How Mrs Brown's Boys took over the comedy world
Ben Dowell follows the story of Brendan O'Carroll's comedy hit, from the radio waves of Dublin to the centrepiece of the BBC1 Christmas schedule, as he talks to those who helped make it happen
It was the middle of 2009. I was in the office of senior BBC comedy executive Mark Freeland and my gaze alighted on a poster on the wall. It featured a strange looking woman in her living room with what looked like her family.
“What's that all about?” I asked.
“That,” said Freeland. “Is a comedy in which a man plays a Dublin housewife and it’s going to be huge.”
He wasn’t wrong. The comedy that came out in 2011 was Mrs Brown’s Boys – and it did indeed go on to be a massive success. Probably not what you might expect of a show featuring a late middle-aged man playing the matriarch of a raucous family making jokes about genitals, and slapstick humour.
But millions loved it. The ratings grew steadily and over the past three years (2015, 2016 and 2017) the Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas specials have become a centrepiece of the BBC festive schedule, delivering some of the biggest audiences across the holiday season. The Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas Special on 25th December 2017 was the biggest comedy episode of the year across all TV channels, attracting a consolidated average audience of 9 million. In an age of fragmented viewing these are enormous numbers that most shows, especially comedies, could only dream of.
So how did it all happen? How did this show take over the British TV comedy world?
The early days…
The character of Mrs Brown started life in 1992 in an Irish radio series. Brendan O’Carroll was filling in a slot on RTE radio for a friend and thought it might be funny to play a character based on some of the women he met growing up near the markets and streets of north Dublin. O'Carroll – so goes the legend – had no intention of playing Agnes himself, until the actress (name unknown) he'd hired failed to show up to the first recording.
Whether this is true or not – one friend says “Brendan is full of stories, so who knows?” – a legend was born.
On radio, this working-class Dublin matriarch was an instant hit – and yet O'Carroll didn’t commit to the character full time, preferring to continue with his more conventional stand-up. But he did start writing Mrs Brown books, starting with the first in a trilogy, The Mammy, which became a Hollywood film called Agnes Brown – starring Anjelica Huston in the role of Agnes.
According to Mrs Brown producer Stephen McCrum, Huston also had no intention of playing the role at first – she was due to direct the film, not be in – but the star she lined up for the role of Agnes dropped out at the last minute and she stepped in.
“People say to me ‘so you discovered Brendan and Mrs Brown?’ and I always say ‘no, Hollywood got their first’,” laughs McCrum.
What made O'Carroll finally develop the character on stage was a sudden need for money. In 1998 he had borrowed a small fortune to fund a film of his called Sparrow's Trap. Made but never released, it left him with debts of more than £2 million and he took Mrs Brown on tour to help fill the rather large hole in his pocket. The first Mrs Brown play ran for 16 weeks at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre in 1999 and was a massive hit.
The show was a success in various UK and Ireland tours as well and went down particularly well in Glasgow. But in the early days it had never been to London. O’Carroll wasn’t sure it would work in the capital, so it bubbled along garnering an ever-growing fan base.
Getting the show on TV…
But it was in the theatre – the Glasgow Pavilion – that BBC producer and Londoner Stephen McCrum discovered Mrs Brown's Boys for the BBC, one drizzly autumn night in 2006 that he never forgets.
“I worked at the BBC and my Mum, who was in her 70s at the time, said there was nothing for her on telly so I was looking for something for her. There was a marked absence of stuff for middle aged and older women and that was where my heart was, despite being a younger man in my 40s. I thought that it was strange anomaly because middle aged and older women are the mass audience in TV.”
So, when two friends (one of whom was Rab C Nesbitt creator Ian Pattison) individually and separately recommended he go and see this funny little Mrs Brown show, McCrum went, he admits a little reluctantly. And he was bowled over.
“I always trusted my instinct and I knew this was a sitcom hit live on stage. Occasionally in life you get these moments where you get really, really lucky and that was one of those moments.
“I laughed myself, viscerally, proper belly laugh stuff. It’s very crafted. I remember that first night there was a scene in which Agnes talked with another older lady about having what she called ‘organisms’. It was amazing writing – two women talking about something this intimate – and older women were falling about, but so were 17-year-old ushers in the stalls.”
McCrum knew he had a hit on his hands – and then started the painful task of persuading the BBC to commission it.
“Actually, I thought it would be an ITV sitcom but wanted it for the BBC because I believe in the BBC and I pushed hard on this,” he says.
But the BBC's head of comedy at the time, Cheryl Taylor, didn’t need persuading.
“Stephen asked me if I’d go and see it in Manchester with a view to commissioning a TV script,” she tells RadioTimes.com.
“I happened to be going to an awards ceremony in Manchester so bobbed into the theatre for the first half. Brendan told me later that they were watching me from the wings so I was glad I’d been clear that I had to leave at the interval.
“I had never seen anything like it– nor had I seen such an appreciative adult audience– roaring and clapping from the moment it started and loving the double entendres and risqué humour. Sophisticated panto for adults was my feeling, and although I could see it would be a real gear change for the Beeb, it was also clear that we absolutely needed Mrs B in our line up.”
There were other broadcasters and TV producers interested in taking the show on says McCrum, but Brendan warmed to the fact that he understood “what he wanted to achieve, and it was that chaos and breaking the fourth wall – the chaos of the show.” They began to trust each other and Brendan agreed that the BBC would be the best home for it.
That chaos, liberal use of swear words and the presence of “a man in a dress” still apparently made it hard to convince Corporation top brass, however.
The swearing continued to be a big issue for Auntie says McCrum.
“They were really worried about using the word feck on BBC1. In the early days we used a lot of replacements like ‘book’ instead of ‘fook’.”
But McCrum said he knew that the show was fully formed and his faith in it was unwavering and the BBC was persuaded to shoot a pilot in 2009.
“By the time we shot the pilot Brendan had been doing it for 17 years,” says McCrum, who notes how he knew the character and its world intimately.
“He partly based it on his mum who was this formidable character,” says McCrum. “She was a formidable woman who ran this hostel for disadvantaged women. A lot of this character and the world comes from this. He would work in the hostel with his Mum, he grew up with this language, with this dialogue, and he’s a very funny guy.
“Normally with a sitcom you have to develop it. But when we got him, we got all the supporting characters and all the relationships and that made it so much easier. It was there, fully-formed. By the time we got it on it was nearly 20 years of developing characters and the jokes. With episode one we just filleted what was there already.”
The viewing figures for series one helped the BBC overcome its squeamishness about the language and quickly the “books” morphed into the “fecks” we now hear whenever Agnes opens her mouth.
Adds Cheryl Taylor: “Mark Freeland, who was head of in-house comedy production, and I were on real tenterhooks waiting for a decision on the pilot– we knew it was a risk but also really believed in the show. Jay Hunt [BBC1 controller] to her total credit absolutely got what it could mean for BBC1 and greenlit for series. When she left, I remember us all sitting round the table on several occasions with her successor Danny Cohen discussing all the ‘fecks’ and how many we thought we could have in any single episode. They were hilarious meetings – and again Danny was very bold and we never got any complaints…"
Why it works…
Ben Kellett, who has directed all the broadcast TV episodes and the film, is adamant that without McCrum’s faith in the show “there’s no doubt it would never have got on television.”
But he also attributes the show’s success to the warmth and camaraderie of O’Carroll and his family.
When he was offered the directing gig he went to meet O’Carroll at Toronto airport where the “family” were performing and felt for himself the warmth that permeates this show.
“Brendan met me at the airport and gave me a big hug – I knew we would get on famously and it has been very easy ever since,” says Kellett.
Kellet’s priority in getting the show to screen was retaining the flavour of the live show – the energy, the unpredictability, the sense that each performance was unique and could go anywhere.
“Some scenes run for eleven minutes as they do on stage… they’re also having fun.”
Kellett also laughs about the bizarre origins of the show and even now shakes his head when Angelica Huston’s name is mentioned. “It feels so bizarre to be saying that now but she was the first screen Agnes,” says Kellett. “But it shows that there’s a bit of fairy dust to it. A lot of things came together in a random way and instantly gelled and worked. It’s a story like no other.”
He adds: “Whatever you think of this show it arrived fully formed.”
The critics and the brickbats…
Of course Mrs Brown is not to everybody’s taste. It is, in many ways, the comedy that the comedy world forgot – broad belly laugh humour that is quite unfashionable.
Kellett admits it’s “Marmite TV… people either love it or hate it,” and acknowledges that it is a badge of honour for some comedy fans to say they hate it. “Brendan’s view of the critics is anyone can be a critic,” he adds.
McCrum says: “Mrs Brown’s Boys makes you laugh out loud and it’s an antidote to the comedy that doesn’t– the squeamish embarrassment, the metropolitan angst comedy of Curb Your Enthusiasm or what have you.
“The key to success is it’s warm, old fashioned and open. It’s very honest. It’s not bound up in embarrassment and discomfort. It’s joyous and has a real heart.
“It’s also rooted in a universality. Everyone has a mother, and Agnes is a little bit of everyone’s mother and the broader characters that inhabit the piece can be found everywhere.
“She can be a manipulative old bag at times, she can be a real piece of work at times, but all the time you know that whatever she’s doing it’s to protect her kids.
“I’ve seen it in Romania where it works exactly as written because it's universal. It travels – there’s a version in the Czech Republic and Canada, in French.
“It may not be cool, but it’s got a lot bigger audience than things that are are cool. I can’t see why I can’t deliver stuff for people who pay the licence fee. The BBC love it because it delivers.”
As Cheryl Taylor has it: “It caused a stir right from the off and hats off to Brendan and his brilliant family for being so collaborative and creative! I loved doing deals with Brendan– he’s a really sharp business man– Bobby Ball meets Tony Soprano as I say! They have all been wonderfully kind to everyone they meet and are totally unique – an amazing family and what an achievement.”
What’s next for Mrs Brown’s Boys…
This Christmas we’re getting two specials, and according to McCrum the deal with the BBC lasts until 2020.
“They could extend it – why not? The audience hasn’t declined,” he says.
O’Carroll is still said to be keen to break the US with it. NBC nearly signed up to a series fairly recently, but according to sources familiar with the negotiations the sticking point was the family – NBC wanted to cast other roles and he was having none of it.
"If you start unpicking that family you’re making a big error,” says McCrum “We have 36 episodes, a movie in the bag – he’s waiting for the right time to break into the US.
“I know the BBC would kill for more series,"adds Kellett, "but Brendan needs to rest. Everyone deserves a rest occasionally. It’s physically very exhausting to do two Christmas specials, let alone eight in a row.”
Cheryl Taylor is also keen for more. “Long may Mrs B reign,” she says – which is quite pertinent considering that one person who may be pleased to have more Mrs Brown is Her Majesty the Queen who is, according to rumour, also a fan.
“Several people have told me that,” says Ben Kellett. “Who knows if it’s true because no one is going to ask the Queen if she likes it.”
Agnes Browne probably would, given half a chance...
Mrs Brown’s Boys is on BBC1 on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day