Knees up, Mother Brown!
Why TV viewers are telling the critics to eff off and stop knocking Brendan O'Carroll
There's no accounting for taste. Except that in the strictest number-crunching sense there is. With its latest instalment attracting 728,000 viewers, Mrs Brown's Boys is the biggest thing on Irish telly -- outgunning even The Late Late Show -- with Brendan O'Carroll its biggest star.
How did it happen? O'Carroll's popularity continues to stump the comedian's critics who've been wrestling with the same question for 20 years.
Longer in fact. It's 21 years since I first encountered Brendan O'Carroll's in-yer-face brand of bawdy humour at the Rathmines Inn. Word had spread that the Finglas man, who was styling himself 'The Baldy Fella' (a lewd reference to the male organ), was performing a miracle by packing out the venue on Tuesday nights with his bluer than blue take on Cilla's Blind Date.
The reports were not wrong. Not only was the venue stuffed to the rafters, but the show was as foul as a backed-up sewer. Both the performer and his audience seemed fired up with an obscenity bloodlust. No comment was too gross, no target too soft.
The review I penned said: "The Baldy Fella wasn't funny in any conventional sense. He wasn't funny in any unconventional sense either. He was just racist, sexist, homophobic and very, very dumb."
O'Carroll's response was out of the ordinary. He penned me a letter saying: "I read what you wrote and you're right. I will change my ways."
And Brendan O'Carroll did tone down his act and the Baldy Fella underwent a sex change to become the crotchety Dublin housewife, Mrs Brown.
In tandem with this change he began to wage a charm offensive on the living rooms of Middle Ireland, propelled by a legendary 1993 appearance on The Late Late Show where he was scheduled for a nine-minute slot but kept Gaybo and the audience in stitches for 40.
According to his manager and stage sidekick Rory Cowan, Mensa member O'Carroll is blessed with a phenomenal memory which allows him to rattle on unscripted for as long as you've got.
Cowan says: "The first time I saw him he was doing 90-minute regular shows on a small circuit. You can't go out there week after week recycling the same material, so he was changing it from show to show. So by the time he did his first Late Late he had five or six shows' worth of material memorised.
"I've been with Brendan for 20 years and the critics have never liked him but the people have always loved him."
He adds that, from the outset, O'Carroll has had a keen understanding of both his own audience and his own worth.
"I was putting on rock acts in the Bottom Of The Hill pub in Finglas, but one week I had to fill a gap and put on a drag act called Mister Pussy. He got a much bigger crowd and I twigged there was something going on.
"So I booked in Brendan. He wanted £400, which was a lot of money then, but I paid him his asking price and made £1,400. The next time he asked for £700 and I agreed straight away. I just added £1 to the admission and still did really well."
That underground success has continued unabated, with O'Carroll taking Britain by storm and by stealth. The north of it anyway.
Cowan explains: "We are a huge draw from Birmingham to all points north. South of Birmingham you couldn't give our tickets away. But that's because in London they want a six-month commitment to staging a show and we're far too busy and in demand to give that amount of time to building an audience we don't need."
While Cowan is O'Carroll's manager, he insists the comedian is very much his own man.
"It's him that does it all. He manages himself. He has an instinct for what the people want. He knows how to re-invest himself. When it came to creating Mrs Brown we thought the role would be played by an actress, but she didn't show up. So Brendan just slotted in the voice thinking it would be re-recorded. But someone said that's great and he took on the part."
According to Cowan, O'Carroll owes his success to depths of resourcefulness combined with an unshakeable self-belief.
"He has this gift of mind over matter. Every time he's been given a kick in the bo**ocks he's picked himself up and started over again."
O'Carroll showed that mettle early on when he submitted his play The Course for inclusion in the Dublin Theatre Festival. The festival committee ruled the play was too coarse for their liking, so he hired a theatre and put up posters saying 'Rejected By The Dublin Theatre Festival'. His instincts were proven right when his solo production took in more at the box office than every show in the festival put together.
As RTE's head of comedy in the 1990s, Billy Magra floated the notion of giving Brendan O'Carroll his own show. It didn't happen. "It was a different zeitgeist," he says.
Magra has been consistently impressed with O'Carroll's willingness to put his own money where his mouth is. "There were years when Brendan didn't have a broadcaster and he would put his hand in his own pocket to fund his end of year show. He'd stage the production and film it and then put it out on video and DVD, and it would sell," he says.
Without a broadcaster in the late 1990s, O'Carroll noted with satisfaction that his self-financed videos sold a quarter-of-a-million copies. "There can't be a quarter-of-a-million fu**ing eejits out there," he remarked.
His unfailing willingness to take a punt on himself is rooted in the born gambler within. In bygone days he flitted away fortunes at Shelbourne Park. "I was mad into the dogs," he recalled. "The first three times I went to the dogs I won big. On the third occasion, I was only 13, I had five shillings and I won £815. I thought 'this is easy'. Big fu**ing mistake.
"I was hooked and it got worse as I got older. I used to get off the bus at Shelbourne Park on a Saturday night after getting my wages. I'd walk to the bus stop where you got a bus back to town. I'd lift the sod at the bus stop and put a 50p piece under the sod so that at least I'd have my fare when I came out. I knew I was going to lose my bo**ocks."
He packed in the dogs and focused his gambling bug on a single project -- Brendan O'Carroll. It has paid off royally. Billy Magra observes: "He's done it himself. He's a one-man cottage industry and you can't take that away from him."