Tuesday 23 January 2018

Mary Poppins, Mrs Brown and a spoonful of salt . . . it could only be Brendan

Chrissie Russell

In the summer of 1992, two novice comedians and a 2fm radio presenter sat in a city centre recording studio anxiously waiting for their lead female actor to appear.

As the clock ticked, DJ Gareth O'Callaghan told the disconsolate pair they would have to cancel and kiss goodbye to recording their first radio show.

"Like hell we will!" announced one of them. "I'll play Agnes."

The comedian was Brendan O'Carroll and this was the moment his infamous alter-ego, the foul mouthed Irish mammy, Agnes Brown, was created.

This week O'Carroll (58) was honoured with a People of the Year award for his services to entertainment. His multi-award-winning TV franchise Mrs Brown's Boys reels in audiences of 15 million and over the next five years he's expected to earn £50m (€60m) from it – none of which might have happened without that twist of fate 20 years ago.

A new book, The Real Mrs Brown: The Brendan O'Carroll Story, an authorised biography written by Brian Beacom, reveals the extent to which chance has played a huge part in shaping the life of Ireland's most successful comic writer.

His very existence was down to a last-minute turn of events. In 1911, O'Carroll's grandmother and grandfather bought tickets to America, resolved to flee the relatives who opposed their romance and sizable age gap.

A last-minute reconciliation saw them decide to remain in Ireland and another couple bought their tickets . . . for passage on the SS Titanic.

Even the sleeping arrangements of O'Carroll's parents make his birth a minor miracle. His mother, Maureen O'Carroll, a Labour TD, was 41 and slept in her own room while his father, Gerry, slept with his sons in their three-bed home.

The comedian himself scoffs: "How they had 10 kids is beyond me. They must have had an extension cord."

Life was bleak on the 1950s Finglas housing estate where O'Carroll grew up and his only sources of entertainment were watching Mary Poppins 28 times in the local Casino cinema and a brief foray into shoplifting.

His father died when he was just nine, but his absence only strengthened the bond between O'Carroll and his mother. It was she who would not only later provide the inspiration for his most famous female character but also encouraged him, insisting he could "be anything you wanted to be".

Initially, what O'Carroll wanted to be was Ireland's best waiter. The only slight stain on his otherwise illustrious career in service came in 1984 when he accidentally dusted Margaret Thatcher's strawberry dessert with salt instead of sugar.

It was chance too that dictated a career change in 1989. After a successful few years running the Abbot's Castle bar in Finglas, O'Carroll returned from holiday to find his business partner had cleaned out their account, leaving him £96,000 in debt.

At the time he thought he was done for. "I was finished. Or so I thought," he says. "I've learned since in life that you get lots of chances. You've just got to be able to spot them."

Instead, his future comedy partner Gerry Browne arrived at his door at precisely the right time to convince him to take a chance on a comedy career.

Later it was a spur-of-the-moment pitch that saw Agnes Brown's character created and that sick actress who ensured he made the role his own.

But to reduce O'Carroll's achievements to mere chance is unfair. Having dealt with poverty, a loved one's cancer battle, a failed marriage, dyslexia and box-office disasters, O'Carroll's success has been as much down to his attitude in adversity as his knack for capitalising on good fortune.

On February 23, 1979, his first child, named Brendan, was born with hydrocephalus spina bifida. Three days later a doctor told O'Carroll he had bad news, baby Brendan had died.

"You frightened the life out of me," replied O'Carroll. "I thought it was going to be something really serious." Humour, as dark as it was, he says was his way of coping.

Now a father of three and living between Ireland and Florida with second wife Jenny, and IFTAs, Baftas and a reported £10m fortune to his name, there are undoubtedly fewer 'dark things' in his life to laugh at.

One perhaps is the critics.

Audiences may weep with laughter at his writing – a typical exchange in For the Love of Mrs Brown goes: Cathy (Mrs Brown's daughter): "If you are going on a first date nowadays, a man will expect you to perform fellatio." Mrs Brown: "Me? Sing opera? He'd have a better chance of getting a blow job" – but the low-brow humour has been dismissed by some critics as 'slap-stick' and 'stretched'.

"If the critics could write what I write, they wouldn't be f***ing critics," declared O'Carroll recently while filming Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie, in Dublin's Moore Street.

In the future he has talked about following his mother into politics, certainly he "doesn't want to be pulling on the false tits for too much longer" as Agnes.

"I'd love to be able to say that I had a grand plan," he says. "But it's not true. There have been things that have happened to me and I thought it was the end of the world, but then I've discovered it was meant to be."

Perhaps there's something to be said for leaving it to chance.

Irish Independent

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