The bawdy granny who unlocked a €20m fortune
From humble beginnings, Brendan O'Carroll has built a lucrative comedy empire with a global army of loyal fans, says John Meagher
The numbers trip off Rory Cowan's tongue like a mantra: "42,000 people over five days in Dublin. The same number in both Sheffield and Liverpool. And then 350,000 tickets sold for the Australian tour next year."
They read like the sort of figures Beyoncé or Lady Gaga would command, but it's a diminutive comedian from Finglas, Dublin, who is pulling in such enormous crowds.
Thanks to his most celebrated creation -- the bawdy Northside grandmother, Agnes Brown -- Brendan O'Carroll has, by stealth, become one of Ireland's biggest entertainment exports, easily on track to becoming a €20m comedian.
Rory Cowan has worked with O'Carroll since 1991 and is now his manager. He also acts in the TV series and stage-play of Mrs Brown's Boys, playing the part of the matriarch's gay son, Rory. "The guy who was playing Rory left to become a train driver and we had no replacement, so Brendan said: 'You do it -- you know the lines.' That was in 2004. I haven't looked back."
And nor has O'Carroll. He has come a long way from the trying days of running a pub or, in especially lean times, waiting tables. From a fledgling radio character first aired more than 20 years ago, O'Carroll has developed Mrs Brown into a TV and arena show phenomenon. A feature film is on the way, as are an animated version and a video game inspired by the character.
He is known in the industry for his generosity -- and his philanthropic endeavours for St Vincent de Paul among other charities.
This week must have felt especially sweet for O'Carroll. The BBC's popular family history show, Who Do You Think You Are?, was in Dublin to film O'Carroll for the next series and on Tuesday, For the Love of Mrs Brown began its sold out run in the O2. Tickets in the nosebleed seats cost €29.50, while those not requiring the giant screens to follow the action stumped up €49.50 apiece.
"We also did six nights in the O2 in London, but they told us we could have done 30 nights there," Cowan says.
Those who might have assumed that O'Carroll's creation, with its confrontational brand of working-class Dublin humour, would fail to translate abroad have had to eat their words.
The BBC series has been a sensation in Britain and was the most watched show in Christmas 2011 and 2012, with more than 11 million tuning into last season's festive offering. Unsurprisingly, Mrs Brown's Boys will take pride of place in the BBC's Christmas programme this year. Its cross-channel popularity can be gleaned by the fact that when the BBC interrupted last weekend's episode to announce the death of Nelson Mandela, the broadcaster received almost 1,200 complaints.
It has enjoyed similar success in Australia, regularly beating the country's hitherto most popular show, Australia's Got Talent, in the ratings. "The Aussies really get the humour," Rory Cowan says. "And we'll spend 12 weeks touring all parts of Australia next year. It's a priority for us."
Far more surprising is the fact that places like Iceland and Romania also get the humour. The latter country makes its own version using local actors, but with scripts supplied by O'Carroll. "Brendan has complete control over it," Cowan says. "They had wanted to get rid of the gay characters but Brendan said: 'No way -- if you want to do it, you do it my way'."
Despite an increasingly global profile, O'Carroll remains as hands-on in the business side of things as ever. "You bet he is," says Cowan, admiringly. "He cares a great deal about his characters and wants them to reach as many people as possible."
World domination may ensue next summer, when a feature-length film, Mrs Brown's Boys: D'Movie is released. It will be O'Carroll's second experience with Hollywood: Agnes Browne, staring Angelica Heuston, was released in 2000 and was based on The Mammy, one of four novels he has written on the character. There are also plans for an animated version of Mrs Brown's Boys as well as a video game. "The possibilities," Cowan says, "are endless."
At 58, O'Carroll has never been as popular and his unrelenting efforts to take Mrs Brown's Boys to the largest possible audience could stem from the years of toil in which he performed stand-up to half-full pubs. Even well into his 30s he was having to work as a waiter in order to support his family. The youngest of 11 children, he was brought up in Finglas by his mother, Maureen, a Labour Party TD, and his father, a carpenter. He left school at 12 and worked as a milkman, waiter and DJ before gravitating towards a brand of stand-up comedy that focused on the foibles of working-class Dublin life.
Cowan, who had worked as a press officer for EMI, remembers happening upon O'Carroll's routine in a pub in Ranelagh in 1990. "He had me in stitches from beginning to end," he says. "He was a natural."
After leaving the record company, Cowan started working with Aslan and put on a show in a bar in Finglas that had been a huge success. "I had Mr Pussy play there too and that pulled in a great crowd, so the owners were saying to me: 'Do you have anyone else?'. And I thought about that comedian I had seen in Ranelagh. At the time I didn't know Brendan was from Finglas, but he went down a storm."
For his part, O'Carroll credits exposure on The Late Late Show as his first big break and after the standing ovation for the show on Tuesday, he took to the stage to thank Gay Byrne, among others, for "making all this possible".
"Brendan has been very generous over the years in acknowledging the part the show played in his success," Byrne says. "But he was great for The Late Late Show too, and I had him on on several occasions over the years. He's a very funny man and that's why so many people have engaged with his characters -- right from that first moment on the show when he had the audience crying with laughter thanks to his skit as a waiter.
'He's also a very sharp businessman who keeps an eye on every aspect of his trade. I believe he's a superb negotiator and the fact that he has been able to have the BBC allow him retain complete ownership over Mrs Brown's Boys shows what a smart operator he is."
Maintaining complete control is the factor that has made O'Carroll very wealthy in recent years.
Estimates vary, but it is thought that his personal wealth is now close to €20m -- and that figure will grow and grow. Ticket sales for the Australia tour next year alone will generate almost €10m, while Mrs Brown's Boys: D'Movie -- a low-budget production in the context of most contemporary comedies -- is likely to be a summer hit at the box office. Yet, despite his success, O'Carroll is said to be annoyed that his comedy is routinely panned by the critics. On Tuesday afternoon, Cowan emailed the arts editor of this newspaper to say a critic would not be welcome at opening night, but then relented.
"Critics in Dublin are not fair to us," he says. "There's a nastiness to it that's personal -- and I get the impression they have the review written before they even show up.
"You don't get that in the UK and we have found the critics have been fairer to us there. To be honest, we don't need the critics in Ireland. If they want to come to the show they can pay for their own ticket."
Yet, Mrs Brown's Boys has had no shortage of savage reviews in Britain too. "There is a sense of bafflement in the comedy industry that it has become as popular as it has," says Steve Bennett, editor of the UK's leading comedy website, Chortle.
"But you can't account for taste or the fact that millions of people find it hilarious to watch a man dressed as an old lady swearing left, right and centre. I saw the show at the Hammersmith Apollo and I was the only person in the 3,000-strong audience who wasn't falling about the place with laughter.
"It's old-fashioned comedy with pretty lame writing and it's difficult for the younger, daring comic to stomach.
"Yet, you have to have a grudging respect for what Brendan O'Carroll does, because clearly an awful lot of people find it funny and who are us critics to say it's not funny if people are laughing?"