Mammy is back: Mrs Brown's Boys' Brendan O’Carroll talks ahead of live Birmingham show

The creator of multi-award-winning sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys has suffered the ignominy of reviews slating his creation for being the ‘worst comedy ever made’. He had to work as a waiter and milkman to make ends meet at the start of his career and an early foray into film ended in disaster when his boxing movie, Sparrow’s Trap, ran up debts of more than €1 million, forcing O’Carroll into bankruptcy and ensuring the film was never produced.

You learn the most from mistakes, however, and the Irish writer, producer, comedian, actor, and director has never been a quitter. He’s spent years cultivating his best-known character, the foul-mouthed matriarch Agnes Brown, earning an Irish Film and Television Academy Lifetime Achievement Award along the way.

O’Carroll has enjoyed more success for Mrs Brown’s Boys. Voted the No.1 sitcom of the 21st century, his awards include five BAFTAs, four National Television Awards, three TV Choice Awards, four IFTA awards, three TV Times Awards as well as RTS, TRIC and National Comedy Awards. It is a ratings smash across the globe and the Mrs Brown’s Boys live show has broken box office records across the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Now it’s back, with a run of dates planned at Birmingham’s Resorts World Arena for Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Musical?, from June 21-23. The production promises to take fans on an exhilarating, side-splitting and musical adventure.

O’Carroll says: “Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Musical? will have people crying with laughter, tapping their toes and leaving the show singing and smiling to yourself. We are having such fun doing this and can’t wait to share it, not just with fans of Mrs Brown’s Boys, but to anyone who needs a good night out.”

The show is ostensibly Mrs Brown’s Boys with songs. O’Carroll adds: “It’s a straight comedy show, a new show, with songs. A bunch of property developers want to turn the market into apartments. But Mrs Brown and the traders get together to fight it. Mrs Brown takes it to court and wins, but a legal bill for £175,000 arrives. So she has to find a way to raise the money and comes up with the idea of doing a musical. The opening scene of the musical is the closing scene of the show. It’s a real good laugh.”

O’Carroll knows his character intimately, having created it as far back as 1992. He’s been having fun with it, putting Mrs Brown in tricky situations to make sure the audience laugh.

“I’m writing the character and putting things in the script like ‘this is where she sings’, while all the time thinking, ‘She’d hate this’.

“The other characters have some very funny scenes. It’s a lovely show and it’ll really make people laugh a lot.”

O’Carroll had no idea his concept would prove so successful. He initially took it to radio and it’s grown over a prolonged period of time. O’Carroll’s original idea was a short radio play titled Mrs Browne’s Boys. Shortly afterwards he wrote four books titled The Mammy, The Granny, The Chisellers and The Scrapper. In 1999, a movie named Agnes Browne, starring Anjelica Huston, was released, based on his book The Mammy. O’Carroll also co-wrote the screenplay. He then decided to put together his own family theatre company, Mrs Browne’s Boys, and dressed up as a woman to play his part, as the actress he had originally hired failed to turn up.

From 1999 to 2009, he wrote and performed in five plays. Since 2011, the stage shows have been re-toured across the UK. In 2011, his plays were adapted into a television sitcom, with the name Browne shortened to Brown.

So far, from 2011, 28 episodes have aired, across three series, several Christmas special episodes and a one-off live episode that aired in 2016 on RTÉ One and BBC One. Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie was released on June 27, 2014, and was a significant success in the UK, staying at number one in the box office for two consecutive weeks. However, the film had negative reviews; one said it was not just unfunny but “close to anti-funny”. O’Carroll’s wife, his sister Eilish, his son Danny and his daughter Fiona all appear or have appeared on episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys.

The creator is astonished with the way things have panned out. There was never a masterplan, he just wrote something that made him laugh and decided to take it as far as it would go.

“It started out back in the early 1990s, when it started on radio. I did a five-minute comedy soap opera for five days a week on Irish radio.

“When I did the first two weeks of episodes I gave it to the presenter and he came back to me and said they wouldn’t run it because the content was too risqué. Mrs Brown said the word ‘bum’ in one of the episodes and the word ‘bum’ was banned on the radio, so it was a no-go.

Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas and New Year special

“But two months later, the presenter rang me and said his producer was on holiday so couldn’t stand in the way. We ran it while the producer was away and scheduled in two weeks of episodes.

“On the Tuesday of the second week, I got a call from head of the radio station saying he wanted to talk to me. I thought I was in trouble. I thought I was going to go to prison.”

O’Carroll couldn’t have been more wrong. Far from being scalded, he was offered more work. “They told me they loved the show but had no money. So they wanted to see whether I’d do a deal to provide them with more.”

O’Carroll laughed when he heard there was no budget for his project. He says: “I told them, ‘No disrespect, but I can get lots of gigs like that’.”

So the station upped the ante. They offered to pay him – but in T-shirts.

“They had a deal with someone who supplied them T-shirts and they offered to divert those to me. They said they’d give me 500 T-shirts per month and I’d be able to sell the T-shirts on.”

So O’Carroll ended up with no money for Mrs Brown – but he did get 500 T-shirts per month. Which is nice, if you wear a lot of T-shirts.

“We managed to find a buyer for them at a fiver each, so we made our money back alright.”

The show became a phenomenon and radio station listeners tuned in to get their regular fix.

“I didn’t know that much about radio back then and I didn’t realise how popular it soon became. Prisoners in the local prisons wanted to be locked up to listen to it. Taxis would pull in so that the drivers could listen without being distracted. Hairdressers would turn off their dryers at 4.30pm.

“I needed to find a way of cashing in on it so at the end of every episode the presenter would tell the listeners that Mrs Brown’s Boys was made by a comedian and he’d flag up where I was gigging. He’d say, ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys is produced by Brendan O’Carroll and you can see him tonight in Cork’, that sort of thing.”

Suddenly, O’Carroll’s ticket sales went through the roof and a series of Mrs Brown’s Boys books followed.

“After two years, I wrote the first novel, then the second and third. The third went into the top 10 of the New York Times best-seller list. All of a sudden I was touring America. Then the producer from the BBC got on to me and said he wanted a sitcom. He chased me for two years. We did a pilot and that went well. I just wanted to keep the TV show as close to the stage show as possible. So that was a battle. Now, the BBC are fantastic and they understand she doesn’t mean anything offensive.

Brendan O'Carroll

“So during the arc of its lifetime, the show has gone from being five minutes on the radio to being live around the world and in the top 10 in the USA, Iceland, Canada, Africa, everywhere. It’s become a franchise. We’ve even got a French comedian who does his own version of it in Quebec. To go from a five-minute radio show and being paid in T-shirts to this is mind-blowing. The initial plan was to pay my f-in’ rent, that’s all, so I never had any idea what would happen.”

O’Carroll grew up in tough conditions. The youngest of 11 children, he was born in Finglas, Dublin. His mother, Maureen, was a Labour Party parliamentarian and his father, Gerard O’Carroll, was a carpenter. His father died in 1962 when O’Carroll was seven, and Brendan’s mother raised their 11 children with little money. He attended Saint Gabriel’s National School and left at the age of 12.

It’s that tough upbringing and the unfailing love of his mother than O’Carroll credits with his current success.

“I had a genius of a mother. She gave me a great philosophy about what it is to be successful. She told me sometimes success would be like disco music, you know, it’s best not to analyse it – you just dance to it. So that’s what I’ve been doing. As each step has come along, you know, South Africa, the USA, Australia, I just say, ‘Okay, we’ll try that’. I don’t think about it too deeply.”

His mother’s influence was profound and he remembers other mantras.

“Another one of my mother’s things was, ‘Don’t be afraid’.”

So O’Carroll learned not just to conquer his fears – but also to be unafraid of success, the way many people are.

“She told me not to be afraid of success. And she also taught me that you learn nothing from success, you only learn from failure. You look back on successes and think that things must have been easy. But when you have a failure, you remember every step. You remember where you went wrong. You remember the wrong decisions.” Like his aborted film, Sparrow’s Trap.

“With Sparrow’s Trap, it took me seven years to pay everybody off in that. I thought I’d never be able to do it. I thought I’d reached the bottom of the well. But you have to try and remember that if you’re at the bottom of the world it turns every 24 hours.”

Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas and New Year special

Besides, given O’Carroll’s background, he never takes what he does too seriously. He remembers there are other families out there with mouths to feed and no income to provide support.

“There’s a mate of mine in Dublin who has a coal round. He delivers coal all week and all day on Saturday in the driving rain. When he finishes, nobody f-in’ claps. That’s real work. We’re blessed to have the gig we have. A lot of us have family. At the end of the day, people clap, we get paid and it doesn’t get any better. I often wonder when it will come to an end. I wonder if they are gonna find out that I’m really only a waiter and demand their money back.”

But perhaps the biggest lesson that O’Carroll has learned from Mrs Brown’s Boys is to not interfere. When episodes are going well, he’s learned to let things flow.

“That’s the thing. You have to have the confidence not to get in the way of it, not to tinker with it, to let it run.

“And you also have to remember that it’s a business, so when you create a character or a script you have to hang on to as much of it as you can. If you don’t watch out, bits of it will be gone here, there and everywhere. You have to give away bits to get where you want to go. So the promoter might take some, the TV company might take some – you have to compromise. But the most important thing is to make sure you don’t get in the way of it.”
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