Mrs Brown's Boys: Looking for love with the foul-mouthed matriarch

Irish comedian and performer Brendan O'Carroll had no idea how successful Mrs Brown's Boys would be when it began, in his own words, as a "five-minute thing on the radio" in 1992.Yet the thousands who later queued to see O'Carroll as Irish widow Agnes Brown on stage knew they were watching something special.
 Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes in Mrs Brown's Boys.

So did BBC producer Stephen McCrum, who believed O'Carroll was up there with the greats of comic timing – "the Dame Ednas, [the] Billy Connollys".
Even so, their hopes for a TV sitcom based on the adventures of Agnes and her adult children were modest upon debut in 2011.

"Stephen said the way it usually works is that [a show] would start high at about 2.5 to 3 million and then it would start to drop and then your target is to get back to the 3 million you started with. When we got 5.4 million we were absolutely dumbfounded. By episode six we were up to 8.5 million," O'Carroll says.

"My mother had a wonderful saying about success: 'Sometimes you have to treat it like it's disco music. Don't analyse it, just dance to it.' "
Fast-forward a few years, two TV seasons, many awards and many live tours later, and Mrs Brown's Boys is one of the hottest comic properties in Europe. Mrs Brown is big in Australia, too: the last live show in 2014 sold out.

Last year Mrs Brown's Boys was voted the best British sitcom of the 21st century by Radio Times readers, beating The Office and The Thick Of It among others (cue the Twitter outrage).

Critics accused it of being crude and crass, its jokes and language low-brow, its double entendres a throwback to the days of Are You Being Served?
The Independent's Grace Dent observed: "To love Mrs Brown, one must be thrilled by a man in a hairnet and dinner lady tabard saying the F-word roughly once every 10 minutes."
Yet in a world where modern comedy is sarcastic and self-aware, maybe the success of a feel-good show about a foul-mouthed matriarch and a family she clearly adores isn't so hard to figure out.

"In the '80s and early '90s comedy started to take itself very serious, it started to become very snarky," says O'Carroll. "It also started to become smart or intellectual rather than funny.
"I think what happened is that Mrs Brown captured an audience that comedy had left behind a bit."

More than that, Mrs Brown caters to an audience increasingly neglected by modern comedy: the working class. "And there hasn't been that family vibe, either."
Growing up in a council house as one of 11 children, O'Carroll is a big believer in the "family vibe".
On the show his real-life wife plays his daughter Cathy, while his son plays Buster and his sister is next-door neighbour Winnie. (O'Carroll is protective of his cast, too: he said no to a Russian licensing deal when they asked him to remove the gay character Rory from the show.)

At the centre of it all is O'Carroll as Mrs Brown, meddling in the lives of her children from her home, her optimism and cardigans seemingly unchanged throughout the seasons.
O'Carroll laughs when asked if he chooses his own dresses.
"Can you see me walking around the store holding dresses up to myself? No, I've got a lovely wardrobe lady who's been with me 20 years. The emphasis is mainly on the cardigans."

Mrs Brown will have to get out her best cardie for the new two-hour stage show, For The Love Of Mrs Brown. Set during Valentine's Day, it features Mrs Brown looking for love on the internet (or "d'internet", as she pronounces it).
"It never dawned on her to go look for a man when she lost her husband. The whole point of Agnes is that she doesn't need any man. But then there's this thing called sex and we all miss that.

"And then she ventures on the internet with hilarious results. Literally the whole family is on stage with her. And in the middle of this, grandad is taking Viagra … not for his health but to stop him pissing on his slippers. So he's now on the hunt every night."
Bertolt Brecht, it's not. But as one Guardian reader put it: "Bertolt Brecht? Give me Brendan O'Carroll any day."

O'Carroll says: "Our deal with the audience is, 'Look, we don't ask you to think, we don't ask you to do anything complicated, we just want you to come, sit in the dark and laugh and forget about your troubles just for a couple of hours.' "

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