Monday 11 December 2017

Mrs Brown turns to gold

NOSTALGIC: Brendan O'Carroll as Mrs Brown in his award-winning BBC show
NOSTALGIC: Brendan O'Carroll as Mrs Brown in his award-winning BBC show
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Brendan O'Carroll was once asked what he would do if he had an unlimited supply of money. The comedian said he would buy a jumbo jet and the best cappuccino maker in the world.

Then, he would ask someone to take a photo of him standing next to his 747 grandly sipping a coffee, and send the picture to an old school teacher who had told him as a boy: "You'll never amount to anything''.

He has certainly amounted to something. Having left school at 12, and with novels, plays and a monster TV sitcom under his belt, O'Carroll's dream of a 747 now seems plausible.

This week, Mrs Brown's Boys won him a BAFTA, and is fast becoming a hit across the world, turning the 56-year-old Finglas man into a multi-millionaire.

O'Carroll joked after his win that he would have to take a month off to count his earnings, which are now expected to top €10m.

DVD sales of his first BBC series have already gone well over one million; this week his stage show continued a British tour, playing to audiences of over 5,000; and there is a TV cartoon and a feature film on the way.

The show is not only a ratings sensation in Britain -- with audiences of over eight million -- but has just been bought by the US Comedy Channel, and is being shown across the rest of the English-speaking world, including Australia and Canada.

Crucially, TV companies across Europe have rushed to buy the rights to make their own versions. There is a Romanian Mrs Brown, a Slovenian Mrs Brown, and she is due to appear as a Turk.

She is also tickling funny bones in Iceland.

What Mr Bean did for the bumbling oaf in a tweed jacket, Mrs Brown is doing for the potty-mouthed curly-wigged granny in a cardigan.

Rory Cowan, who plays the gay son Rory in the show and also works on the business side of O'Carroll's operation, says: "Because a lot of the humour is slapstick, it translates easily -- like Mr Bean or Charlie Chaplin.''

O'Carroll shrewdly insisted that his own production company would continue to own the rights to the show and the format.

The comedian and his cast are therefore paid whenever it is repeated anywhere in the world, and he can sell the format as he chooses.

One entertainment executive, who has worked closely with him, said: "He is an amazing negotiator -- I have seen him almost walk out when he was only offered a pilot programme, and then come out later with a deal for 12 episodes.''

O'Carroll has had a topsy-turvy career. When he started, there was uncertainty whether his brand of smutty humour would travel outside his home base.

One of his friends said 20 years ago: "You couldn't have given him away free with a packet of Daz outside Dublin.''

He stumbled into comedy after a brief stint as a publican in Finglas ended in disaster in the 1980s. O'Carroll returned from a foreign trip to find that his business partner (who is now deceased) had made off with the takings.

It was not the last time he hit financial trouble. He was left with debts of over €1.5m in the late '90s after he ploughed money into Sparrow's Trap, a film about a failed boxer which never made it to the screen. Rory Cowan says: "Because he wasn't an overnight success, he learnt about the business side of things as he went along.''

Cowan himself tends to downplay his own role in the comedy's success. However, O'Carroll gave him due credit this week when discussing his BAFTA win.

A former record company executive with EMI, Cowan believed that if something was popular in Ireland it could be a success in any English-speaking country. And then it could go global.

The O'Carroll operation is eccentric, but it somehow works. The ensemble cast consists largely of members of his own family -- including his second wife Jennifer Gibney -- and people who have worked for him in various roles along the way.

Rory Cowan himself never intended to act in the stage show, but found himself drafted in a decade ago when another actor left to become a train driver. Friends say O'Carroll is not purely driven by money.

He likes to disappear with his wife to their home in Florida for a large part of the year, and turned down a five-year contract for a sitcom to be made by the American TV giant, HBO, the company behind The Sopranos and Sex in the City.

Cowan says: "He felt that he would have no quality of life, because he would be working flat out. He always says that one of the greatest things money can buy is time.''

But still, if all goes to plan, he may yet be able to buy that jumbo jet. He has certainly proved his old schoolteacher wrong.

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