2FM in the early 1990s, the audience has been all that has mattered.
“As I always say, just commit to the show and trust the audience. I don’t write for critics, I write for the people who pay the bills,” he says.
Paying the bills is not an issue for O’Carroll now, thanks to the phenomenal success of Mrs Brown and its various spin-offs. The Dublin matriarch made her first stage appearance in Cork and O’Carroll is delighted to be returning to the city this summer with four performances of Mrs Brown’s Boys, D’Live Show at the Marquee.
The first time we did Mrs Brown on stage, it was in the Everyman Palace in Cork. And we went back with the second one and opened it there as well."
And the reason we did that is that it is an honest audience, they let you know if it’s shit. They don’t hold back. I think it was €18 in at the time — it might even have been punts — and they wanted their money’s worth or you could feck off. I will tell anyone who will listen if it works in Cork, it will work anywhere.”
Indeed, Mrs Brown’s Boys has worked everywhere, moving beyond its success in Ireland and the UK to top-ten ratings in countries from New Zealand to Canada. It is also going down a storm in the US, where O’Carroll lives in Florida with his wife and co-star Jennifer Gibney. The show features on the recently launched streaming service Britbox.
“We knew it was going to go down well in the States because we have a web shop and a good 60% of the merchandise there goes to America,” says O’Carroll.
“People pick it up on YouTube but it has gone haywire now, right across America. We thought it might do okay across the East Coast, in the likes of Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, but it’s a big hit in places like Idaho, Minnesota, it has gone everywhere. It has been in the top ten ratings on TV in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and the UK.”
Why does O’Carroll think so many different cultures and nationalities can relate to Mrs Brown?
“What we try to do too, particularly in the TV series, is to make sure that there’s a warmth there — although we would regard it as a dysfunctional family, you just know that this woman would die for her children and that they would die for her and I think that’s really important. But you can’t get away with one without the other — you must have the comedy before you can pull at the heartstrings.”
Mrs Brown’s Boys, a co-production between the BBC and RTÉ, is filmed in front of a live audience at the BBC studios in Glasgow, Scotland. O’Carroll’s relaxed and informal performance has been key to the success of the show, which is edited to include fluffed lines and bloopers. The live stage show is a completely different prospect, especially in larger venues.
“We finished last year’s tour in the O2 in London with 10,000 people each night. When 10,000 people spontaneously laugh, you can actually feel the vibrations in your clothes. The hair on the back of your neck stands up, it’s absolutely incredible,” says O’Carroll.
Performing with a cast made up of family and friends is an added bonus, he says. “It is a massive buzz but what’s great about it is it’s not like I’m then going home and telling the family how great it was — we are all there and we are all buzzing together. It is a great life, really I’m blessed.”
And while the critics may be late to the party, celebrities have been queuing up to work with O’Carroll; social media was recently abuzz when reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner posted a picture of herself on set with O’Carroll for an appearance on chat show spin-off All Round to Mrs Brown’s.
“Caitlin was an absolute joy,” says O’Carroll. “First of all, she was bamboozled by the show, she didn’t now what the f**k was going on. I asked her at one stage before we went on, ‘Before you had all the surgery, did you dress up as a woman, and she said yes’.
I said ‘I have no time for that kind of thing, I think it’s disgraceful’. She just pissed herself laughing.”
The comedian is hoping to spread some of that joy with the live show, promising that audiences will get some badly-needed belly laughs. “Hopefully they will leave with a sore stomach and a song on their lips. I know they will. People badly need a laugh now.”