When the first series of Mrs Brown’s Boys aired on BBC1 in 2011, I disliked it on more levels than any comedy programme I’ve ever seen. It was as though 30 years of alternative comedy had never happened. All those battles we fought in the 1980s: for this?
It wasn’t just the racism, ancient Oirish stereotypes, misogyny, old jokes, inexplicable breaking of the fourth wall to reveal cameras and audience - although none of that helped. It wasn’t even the more modern jokes, lifted word-for-word from living comics, or that the characters said ‘feck’ - the word appropriated by ‘Father Ted’ that works as a perfect substitute for ‘fuck’ and is funny too – but then they ALSO said ‘fuck’, thereby rendering the comedy of ‘feck’ immediately redundant.
What irritated me beyond these, was that if sitcom is about anything at all then it’s about character, and here was a show being touted as sitcom in which there were no characters. Instead there were half a dozen straight men and women whose only role was to feed joke set-ups to Mrs Brown (Brendan O’Carroll dressed as a woman), who then delivered all the punchlines to those expertly borrowed old gags.
So finally, I have to admit, here’s what annoyed me more than anything about Mrs Brown’s Boys: the show was a hit. Instant. And it still is. How dare something I dislike so much become so popular!
The show became massively successful almost overnight. Before the return of Miranda, it quickly established itself as the most watched BBC sitcom in years, regularly attracting six or seven million viewers, and it wasn’t even in the family audience slot where most recent hits like Only Fools And Horses and My Family had risen steadily through several series.
This is not a rant against broad, hugely popular, studio-based comedy. I don’t share the inverse snobbery of many writers and comedians who equate ‘popular’ with ‘rubbish’. Performers who say they’d prefer a smaller audience who totally ‘get’ what they do over a larger less discerning crowd always sound to me like they’re making excuses in advance of knowing their type of humour will never play big and broad.
Having grown up watching and loving Steptoe and Son, Tommy Cooper, Dad’s Army and Morecambe and Wise with my parents, shows regularly viewed by audiences of ten million and more, and then as an adult the massively popular American sitcoms like Seinfeld and Frasier, I’ve never felt any shame in aspiring to write big audience comedy for big comedy audiences.
Also, I don’t have a problem with sitcoms that lack an original premise. Mrs Brown’s Boys may well be an Irish rip-off of the 80s Liverpool sitcom Bread, another show I won’t be collecting in box set form. But then Peep Show, one of my favourite sitcoms of the last decade, also borrows its central premise from many shows before it: two blokes who were once mates no longer have anything in common, apart from the flat they share.
I know taste is subjective, people like different things, and I shouldn’t let it get to me: but I teach sitcom writing with James Cary (@sitcomgeek), and Mrs Brown’s Boys does the opposite of everything sitcom writers are supposed to do: ‘Before you start writing, think about your characters, why are we watching them, what is their flaw? What is the main character’s goal, how is it thwarted, not just by other characters but him or herself? And make sure you write plenty of jokes.’ How should I react the day a student arrives at our class full of optimism and enthusiasm for comedy, then says ‘I’ve been inspired to write sitcom by watching Mrs Brown’s Boys’?
A part of me would want to say: ‘Go away, there’s nothing I can tell you. Or stay, listen to our suggestions and advice, then do the opposite.’ I’d love to carry on as if the show had never happened, continue to live in my own happy little bubble where the most popular TV shows are also the best – or assume that everyone else is stupid, they don’t know what’s good for them, they’ll watch any old crap and if they can’t be bothered to work a little to get the comedy then that’s their problem. Who needs ‘em?
But that’s no longer an option. If I’m supposed to be teaching people how to write successful sitcoms then even though I’m never going to love Mrs Brown, I at least need to spend a few moments inside the minds of people who do.
So what is the reason for the show’s enormous popularity? I understand there will always be an audience for hoary old jokes, men dressing up as women and people falling over, but I don’t think that’s the general appeal. Forcing myself to sit through another episode, I came to accept that maybe I was wrong in one respect, and that it is indeed character that lies at its heart.
‘Character’, with regard to sitcom, usually refers to a person, or couple of people, whose personalities make them act in a way that will always get them into difficulties, and who never learn from their mistakes. Most books, TV dramas and movies involve characters going on a physical and emotional journey, reacting to events around them, then learning and becoming better people by the end. Sitcom, which is much more like real life, is populated by characters who never change, and whose only journey is back to where they were at the start of the episode, ready to try and to fail again.
Memorable characters stay with us for years after the shows finish their run – Basil Fawlty, George Costanza, Edina and Patsy, Father Ted. Not likeable, the opposite in some cases, but so well created and performed that we learn to love them. And in the best sitcoms, even the supporting characters have comic traits that draw us back to them week in week out.
The current series of Mrs Brown’s Boys appears to have taken on board some of the more obvious criticisms anyone would expect to be levelled at a show made with taxpayers’ money. The overt racism, for instance, seems to have gone, and this time round I didn’t recognise a single uncredited Joan Rivers line. I also noticed that some of the other characters are now being allowed to deliver more than just feed lines to Mrs Brown - although without being able to borrow good jokes from living comics, the majority of their gags pre-dated music hall. The show still does nothing for me, and the only time I laughed through the entire half-hour was at a trailer for David Attenborough’s Africa programme that came on after it had finished.
But when something is massively successful regardless, it means there must be an element to it that resonates beyond its mere existence as a TV show. Mrs Brown’s character, or rather the part that s/he plays, of the put-upon matriarch with no control over her wayward (feckless? I wish they were) sons, is a familiar figure on TV. Jean Boht played the same character in Bread, and Barbara Windsor had a similar role in EastEnders.
Older women complain – and with good reason – that they are massively under-represented on TV, and, beyond TV’s obsession with ‘yoof’, this may have something to do with the fact that so many older women lead anonymous lives, looking after their young families, or left at home to care for elderly relatives.
Leaving aside that it isn’t even a woman playing the part (and I won’t dwell on the fact that one of the ‘Boys’ is a daughter, played by Brendan O’Carroll’s real life wife, partly because there’s something a little creepy about every fact in that sentence), this character of the helpless but lovable mum speaks to millions of viewers.
I began to wonder what my own mother would have thought about Mrs Brown’s Boys had she still been alive. My mum and I always had similar tastes in comedy, but the one show I had no time for which she loved was Bread. ‘I identify with the mum character’, was her explanation.
At the time, I struggled to see what my middle-class Jewish mother had in common with a working class Scouser who appeared to be the hard-done-by matriarch presiding over the lives of a dozen or so stereotypically workshy scallywags.
But watching Mrs Brown’s Boys made me think again about the stuff we put our mums through. Bread was a huge hit in the early Eighties, just around the time my own mum’s nice middle-class son was jacking in a perfectly respectable career as a journalist to try and become a stand-up comedian.
Even though she would have preferred me to take a law degree, settle down in Leeds and start a nice Jewish family, she remained supportive of my absurd career for the rest of her life. If only you could see me now, mum - writing articles for a comedy website about you and your love of Bread. I’m living the dream, ma, top of the world.
Actually now I think of it, if my mum had been around to see this article, she would probably have said: ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about son. Mrs Brown’s Boys is funny because it’s about a man in a dress falling over. Now quit moaning about someone else’s success and go and write your own.’