Ask Brendan O’Carroll why his alter ego Agnes Brown is a worldwide hit, and his reply is, “I have no idea.”
Actually, what he really says is, “I have no f-----g idea,” but because the Weekly is a family website, and because this story would be twice as long with the expletives included, we’re editing out some of his rather descriptive terminology.
Brendan has a fondness for colourful language, much like the irascible Agnes, the character he plays in Mrs Brown’s Boys, the TV show he created.
He seems to have a permanent twinkle in his eye, which isn’t surprising – he has a lot to be happy about.
The genial Irishman’s show is a huge hit, but he seems quite mystified by its popularity.
“People say to me, ‘You are so clever, getting all of that together’. I didn’t have a plan, it happened the way it happened.” Brendan (60) rarely gives interviews these days, but he’s happy to chat about how Agnes changed his life before bringing stage show Good Mourning Mrs Brown to New Zealand.
He‘d never have believed when he left school at 12 to be a waiter, that he’d end up travelling the world playing a grumpy old woman. After stints cleaning windows and running a pub, he became a successful stand-up comic. During an interview, a radio presenter mentioned wanting funny items for his show. Brendan lied and said he happened to be writing a daily soap opera.
“He said, ‘What is it about?’ I was genuinely waffling off the top of my head: ‘It’s a widow, a mother, grown kids, she treats them all like they’re five years of age and she’s interfering...’ I was just making it up as I went along.”
Brendan wrote a script and roped in everybody he knew to act, including friends and family. The actress hired to play Mrs Brown was ill on recording day, so Brendan voiced her lines, planning on dubbing in her voice later. He got such positive feedback about how he played the character that he decided to keep voicing her.
The radio show was a hit, and Brendon thought he couldn’t put a foot wrong. However, his plans to turn a play he’d written into a movie went belly-up and he found himself nearly $4m in debt.
Desperate to make some cash, he turned Mrs Brown’s Boys into a stage show. The initial three-week run became 16 weeks, and he went on to write several more Mrs Brown’s Boys shows, which led to the BBC commissioning a TV series.
Brendan insisted on using his existing cast for the TV show. Nepotism doesn’t worry him – his son Danny and daughter-in-law Amanda Woods, daughter Fiona and son-in-law Martin Delany, sister Eilish and wife Jenny Gibney all act in the show, and another son, Eric, does the video mixing. His publicist Rory Cowan plays his son Rory, his former roadie, Pat Shields, is another son Mark, and pal Dermot O’Neill, an ex-window cleaner, is Granddad.
Only Jenny, Brendan’s second wife, is a trained actress. After hiring her for an earlier play he wrote, he nearly fired her for taking her job so seriously.
“Oh God, she was a frosty b---h, she really was,” he recalls. “I thought I had made a huge mistake hiring her.”
Eventually they bonded over cryptic crossword puzzles and fell in love.
“She’s still a b---h,” he announces cheerfully. “We don’t fight, we go to war. But we’re head over heels.”
Jenny keeps the cast on track on stage when Brendan ad-libs and has them cracking up. He does it to keep them on their toes, and will ask them to do something unscripted, like sing or dance.
Rory (56), who used to do publicity for bands like Queen before working for Brendan, is often on the receiving end of Brendan’s impromptu rants or requests, because he loses it easily.
“When Mrs Brown goes off on one, I’m sitting right beside her. I start laughing and I have to keep saying to myself, ‘Rory, you’re in the show, you’re not at the show’.”
The cast travels together, accompanied by nine children under nine, three nannies and a chef. Like any family, they have disagreements, but don’t let them interfere with the show.
“We’re not the Waltons, but we never take it on stage,” says Brendan. “Once you get on stage everything just dissipates and you think what are we arguing about?”
During a show, he doesn’t see his family and friends but the characters they play. Likewise, they see him as Mrs Brown. He doesn’t regard himself as a drag act.
“I don’t ever think about me as a man playing a woman. I think about Mrs Brown as a woman.”
It takes just five minutes for him to get in costume – it’d be quicker if it wasn’t for the tights. “I hate them. I don’t know why you bother.”
Although he wants to turn another play he’s written into a TV series, he thinks he’ll be wrestling to get into Mrs Brown’s tights for years to come.
“I will keep playing her as long as they keep paying me. I would be very happy if one night Mrs Brown topples over, everybody laughs, the curtain closes and that’s the end, and they bury me in that wig. I’m not stopping until I absolutely have to.”
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