One of the boys...in the house that Mrs Brown built
He calls it ‘the house that Mrs Brown built’, and while not one brick was laid by the Irish mammy, it is the hit TV series that has enabled Rory Cowan to turn it into the perfect pad. Edited by Mary O’Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
In the centre of Rory Cowan's spanking-new built-in wardrobe unit in his cleverly renovated home, only shirts hang, and they are not the kind of shirts the stylish fiftysomething wears in real life. Subtle and elegant, they ain't. Loud, brash, garish are the words that spring to mind. But that's fine. These shirts are worn by Rory's alter ego — one of the Mrs Brown's Boys cast, also named Rory.
“I picked them up in Honolulu. |I thought, ‘These are perfect for Rory.’ I got some in Australia, too. We're just back from a six-week tour of the place,” he says, adding, “We all travelled first class, and not just the actors — the whole team; and we stayed in the best |of accommodation. You have no idea. Brendan is really a very generous employer. I couldn't fault him.”
Brendan O'Carroll, creator and star of Mrs Brown's Boys, is something of an eccentric employer, too. When he enlisted Rory for the part of the gay son, Rory, the real Rory, then well into his 30s, had never acted before in his life.
He’d had a variety of jobs, but acting was not of them. Nor, for that matter, was the bank, despite the best efforts of another Irish mammy, back when he was leaving school in the Seventies.
“I'm very good at maths. I got an A in honours maths in my Inter Cert, and my mother was suddenly all about a job in the bank. It was the bank, the bank, the bank. I couldn't think of anything worse so, when I went in to do my Leaving Cert, I deliberately failed.
“I did pass maths and I got an F, just so I wouldn't have to go for the bank,” he explains. “My mother is like a lot of Irish mothers — they will push and nag until they get their way. She was raging,” he recalls with a laugh.
Instead, two days after finishing the Leaving, he got a job in a record shop and he loved it. He climbed the ladder in the music business and, by the |age of 24, he had been made sales and marketing manager of EMI Ireland. “They gave me a company car, and I couldn't even drive,” he says.
Soon, he was welcoming top artistes to Ireland, including Kate Bush, Tina Turner and Diana Ross.
“All along, my mother still kept saying, ‘Will you ever settle down and get a proper job?', but the first time Cliff Richard came, I took her, with him, to dinner at the Trocadero and, on the way home, she said to me, ‘That's a great job you have,'” the Dubliner notes gleefully.
Rory spent another seven years with EMI, but, at 31, he was made redundant.
“I was getting tired of it anyway,” he says. “We never signed new acts, so I wasn't devastated. But as soon as I left, it hit me, ‘What am I going to do now?'”
For a while, he busied himself doing freelance publicity for various entertainers, including Mr Pussy and Christy Dignam. Then Rory got the opportunity to work with the fledgling
comedian, Brendan O'Carroll. “I'd seen him in a pub in Ranelagh and I thought he was the funniest man I'd ever seen. I screamed laughing,” he says.
“Anyway, there was this pub in Finglas that I'd put Christy in one night and Mr Pussy in on another night, and the owner of the pub said to me, ‘The two shows you put in were the biggest draws we ever had. Do you know anyone else?' And I said I'd seen a comedian called Brendan O'Carroll and, if I could find him, he'd be hilarious.”
Not only did Rory find Brendan for the pub gig, he created a new career for himself. Because of the way he had been used to promoting acts in EMI, he was thinking big. For example, he was putting posters everywhere and taking out newspaper ads, not realising that in the normal course of events, pubs would only put up one poster, in the pub itself. Brendan liked this modus operandi. “Brendan was driving home and he kept seeing the posters, and he said, ‘This guy knows how to promote a show', and asked me to come on board as his publicist,” Rory explains.
More than 20 years later, he's still in charge of publicity, along with his extra duties as Rory Brown.
When Brendan started writing Mrs Brown's Boys, it was, initially, a five-minute radio soap, and Rory was happy to play the part of Rory, as it was tiny, and yet it was a great vehicle for publicising the live stage shows, for which they had an actor playing the Rory Brown part.
That was until, one day, on the eve of a three-week sell-out tour in Britain, that the actor decided to leave the cast and Brendan told Rory that he had to do it.
“He said, ‘You know the lines; you'll fill in.' I'd never been on a stage in my life. I thought he was joking,” Rory explains, adding that once Brendan had convinced him that they wouldn't be able to get another actor in time, he realised he had no choice.
Although he says he sometimes still feels a fraud, he embraced the role and added his own touches — bleaching his hair blond, spiking it up, wearing his outlandish shirts and “bouncing on stage, camp as knickers”. It obviously worked, as he has been playing the |part ever since — on stage, in the multi-award-winning BBC comedy and in the soon-to-be-released movie, Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie.
It's a tight-knit team, mainly made up of Brendan's family, and they spend long stretches of time together, touring and filming. They get on well together, but, as Rory says, “Mrs Brown is the goose that laid the golden egg, and we all realise that, but we're not the Waltons, we're the Browns,” so Rory is always glad to get a chance to spend some time at home in Dublin 8.
“I call it the house Mrs Brown built. I bought it in 1990 and was made redundant six months later. If I hadn't met Brendan, I wouldn't have been able to pay the mortgage,” he explains.
It's a small house and, given the success Mrs Brown has enjoyed, Rory could have moved to a grander property. His experience with redundancy and serious illness — in 1994, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour, but recovered fully — made him wary of taking on a bigger mortgage.
In any case, he loves the area and so |he compromised by giving the house a make-over, with the help of interior designer, Carmel Carroll. “I wanted a bigger kitchen and a new bathroom. I told her to throw everything out except my bed and one painting,” he says.
Though Carmel had limited space to work with, she was able to extend both the front and back, and, by adding large expanses of glass at both ends, she created a stylish, airy, open-plan living space, with a dining area facing on to the back patio and a really attractive, user-friendly kitchen to the front.
Features include a higher ceiling to the back of the house, tiled flooring throughout the house and on the patio — it actually looks like smoked oak — and a glass roof in the kitchen.
Rory gets a great kick out of some of the new furnishings and loves showing off his favourite things, including the black extractor fan in the kitchen, the silver wall tiles, the mirror that lights |up in the enlarged bathroom. “This is exactly what I wanted,” he enthuses.
He's the kind of guy who seems to always knock as much out of life as possible. It's an attitude which has stood to him. “This — Mrs Brown — it's not going to last for ever, but I'm having the time of me life. It's a great adventure.”
‘Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie’ opens on June 27. For more details about interior designer, Carmel Carroll, email firstname.lastname@example.org