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Why the BBC comedy chief says Brendan is the best thing since Del Boy


HE'S an overnight success who's taken 20 years to make it to the top with his often lewd, sometimes rude and consistently very funny Mrs Brown's Boys. Dublin comedian Brendan O'Carroll is riding high. Not since Only Fools and Horses almost three decades ago has a BBC comedy show achieved such staggering ratings.

An average of seven million people watched the last series of Mrs Brown's Boys -- one in nine of the UK's population -- joined by another 770,000 on RTÉ.

But the BBC's head of comedy commissioning, Cheryl Taylor, says 92 is the magic number, which tells the real story of its success.

"There's a mechanism called the audience appreciation index, where people either phone in or are telephoned about shows they've watched and they score it," she explains.

"A low score is below 70. The final episode of Mrs Brown's Boys had a record-breaking audience appreciation index of 92, the highest in decades. The last thing on BBC One to achieve that was Only Fools and Horses. It's a phenomenal achievement."

It's been a long road for O'Carroll. Born in 1955, he left school at 12 and worked a variety of jobs before turning his hand to comedy.

His first break was on The Late Late Show in 1993, where he was scheduled to appear for nine minutes but ended up staying for 40, propelling him on to the comedy circuit.

He wrote plays and books, before hitting upon the character that would make him famous in the late 1990s -- Agnes Brown.

A stage show toured Ireland and the UK for years, before being made into a movie starring Anjelica Huston. He made a fortune, lost it, then went back on the road. But it was only by chance that it made it to TV screens.

"There's a producer in the BBC named Stephen McCrum, whose friend saw Mrs Brown in a Glasgow theatre," RTÉ executive producer Justin Healy says. "Stephen went and found 2,000 women in the audience, aged 55-plus mostly, and they were all in convulsions laughing. Brendan's ability to control the audience was like nothing anyone had seen before."

But it was one thing appreciating the show live, another thing entirely convincing RTÉ and the BBC to co-produce a series.

"People were seeing it was funny, but wondering what made it funny," Healy says. "It's a warm show, it's about a woman who loves her family and people can relate to that. But it was hard to sell the language to RTÉ and the BBC, which are quite conservative channels."

Cheryl Taylor had no doubts about the show's potential.

"Brendan was an unknown quantity, and a few people were scratching their heads and wondering what was this about. As broadcasters, we're interested in broad-appeal shows and Brendan was always confident that when he took it to TV it would be a hit.

"With Mrs Brown, he's presenting us with a fantastic family set-up, with a brilliant, saucy, cheeky matriarch surrounded with a broad range of characters.

"That plays a massive part in its success alongside Brendan's comedy instincts and because he worked hard to hone a character."

Despite his success, critics don't warm to him. It's no surprise to O'Carroll, who says they have a "hate, hate relationship". Nauseating, old-fashioned and corny have all been used to describe the show, which is something that Ms Taylor doesn't understand.

"It's the one show that most people I meet on the school run or out socially want to talk about. To create and perform a hit show, you need so many things to go right.

"It's a very snobby and erroneous thing to say that it's not sophisticated, I think that's very dodgy territory," she says.

But what do critics know? He's won an IFTA, has been nominated for a prestigious BAFTA award, and his fans have earned him serious money. His company has almost €500,000 in assets.

Sales of Mrs Brown's Boys DVDs have hit more than a million, his UK tour is a sell-out and the show is being made into an animated series. On top of that, there's his fee for making the show, a third series of which starts shooting in October with the possibility of more to come.

"We get hundreds and hundreds of scripts in every year from agents and production companies and fewer than 2pc get made," Ms Taylor says.

"We'd like to do as many (Mrs Brown's Boys) as the O'Carroll family will do. We don't want to exhaust them, but we would welcome it as long as Brendan and family are prepared to make it."