A passionate defence of Mrs Brown's Boys

Katie Byrne
Photo credit: Alan Peebles - BBC

From Digital Spy

The name Agnes Brown is synonymous with many things, few of them positive.

Agnes, a late-middle-aged lady from a rural village in Ireland, is the protagonist and all-knowing narrator of BBC One's Mrs Brown's Boys. It's a comedy best described as 'saucy', filled with nudge-nudge moments and knowing gazes from Mrs B herself, who doubles as cackling-and-cursing lead and audience confidante in the moderately-paced and thoroughly bawdy world of the Brown clan.

Filmed largely in front of a live audience – you can practically see the 'APPLAUSE' sign reflected in Agnes' round spectacles – it's a classic sitcom: smutty, silly and entirely divisive. You either love it or loathe it – there's no in-between stance and critical opinion tends to sway towards the latter.

Photo credit: BBC/Alan Peebles

Yet despite the protestations it elicits – this is, after all, the TV show that the Irish Independent described as making 'you feel vaguely embarrassed to be Irish' – it's a consistent hit. There are two new specials this season, including one on Christmas Day – and BBC1 doesn't hand those things out like Smarties.

You want to know why it's so huge? We can explain, because we quite like Mrs Brown's Boys. Go ahead, say it with us. "I enjoy watching Mrs Brown's Boys." Doesn't that feel liberating?

Truth be told – and no matter how on-trend or cool it is to dismiss this show with any one of a million negative adjectives – it's actually a gem. A gem! It plays up to its reputation and owns the 'trashy telly' label that it's branded it with. It can be tacky and tasteless, yet it's also sweet, smart and carefully created. Hits on this scale don't happen by accident.

Photo credit: BBC

The beauty behind Mrs Brown's Boys is as simple as some of the jokes: it's fun. It's arguably a much harder to create a TV show that verges on the idiotic yet captures hearts and minds year after year than it is to create something serious and worthy. Because let's be honest: there's not always a lot of fun in some of the other television we choose to watch.

Sure, you might not feel as sophisticated and worldly watching Mrs Brown's Boys as you might had you strapped in for the latest Scandi-noir drama on Sky or Netflix true-crime docu-series. But does everything we watch need to make us feel smug? (Because 'smug' is the only word that can really describe the feeling of being able to say you sat through all three-plus hours of The Irishman, no?)

Mrs Brown's Boys is also quite extraordinary in that it's a family-made creation. Brendan O'Carroll, who stars as inimitable 'mammy' Agnes (his drag persona), has created a cast that largely comprises his own family: sons, daughters, in-laws and so on have all hopped on stage to play various members of the Brown clan.

Photo credit: BBC

There's a poignant symbolism behind O'Carroll's career in comedy as a whole – he reportedly first dipped a toe in it as a child in a bid to make his heartbroken mother laugh again after the death of his father. He returned to the theme of a bereaved matriarch in his hit books about 'The Mammy' (which were adapted as a movie starring Anjelica Huston, let's not forget, so stick that up your culture-pipe, snobs).

The family feel pervades everything about the show. From the small-town setting to the floral wallpaper and slapstick humour (that extends to the production team being roped into the stage performance), there's something nostalgic and comforting about Mrs Brown's Boys. The mundanity of the plotlines – entwined with sparkling one-liners and moments of flooring profundity – combine to make it easy viewing. It's a comfort blanket, something you can dip in or out of without needing to catch up or remind yourself of the previous episode.

It is, of course, easier to knock such a show than to champion it. 'The worst comedy ever made!' boomed a Guardian critic a few years after it first hit screens. Yet equally, this is the TV show that the Queen reportedly requests advanced copies of because she's a fan.

Photo credit: Alan Peebles - BBC

So much of modern viewing is serious: earnest or educational or verging on pious. Mrs B is an antidote to the heaviness, striking a balance between the idiotic and the important and making statements about everything from gay marriage to loneliness.

And, of course, all that aside: the stats don't lie. Since its UK debut on January 1 2011, Mrs Brown's Boys has consistently been one of the most-viewed shows on the BBC, with series after series renewed and millions of viewers tuning in for each episode (nine million tuned in for the 2017 special).

It's also exceptional in that it works in many ways: TV aside, it's also been delightedly received around the world (because yes, this is a global phenomenon, with viewers in book format, on stage, on radio, in cinema… In fact, it even has its own board game. Need we say more?

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