The Mrs Brown’s Boys mystery: How a show even BBC execs don’t love became so popular

Brendan O'Carroll in Mrs Brown's Boys
Brendan O'Carroll in Mrs Brown's Boys - BBC

The smile was wiped off the face of BBC head of comedy Jon Petrie this week when he was asked if he was a fan of the broadcaster’s most beloved sitcom, Mrs Brown’s Boys. Rather than respond, Petrie opted to sit in silence during a BBC comedy showcase in London.

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’, then,” said the journalist who had posed the question. Petrie ventured a giggle – but did not elaborate. He was on stage with Michelle de Swarte, a comedian and actress who is starring in a forthcoming comedy for BBC Three and who recommended he avoid answering, saying, “this is a trap”.

That the head of BBC comedy should be ambivalent about Mrs Brown’s Boys speaks to the Marmite-like nature of the series, in which Brendan O’Carroll plays a sweary “mammy” from the Dublin suburb of Finglas.

Savaged by critics while delivering blockbusting ratings, Mrs Brown’s Boys is, in its way, one of the most divisive shows the BBC has ever put on air. “Consistently dire”, said the Telegraph in a 2023 review – but tell that to the millions who faithfully tune in each week (a new season is due later in 2024).

Granted, its popularity has been on the slide recently – with ratings down from a peak of 11 million to seven million for the 2023 Christmas special. But that’s still more than twice the number who’ve been watching the new Doctor Who.

Mrs Brown has also acquired some influential fans, including American comedian Tyler Perry, who – in a Batman vs. Superman style crossover – cast O’Carroll, as Brown, in his potty-mouthed Netflix hit, A Madea Homecoming in 2022.  The film confirmed Perry and O’Carroll as comedy twins separated at birth with both comics having huge success dressing up as stereotypical mother figures (the African-American Madea in Perry’s case). “I looked at Brendan’s history, and our lives were on parallel tracks in different parts of the world, with him doing live plays and then going into television too,” Perry said. “So, I thought these two worlds colliding would be amazing.”

Comedy chief Petrie had appeared to contradict himself during the Q&A, having already cited Mrs Browns’ Boys as “huge” for the BBC. “People want jokes, they want shows that make them laugh, and the ones that they are re-watching again and again are Ghosts, Motherland, Not Going Out and Mrs. Brown’s Boys. They still get huge numbers for us.’

He reiterated the broadcaster’s commitment to Brendan O’Carroll’s comic creation in a follow-up statement. “Brendan has created an iconic comedy character in Agnes Brown. Mrs Brown’s Boys is a Bafta-winning comedy show and one of the BBC’s most-watched comedies ever. It’s made me laugh many times and seeing Mrs Brown’s Boys live is an unforgettable experience – I feel very lucky that I’ve had the chance to witness it and I’m proud to have it in the BBC Comedy stable”.

Mrs Brown's Boys mastermind Brendan O'Carroll at the 2020 National Television Awards
Mrs Brown's Boys mastermind Brendan O'Carroll with his Best Comedy award - Getty

It’s 13 years since Mr Brown’s Boys debuted on BBC One and immediately established itself as one of Britain’s favourite chortle-fests. It has reigned supreme ever since. The 2018 Christmas special was the second most-watched festive programme, its audience of nine million placing it ahead of juggernauts such as the Christmas Strictly Come Dancing and the Great Christmas Bake Off.

Back in Ireland, the steamroller popularity of O’Carroll and Mrs Brown in the much larger and more competitive UK market is a source of ongoing befuddlement. Irish television, it is true, has been historically awful. There is no tradition of quality drama or comedy for new generations to draw. Even the “best” shows tend to be qualified failures (one of the reasons Father Ted ended up on Channel 4 rather than Irish national broadcaster RTÉ).

That being the case, Mrs Brown’s Boys was nevertheless regarded as something of a guilty secret back home. O’Carroll had first became famous as a guest on Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show in the early Nineties. He would crack up the usually implacable host with his stories about getting up to no good as a rascal in Dublin’s socially disadvantaged Finglas.

Mrs Brown's Boys
Mrs Brown's Boys - BBC

O’Carroll thereafter picked up some work at RTÉ hosting lame quiz shows. It was a thankless route also taken by pre-Father Ted Dermot Morgan and a puppy-faced Dara Ó Briain, for many years team captain on a pulseless Have I Got News For You? knock-off called Don’t Feed The Gondolas (even less funny than its title).

Mrs Brown’s Boys was an empire O’Carroll built entirely on his own. He debuted Agnes Browne (the “e” was later dropped) on a one-off radio play on RTÉ Radio 2 in 1992. Four books – The Mammy, The Chisellers, The Granny, and The Young Wan – followed, the first adapted by Hibernophile Anjelica Huston into Agnes Brown. If you can bear to watch, hang on for the cameo by Tom Jones.

With his love for nudges, winks and toilet gags, O’Carroll was quickly deemed beyond the bounds of polite taste in Ireland. It was unthinkable he be given his own TV show. Consequently, the seven Mrs Brown DVDs he released were self-financed and self-directed. That brought a degree of financial precariousness. More importantly, it gave complete creative control.

Thus, by the time the Mrs Brown stage show became a phenomenon O’Carroll was utterly in command of his creation (it helped that his crew was staffed with friends and family members). Say what you like about the quality of the humour – but O’Carroll never compromised his vision and wasn’t obliged to ingratiate himself with the powers that be.

Brendan O'Carroll in 1996
Brendan O'Carroll in 1996 - rex

He had also been knocked about quite a bit by life. Though his mother was a Labour party politician, he grew up in stereotypically hard-knock circumstances in Finglas. He’d worked as waiter and milkman and even ran a pub before his partner in the business skipped the country. When the abscondee subsequently died a baffled O’Carroll was briefly questioned by police.

But the biggest setback was when, on the back of his Late Late Show fame, he produced a boxing movie called Sparrow’s Trap, to star Stephen Rea. Financing collapsed before production was completed and, with the film having accumulated debts of £1 million, O’Carroll was forced to declare bankruptcy. Every breakthrough he has since had – he is now said to be worth in excess of £10 million – must be seen in the context of that disaster.

The secret of Mrs Brown’s Boys appeal is a question that has stumped many. But there is no reason to tie oneself up in loops. The plain truth is that elbow-nudging and quips about bodily functions – O’Carroll’s stock in trade – can be relied upon to raise guffaws. A chaotic filming style, in which the live audience is encouraged to laugh at the flubs and misfires, merely adds to the hilarity.

Watching a preview of last year’s Christmas special I, for instance, found myself rolling my eyes but also – and feel free to judge – stifling the very occasional chuckle. Is it funny to confuse “mahogany” for “monogamy”? Probably not – but in a moment of weakness I threw my head back and groaned. A bad joke can be as effective as a good one, as O’Carroll has discovered with lucrative results.

It should be noted, too, that O’Carroll isn’t so much an Irish comedian as a Dublin one. The city has been historically more anglicised than any other part of the Republic – as anyone who has stepped into a pub in Blanchardstown or Kimmage to be greeted by a wall of Liverpool and Manchester United replica shirts will testify.

So it doesn’t take a huge leap to see how O’Carroll’s kitchen sink, fnar-fnar humour might chime in British regional cities (as Dublin essentially was until the early 20th century).  Mrs Brown’s Boys certainly has none of the relative exoticism of Father Ted or BBC3’s Young Offenders.

Indeed it is surely no coincidence that O’Carroll’s big break in the UK was in Glasgow, where his Mrs Brown stage show had its first success outside Ireland (and where the TV show is presently filmed). It was there that he was approached in 2009 by a BBC producer who thought Mrs Brown’s Boys might translate to television (RTÉ, having ignored him for years, later came on as co-producers). British comedy, it is fair to say, hasn’t recovered since.

Imagine if Jim Davidson or Del Boy-vintage David Jason were flown to New York and unveiled as the new host of the CBS Late Show following the departure of Stephen Colbert. That’s how the unstoppable rise in the UK of Mrs Brown appears in Ireland – flabbergasting and completely unnerving.

Advertisement