If there were a medal for hugging, Brendan O’Carroll (aka Mrs Brown) and his wife, Jennifer Gibney (aka Mrs Brown’s daughter, Cathy) would surely win gold. Even before our interview, I’m enfolded in the warmest of embraces by Jenny, with her broad grin and friendly eyes that crinkle at the edges, followed up by a Brendan bear-hug. Hugging, as well as possibly swearing, is part of who they are.
After Brendan has nipped out for a fag, I’m ushered into the green room and join the couple (more hugs) on a sofa that’s so low and squishy it might as well be a bean bag. Is this a rehearsal for some kind of trick seating arrangement for your poor guests? “We hadn’t thought about it but we might now.” Brendan’s laugh – filthy, low, gravelly – is very similar to his creation, the foul-mouthed Dublin matriarch, Mammy.
Mrs Brown’s Boys needs no explanation to those who last summer voted it the best sitcom of the century in an RT poll. But now Agnes and Cathy are launching themselves into the chat-show business on Saturday nights for the next six weeks. The idea is that Cathy will interview the celebrities but “Mammy sits in to help – or, as I would say, interfere,” Jenny says.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before, but the twist here – and it is genius – is that, if possible, the celebrity’s mother also comes on the show, and is then whisked off by Agnes to have a cosy chat in the kitchen – whereupon, of course, we catch a completely different side to the celebrity.
At the previous night’s recording at BBC Scotland in Glasgow, Kevin Bridges was on with his mum. “Kevin’s a really successful comedian and he’s a hard-bitten guy,” says Brendan. “I did stand-up and you’ve gotta be rough, tough and hard. So I’m talking to his mother and asking what he was like as a kid and she produces his school report and it says, ‘Kevin is taking a much more mature attitude towards getting over his shyness.’ Now if I’d asked him if he was shy, he would have said ‘No’ – so that’s the difference.”
Do they have a wish-list of guests and their mums? The only request Brendan put in was for Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby and both their mothers. Can I make a suggestion for the Christmas special? “Please go ahead – Jenny take a note.” Prince Charles and the Queen? “Heh heh heh – yes, but it can’t be a Christmas special because we’ve already got one [the regular Mrs Brown Christmas show has been commissioned by the BBC to 2020] but there’s nothing wrong with it being an Easter special!”
I thought the guests might tickle him since his last Christmas special won in excess of eight million viewers – more than the Queen’s speech. “We also do know that they are personal fans!” he adds – apparently “the Palace” requested a preview copy of the Christmas episode last year. “They’re mad about the show.”
Jenny looks elegant and leggy in subtle, muted colours; the same can’t be said for her husband who’s wearing a lurid purple T-shirt with a rainbow heart and matching socks. “Yes,” he says. “Because I’m colour-blind, I buy bright.” Jenny: “And he really is colourful. Even my engagement ring is colourful.” She holds it up to show tiered clusters of shimmering coloured stones. Brendan: “And I designed that.”
Is he romantic, Jenny? “He is, yes.” When I ask him what was the happiest time of his life, he says: “The day I married Jenny – when I turned around and she was walking up towards me and I was never so sure of anything in my life. Never. And that’s what made me happy – the certainty of it.” If this was in front of a studio audience, you could be certain of a big “Ahhhhh”.
The T-shirt is a sports team initiative to raise funds for the victims of the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were killed by a gunman last year. Orlando is the couple’s home for six months of the year – where Brendan writes from midnight to 6am, and plays golf every day. Are they members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club perchance? (They could definitely afford it, Brendan is worth tens of millions; Mrs Brown’s popularity spawning books, a film, specials as well as the TV series.) They are not and have never met the president; nor do I sense they would care to.
Brendan: “It’s like [a US newsreader] said, ‘You’re nearly afraid to go to sleep because you don’t know what you’re going to wake up to tomorrow.’ Even the first 50 days has felt like five years.” Jenny: “There was a post by [columnist] Arianna Huffington where she said that we have to be able to step back, in order to make change.” Brendan jumps in: “I feel the opposite. I feel if we don’t wake up with palpitations and we don’t wake up scared and if this becomes the [expletive] norm and we accept it…”
Jenny: “No, no, no… she’s just saying you have to take a breath to be able to fight it.”
The couple describe themselves as political junkies and are addicted to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: “I would watch him till the cows came home,” says Brendan – and CNN.
There is something genuinely warm and kind about both Jenny and Brendan. They’ve quietly helped a number of troubled adolescents and even taken them in from the streets (Brendan’s own adult children were from his first marriage). But he also has a toughness, which goes way back. It’s a word that he uses about himself, as do his friends and colleagues.
Robert Bathurst who in Mrs Brown’s Boys plays a lothario with his eye on Agnes describes him as “a very tough nut who knows his business and his audience and, like any comic performer, knows that ignominy is just a breath away.”
Brendan was born in inner-city Dublin when it was all tenements, 13 families in a building, communal bathrooms and a shared front door. Finglas, his next home, was originally a small village with a population of 254, transformed into a suburb of 96,000 people when the tenement families were moved.
“They did the usual,” Brendan says. “Built this estate without facilities – no schools, no shops: they came later. It was very rough and policing was very difficult. At any given time, you had nine police on duty at Finglas police station, which is one for every ten thousand people.”
His father, Gerard, a carpenter, died of asbestosis when Brendan was six – leaving him to be brought up by his redoubtable mammy, Maureen McHugh – a former nun who became Ireland’s first woman MP for the Labour Party, shadow foreign affairs minister and chief whip.
Maureen’s youngest (of 11), whom she had at the age of 46, must have been a handful. Brendan recalls the first supermarket opening and “the idea that you could touch things before you bought them was… uncanny. Eventually, I was caught by a store detective with a roll of sellotape, a biro, a bicycle lock and a packet of Oxo cubes. I didn’t have a bike so the lock was useless; I couldn’t barely write so I didn’t need a pen; I had nothing to stick with sellotape; and I was going to try to swop the Oxo cubes for chocolate. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.”
His mother was a person of influence and could have stopped the case going to court, but she thought the experience would do her naughty boy good. But as they entered the court room, she saw the judge was someone whom she’d crossed over his harsh treatment of children. Her son was sentenced to three months in Borstal. He was nine. What was it like? “I was in a dorm and saw some horrible things – but I got a letter from her every day.” Did it make an impression? “Yes, I vowed never to get caught again.” That’s a little bit different from vowing never to do it again! “Is it?” He’s poker-faced. But was it upsetting? “Terrifying.”
Brendan had two things going for him to help with the ordeal. One was that he was an altar boy who could serve Mass in Latin, so he was put to use in the reform school serving Mass. Did anyone try to interfere with you? “No – not until I got married to Jenny. Even now, she tries to interfere with me.” Seriously, though? “No – all I remember is the discipline of it and being so young. I was also no fool. On my first day there, I was in the canteen and they [older boys] said, ‘So what are ya in for?’ and I said, ‘I killed me Da.’ And they said, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘I killed me Da. I stuck a pen through his eye.’ And nobody came near me.”
Maureen died at 73 of an enlarged heart when Brendan was 28 (he’s now 61) and he still misses her. They were close as he was the surprise last born and the rest of the siblings had left home. When she died, he had been working as a waiter looking after visiting foreign leaders at Dublin Castle – Robert Mugabe was terrifying; Margaret Thatcher, though he disagreed with her politics, was surprisingly sweet. After taking care of Ronald Reagan for two nights, Brendan was presented with a box of cigars wrapped with the presidential seal.
To this day, he’s known for chucking things out – he doesn’t keep any of his own books, for instance – on top of which “my mother was a thief ” and he found his missing cigars the next morning, under his mum’s pillow. His son, Danny (who plays Buster in the show), was ten months old when Maureen took him off for a nap “and he went to sleep and she died. She was tired; she’d had a tough life, you know – but that morning we’d had a laugh together over the ‘missing’ cigars.”
One of his mother’s many charitable initiatives was setting up a battered women’s shelter and roping in her kids to help out. Does he remember much about it? “Snippets. It taught me how the tiniest moves towards generosity can change somebody’s life. I learnt that not everybody is like you. So she taught me some very valuable lessons – the wisdom of the world and the surroundings we were in. I learnt a lot from my mother and hopefully I have that generous streak that she had.”
Growing up, there was no division between boys’ and girls’ tasks – everybody did everything: “And Jenny knows when I’m getting ready to write, I clean everything in the house – you can smell the bleach from out the street.”
I don’t want the interview to end, but it’s time for them to go. We stand up and Brendan says: “Hugging is really important. Sometimes you hug people and it’s like hugging a rock. They stiffen up – the first time. The fifth time you meet them, they’re waiting for the hug. I said to Jenny, ‘We released that in them.’ And I grew up in a family who released so many things in me.”
They move in for a group hug and this time I hug right back.
All Round to Mrs Brown’s begins Saturday 25 March at 9.15pm on BBC1