‘People are scared,’ says Brendan O’Carroll, trying to explain why so many love his comedy Mrs Brown’s Boys despite the critics, frankly, loathing it. ‘People are afraid of things like coronavirus and the state of the world. When they get scared, they get nostalgic. Mrs Brown is in tune with that.’
He’s about to launch a new series of the chat show All Round To Mrs Brown’s, featuring an innuendo-laden, breathtakingly bold interview with transsexual reality star Caitlyn Jenner. But for all her modern attitudes to sex, there is definitely something old-fashioned about the Irish mammy he plays in a wig and a riot of floral drag.
Agnes Brown can be a potty-mouth but she is always a kind and loving mother to her big, chaotic family. The show is like a pantomime for grown-ups, with asides to the camera, mistakes left in and actors giggling. Not everybody likes Mrs Brown, admits the man who plays her, but those who do, find her comforting.
Not everybody likes Mrs Brown, admits the man who plays her, but those who do, find her comforting
‘They’re getting a laugh out of it. They go: “Oh my God, Mrs Brown is not worried about coronavirus. She’s not worried about Boris. She’s not worried about Trump. She’s not worried about anything, except where the next pound is going to come from, so she can buy dinner for the kids. She is like us, yet she is not afraid, so I can watch this.”’
O’Carroll laughs to himself, at home in the Florida sunshine in a big house bought with the millions the former waiter has made from putting his creation Mrs Brown on the radio, in novels, on stage and on the telly, as well as in her own movie. ‘I’m going deep now. If they can tune in to something that is both nostalgic and funny, it’s a double whammy for them. Half an hour when they can switch off and not think about any of that s***.’
And maybe that’s why Mrs Brown’s Boys stormed to a totally unexpected fifth win for Best Comedy at the National Television Awards (NTAs) in January. ‘Were we surprised to win? Are you kidding me? Nobody was more surprised than us!’
This time, Mrs Brown’s rivals for Best Comedy included the big-hitters Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Ricky Gervais with Fleabag and After Life, not to mention the riotous Derry Girls set in an Irish convent school.
‘We had seen the reaction over here in the States to Fleabag. It’s won every award,’ says O’Carroll. ‘I thought: If not Fleabag, then Ricky Gervais with After Life.’ I voted for Ricky. I just think it is a brilliant show that makes comedy out of a serious subject, which is really hard. Jenny [Gibney, his wife] voted for Derry Girls, which we both love. So we didn’t think we were at all at the races.’
The 64-year-old comedian reveals that he nearly missed the greatest triumph of his career, by not being there. That’s partly for a very serious, very scary personal reason that will emerge as we talk more. But it’s also partly because he didn’t think he had a hope of winning. ‘We weren’t going to go,’ says O’Carroll, a short, bald man with a moustache who looks nothing like he does in a wig, skirt and cardigan as Mrs Brown. Wife Jenny plays daughter Cathy in the show. When the NTAs were on they had just flown from Florida to their home in Dublin and had to be in Glasgow the next morning to start filming their new series, so didn’t see how they could fit in an awards ceremony in London, too.
Plus, they couldn’t get their usual entourage to the venue, the O2. Famously, most of the cast is related to O’Carroll or was a friend before he became successful in the Nineties. His sister plays Mrs Brown’s best friend, Winnie. His son Danny plays the scallywag Buster, his grandson Jamie is Mrs Brown’s grandson Bono. The man who plays Grandad used to be O’Carroll’s window cleaner.
I was a month away from a heart attack. They found an artery that was 99 per cent blocked
‘We would usually travel en masse, so it was like: “Well, if they can’t go, we’re not going.’’’
But the organisers persuaded them to come and help celebrate 25 years of the NTAs. ‘They said: “Even if only yourself and Jenny come, we would be very pleased just to see you.” So we flew in, changed our clothes at the hotel and went to the NTAs expecting nothing.’
How did they feel when comic Alan Carr announced the winner, to cheers from the huge audience? ‘We were, honestly, shocked. But you know what it is? The audience will make up their own mind. The only way to do this is to be who you really are, write the comedy you write and hopefully the audience will agree with you.’
He was gracious in his victory speech, praising After Life. Ricky Gervais returned the compliment, congratulating him on Twitter: ‘Democracy always wins.’ Some went further, comparing the win to the voice of the people being heard over Brexit, but O’Carroll growls at that. ‘Ha! Well, there are some people who want to reverse Brexit but I’m not giving the f****** award back. Comparing it to Brexit? Why don’t we compare Only Fools And Horses to the D-Day landings? For f***’s sake!’
Caitlyn Jenner in the new series of All Round To Mrs Brown’s. O’Carroll on Jenner: ‘What Mrs Brown saw in Caitlyn Jenner – and in many ways what I saw – was just a courageous woman who had the guts to be herself’
There’s no doubt, though, that Mrs Brown is like Marmite: some people love the show and some people really hate it. ‘Good comedy should split an audience,’ he says. ‘I don’t care if people hate our show, as long as it moves them to some kind of reaction.’
And it’s bound to do that when All Round To Mrs Brown’s returns soon with a first episode featuring Caitlyn Jenner, formerly the Olympic gold medallist Bruce. You can get into a lot of trouble by saying the wrong thing about or to transsexuals these days, but Mrs Brown doesn’t seem to know or care. ‘There are things Mrs Brown can get away with that Brendan O’Carroll never would. That old dear does, because she’s a mammy.’
Some things he says are too rude to mention here, and not all viewers will pick up on the innuendo, but the studio audience does, howling with laughter.
‘I am not sure Mrs Brown fully understands what is being said,’ says O’Carroll, who certainly does know exactly what he’s doing. ‘I dropped into Caitlyn’s dressing room before the show to introduce myself. She had no idea what the show was about. I didn’t want to offend her, so I asked: “What’s your line that I shouldn’t cross?” She said: “I don’t have one.” So I said: “Great! You are going to get on really well with Mrs Brown.” That led to the first question: “So, do you have a pussy?’’’
For a moment Jenner stares in horror, believing she is being asked about her post-surgery anatomy. Of course, it is an old-fashioned joke straight out of Are You Being Served? Mrs Brown quickly insists she’s just asking if her guest has a cat and Jenner grins. ‘They hit it off great,’ says O’Carroll. ‘What Mrs Brown saw in Caitlyn Jenner – and in many ways what I saw – was just a courageous woman who had the guts to be herself.’
Other guests in the series include actress Joanna David, the mother of Silent Witness star Emilia Fox. ‘Emilia is a brilliant guest, but her mum was amazing. She is ever so posh, but her party trick is to light her farts!’
All the guests seem to take Mrs Brown at face value. ‘They talk to her as if she’s an old mammy who doesn’t understand anything. They don’t see Brendan O’Carroll at all.’
O’Carroll used to be a stand-up comic but invented the character of Mrs Brown in the early Nineties for an Irish radio comedy. When the actress booked to play her didn’t turn up, O’Carroll took the part himself. Mrs Brown went on to star in novels, stage shows and DVDs, all of which were produced by O’Carroll. So when the BBC asked him to do a series, he was able to insist on full creative control. Three series led to high ratings and Christmas specials every year since 2013.
So how does this stout little fella prepare to become Agnes? ‘As soon as the wig and the mole go on, I look in the mirror and say: “Hello! My God almighty, you are so gorgeous tonight.” The show begins. It really is like being schizophrenic, nearly.’
Brendan O’Carroll and wife Jenny triumphant at The National Television Awards in January this year
And how does his wife Jenny feel about that? ‘We often talk about it. On the opening night of the first Mrs Brown play, it wasn’t until the curtain came up and Jenny was on stage and I came down the stairs that she saw me as the character. She’s never ever related to me as Brendan on stage, only as Mrs Brown.’
What about at home?
‘I never wear the gear at home. That’s a fact. We do the show as Mrs Brown and Cathy. We get changed afterwards and come out as Brendan and Jenny. Life goes on. It’s very odd, but it doesn’t get confusing.’
They’re contracted to do at least one more pair of Christmas specials for the BBC, but his mind is also on new project, The Lebanese Outpost. ‘It’s a comedy similar to M*A*S*H with Irish troops keeping the peace on the borders of Lebanon and Israel in the Eighties and Nineties. You will see all the familiar faces but in completely different roles. I play the camp commander, so I won’t be in drag for that.’
Mrs Brown will also tour Britain again then the US, Australia and New Zealand over the next couple of years. ‘I am very happy and proud to be part of the BBC family. Mrs Brown goes out on Britbox here in the US now and it has been well advertised and pushed.’
Is it true he turned down £100 million to make a series for American TV?
‘They made me a lucrative offer, but I have a life, so the answer was no. They were looking for 24 episodes a year. They have to be written as well as recorded so you’ve got 40 weeks’ work. It was a lovely offer, but it’s not all about the money.’
What is it about then?
‘I have six grandsons. I am not missing the chance to see them growing up. I’ve got fabulous kids, I want to be part of their adulthood. I’ve got a wonderful wife who plays golf with me. I would have to miss all of that. The only thing the success of the show can buy us is time and I am not going to give that time away.’
O’Carroll has reason to be aware that life is short and time may be running out, it emerges. It’s the same reason he nearly missed his NTA triumph: but for the intervention of a doctor who saw him on the telly, he might have been dead. Dr Alan Byrne, medical director of Ireland’s football association, caught O’Carroll on The Late Late Show on Irish television last year and noticed something troubling about the performer’s breathing. He thought it might indicate a heart problem. They then happened to collaborate on a charity project to test young Irish footballers for heart problems.
‘I had personal experience of this,’ says O’Carroll, whose friend had a son who collapsed during a football match at the age of 12 and could not be saved. ‘Alan said he wanted to test every young Irish lad playing football but that would cost half a million euros. I said, F*** it. Do it. We will pay for it.’
So they did, but at the launch, Jenny told Dr Byrne she was worried about her husband, whose legs were cramping.
‘He arranged for me to go into hospital on the Friday. The consultant did lots of tests straight away: MRI scan, X-rays, echo tests. He put me under general anaesthetic for an operation and when I woke up, Jenny said: “He put a stent in your heart.”’
This was news to O’Carroll. ‘I said, “What about my legs?” The surgeon said: “I don’t do legs.” So I said: ”What am I doing here then?’’’
That was when he learned that Dr Byrne had asked his colleague to look at the comedian’s heart, hence all the extra tests and the operation. O’Carroll believes this may have saved his life. ‘They found an artery that was 99 per cent blocked. He said, “You were about a month away from a heart attack.” I went, “F****** hell!’’’
How’s his health now? ‘Everything is tickety-boo and they fixed my legs, too. I was never better, thank God.’
Brendan O’Carroll as Agnes Brown with wife Jenny, who plays Agnes’s daughter in Mrs Brown’s Boys
O’Carroll crams all his work into six months of the year, taking the rest off to play golf and be with his family, but those six months are intense. Is there any chance of him slowing down? ‘I was writing away here the other day, I stopped to take a break for a cup of tea and there was an elderly guy being interviewed on television, working in his garden. He was 94. I had just been talking to Jenny about starting to do less, cutting back. This guy said, “If I got up in the morning and didn’t have a challenge, I would die.” Jenny walked in at that moment and I said, “We are not cutting back. We are gonna keep going.”’
Spoken just like Mrs Brown, in one of the folksy homilies that often end her shows, before the big audience singalong. Agnes Brown has a big heart and makes her fans smile. As long as she can go on doing that, whatever the snobs and the critics may say, the People’s Mammy may have a few more prizes in her yet.
‘All Round to Mrs Brown’s’ is on BBC1, Saturday at 9.15pm. For tickets to ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Live Show… Encore Tour’ go to gigst.rs/MrsB or ticketmaster.co.uk