Saturday, 12 July 2014

Convert to Mrs Brown

          I gather that some very harsh and snooty things have been
Brenden O'Carroll as Mrs. Brown...
said about Brenden O'Carroll's comedy, Mrs. Brown's Boys.

          Grace Dent of The Independent, a woman whose views I usually find sound (that is, she agrees with me), said, '...To love Mrs Brown, one must be thrilled by a man in a hairnet and dinner lady tabard saying the F-word roughly once every ten minutes...'  Paul English, in The Daily Record, called it, '...lazy, end-of-pier trash rooted in the 1970s...' and said that it made him angry to see the BBC dropping standards so far. Even The Irish Independent said that it made them embarrassed to be Irish. Ouch.
          I usually give any new comedy a look, but I passed on Mrs. Brown when it was first shown in England - mostly because Mrs. Brown was played by a man in a dress and I had traumatic memories of Dick Emery. I couldn't stand the man.
          Then I read a blog in the Guardian, which I can't find now, or I'd link to it. It said that Mrs. Brown's Boys was an odd mixture of old-fashioned and new - that it played more daring tricks with breaking 'the fourth wall' than almost anything else on TV, and was far better than the critics admitted. So I thought I'd give it a go after all.
...and as himself.
        And I'm a convert to Mrs. Brown. It regularly makes me laugh out loud when I'm sitting by myself.
          Yes, what we have to call 'the F-word' flies around freely, but I don't care about that. I use it pretty frequently myself. (It's obviously news to some critics that women can and do eff and blind.) What I like about the programme is that it's bloody funny.
          Something that immediately struck me when I first watched it is, that if I hadn't already known Mrs. Brown was played by a man, I wouldn't have realised it - because Brenden O'Carroll makes an entirely convincing elderly woman. Indeed, I was recently talking with a (male) friend who had seen a couple of episodes, and I had a hard time convincing him that Mrs. Brown was, in fact, played by a man. He kept saying, 'Are you sure? Are you sure it's not an actress?'
          O'Carroll's Mrs. Brown is not a 1970s caricature of femininity, with an large dollop of 1970s contempt and dislike. Mrs. Brown smokes, drinks, speaks in a throaty voice, and swears a lot - but any critic who hasn't known an elderly woman like that has led a very sheltered life. The character is said to be based on O'Carroll's own mother, a working class Labour Party TD, of whom he seems to be proud, and with good reason. O'Carroll plays her as larger than life, but she's the engine of the plot, not the butt of the jokes. She is nosy, bossy, managing - but also sharp, shrewd, knowing, loving and intelligent.
          There was a touching moment when, anxious about one of her grown children, Mrs. Brown turned to the camera and said, "Oh, that's what it's like being a mother. No matter how old they grow, you never stop worrying about them." The live audience all went, "Aaaah." Whereupon Mrs. Brown glared at them and, indicating herself with a sweep of her hands, snapped, "It's a man in a f***k*** frock!" I fell about.
          The set is, at once, a realistic small house and an obvious set, where the actors and camera interact to play jokes. The phone in the living-room keeps ringing and cutting off before Mrs. Brown can reach it. So she sidles in and out of the door between the kitchen and living room, daring it to ring and trying to catch it out.
          The camera, trying to stay on her, swings between the two rooms, passing 'through' the dividing wall each time. But like two people trying to dodge each other in a doorway and always getting in each other's way, Mrs. Brown always manages to be on the other side of the wall from the camera. She and it play hide-and-seek for several seconds.
          If we had simply watched her bobbing in and out of the doorway, daring the phone to ring, it would have been funny - we've all done something like that. But the surrealism of the camera passing through a wall and never being able to catch her, adds another dimension of comedy.
          In another instance, Mrs. Brown has gone to the pub, but discovers that she's left her handbag at home. So she jumps up and - followed by the camera - runs across the sets, jumping cables  and saying hello to sound-men - to fetch her handbag.
          In every episode, Mrs. Brown addresses the audience directly several times, as if we were other visitors to her kitchen. The other actors, too - many of whom are O'Carroll's family - will suddenly drop out of character and make comments on each other's lives, or earlier filming mistakes. They frequently corpse, and when they do, the rest of the cast will mercilessly draw attention to the fact.
           So it's both a TV sit-com, and a stage performance - and also an obvious, admitted pretence. The actors are both the characters they're playing and themselves. And - did I mention? - it's also bloody funny.
          And that 'man in drag' matter again. Why, some superior critic asked, do women of a certain age find a man dressed up as a woman so funny? - The question asked with the clear implication that they showed a sad lack of taste by doing so.
          Well, here's my take on it. Women, especially younger women, are required to pretend they're something they're not for most of their lives. They're supposed to be slim, and dainty, so they deny themselves and diet. They're supposed to be hairless, except on their heads, so they shave and wax. They're not supposed to get old, so they use make-up and wrinkle-creams and dye their hair. Drinking, smoking and swearing are all supposed to be 'un-ladylike', even today, or there wouldn't be so much tabloid hoopla about it. After all, drunken men have been fighting and urinating in the streets since there were streets, but the Mail and Telegraph rarely make much of fuss about it.
          But the 'man in drag' act - especially when the woman portrayed is like Agnes Brown - admits a great truth. Woman are much the same as men. We're just as clumsy, graceless and stolid. Many of us are overweight. We are, naturally, almost as hairy. We drink and burp, and smoke and swear. We make filthy jokes and think filthy thoughts. Not every dear old granny smells of baking and lilac, or wants to.
          Part of the laughter, I think, is a celebration of this simple truth, a great outbreak of relief.
          And then, again - the old ones are best. What's wrong with an old joke? It made my grandparents laugh in the music-hall - it makes me laugh now.
          Mrs Brown's Boys = Bloody Funny.


JO said...

The next step - when real older women are seen to be funny, when we can laugh with them and not at them. Intake your point about Mrs Brown's Boys - but we're still a long way from older women being treated respectfully in the media.

madwippitt said...

Oh alright, I 'll give it another try. It left me cold the first time I saw it, but maybe I should try watching from the start of the programme instead of crashing in halfway through ...

Susan Price said...

I agree, Jo. Even while writing this, I wondered whether the series would be so popular if Mrs. Brown was played,equally well or even better,by an actress.

I'd like to see a more mainstream return of 'the drag kings' too - women who played, and guyed, men. They were popular in the music-hall era, but apart from a few brief - and very funny sketches - by French and Saunders, they seem to have vanished, though the drag-queen is still with us - and she's welcome. I'd just like to laugh at her consort too.

Anonymous said...

I am a passing fan of the program, and I do love a well crafted oneliner. Such as when one of Mrs Browns sons is feeling unworthy on the eve of his wedding and asks his mother,
'Ma, what did you hope i'd be when i was born?'
to which his distracted and harrassed mother replies 'your fathers'

Susan Price said...

Hello again, Blot!
I agree, the show is full of cracking one-liners - some old and cheesy, but I don't care. It's full of that crushing, down-to-earth refusal to indulge in any faff too. 'What did you hope I'd be?' recieves the flattest, most brutally pessimistic reply - 'your father's.' Don't come round here with this fancy talk, mate.