Not since Les Dawson rolled on a pair of stockings has a middle-aged drag act tickled a TV audience quite as successfully as Brendan O’Carroll, so much so that his foul-mouthed Irish matriarch Agnes Brown has been given her own movie after three series on the BBC. By the way, that’s licence for even more swearing and post-menopausal sexual innuendo. However, make no mistake, there are parts of this “filum” that are naff beyond belief, but O’Carroll makes a virtue of that.
Most right-minded viewers would have baulked at the first glimpse of the wig, the wasp-chewing expression and that witchy cackle and yet – unlike the 1970s school of comedy – O’Carroll is driven by a genuine affection and even admiration for this brash old woman (supposedly inspired by his own dear mammy). She has a big heart, so you can’t help but like Mrs Brown and that’s how she subverts the stereotype of “her, indoors”, the battle-axe of a million mother-in-law jokes.
Fans will point out the more overt postmodern twists that characterise the sitcom, above all O’Carroll regularly breaking ‘the fourth wall’ to address the audience and reveal the cameras. Straight away he sets new ground rules for d’movie, gleefully fleeing those wobbly sets and breaking into a Hollywood-style song-and-dance number at a Dublin street market. It’s a canny start to a story that pits Mrs Brown against property developers who aim to swallow up the historic Moore Street Market where she makes a less-than-honest living flogging “low-fat Granny Smiths” at 75 cents a pop. Just to emphasise the epic scale and 70s vibe, the bad guys are Russian.
Graduating from the sitcom, director Ben Kellett’s production may look bigger and better, still he and O’Carroll (who wrote the script) don’t lose sight of the small things that make the show work. Most important among them is dim-witted sidekick Winnie (his real-life sister Eilish O’Carroll) who adds value to every ridiculous scene with her fool’s wisdom. At one point she suggests that Mrs Brown should disguise herself as a man to get past security in their search for a missing tax receipt – cue the weary look to camera. O’Carroll likes to bring the audience in on the joke.
However, a few of his quirks don’t translate as well to film. A bit of bad acting is often a punchline on the show – using the energy that flows between the stage and the stalls – but seeing the actors ‘corpse’ (succumbing to fits of laughter) just isn’t as funny without a live studio audience to witness their shame. Without those sparks you only have the wood, although O’Carroll is wise to give less screen time to some members of the cast (many actually related to O’Carroll). He should have cut a few of his own scenes, too – especially the ones where he’s posing as a Chinese martial arts expert.
Funny accents and falling over are only good for a few cheap laughs. O’Carroll’s greatest trick is being able to roll around in the gutter and come out looking squeaky clean, because after all, he’s just a little old lady, isn’t he? It worked for Catherine Tate’s ‘Nan’ and in an even more innocuous, cuddly form for Seth MacFarlane’s ‘Ted’. O’Carroll is carving his own niche in ‘feck-off’ comedy but without the stylish misanthropy. Mrs Brown is a God-fearing woman with strong family values; still the moral of the story is that you can be as outrageous as you like, as long as you’re old and tatty and sporting some sort of knitwear.