Mrs Brown’s adventures in acting

by | Mar 18, 2020 | Actors, Commitment, Creativity, Inspiration, Writing | 0 comments

When Brendan was six his dad passed away and his mum, Maureen O’Carrol, had to bring up her 11 children with little money. Her attitude was, the only thing you can give your children is individuality and the confidence to accept the responsibility that goes with that. 

Brendan would get some wisdom from his Mammy every now and again like: 

‘if you have only enough money for two cups of coffee in a cafe, go into the best hotel and spend it on one. From the first you will leave full of coffee, from the second you will leave like a king.

Also: 

‘If you do something and it turns out good, you stand on the rooftops and you tell the world. But you’ve got to do the same if it goes pear shaped.’ 

And: 

‘Opportunity is a train that goes in a circle. And it keeps coming round. But it never stops. And the only way you can get on that train is to jump on it. But you can’t jump with a weight on your back. Whoever is with you will have to jump by themselves.’

Brendan was born in a crowd and he was determined to stand out and succeed. It might have come from being the youngest in the family, the need to have a voice. But he was dyslexic and didn’t know this till later in his life. He realised very early that he couldn’t learn the way others learned so he developed his own way of absorbing information ‘perspective thinking’. Little did he know that what he was doing would many years later be described as ‘thinking outside the box.’

Brendan’s creation stems from a school teacher named Billy Flood who made a point of getting him and his 9 year old classmates to read Treasure Island. Brendan being a dyslexic took a while to read it but loved it. Mr Flood had shown Brendan other worlds could exist in the imagination. He introduced him to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Brendan was mesmerised. The nine year old realised the power of invention, of creating wonderful characters and weaving life stories around them. His teacher had instilled the absolute importance of education, something Brendan hadn’t really experienced at home. 

After seeing a children’s play ‘It’s A Two Foot Six Inches Above The Ground World’ which depicted life from a kid’s perspective, where all the children played by adults, he was captivated. When the curtain came down he told his mother that’s what he wanted to do with his life. He found himself transported into another world. But it wasn’t just a place where his imagination could fly off to. He realised that the performers had this amazing power over someone like him. And this was incredible. He wanted some day to have that sort of power over an audience. 

Brendan tried to help to be the man of the house when his dad passed away and he got a job as a waiter which eventually got him trained at the intercontinental Hotel where he was in his element. 

He loved the life and didn’t expect there to be so many wondrous things to being a waiter, about the history of food, about culture, about artistry. It was creative and he loved it to bits. 

Brendan always believed that if you take a job on you should do it to the best of your ability. 

He didn’t see the job as simply serving people. For him it was a history lesson, it was about how the Ottomans introduced coffee to the West and colour of the Capuchin monks robes that gave cappuccino its name. It was about developing people skills. Brendan drank in the knowledge and loved looking after people. 

He worked hard and learned waiting skills. He learned that people eat with their eyes, that 80 per cent of eating pleasure is in the aesthetics, in the presentation. It’s a lesson he’s taken forward into comedy. 

What he learned as a waiter was that the customer wasn’t always right. But he was always the customer. And his job was to make sure their experience was the best he could make it. 

And so he learned to please people when it came to create Mrs Brown the stage show. He wrote gags, and there were times when the audience didn’t laugh. He’d try to stick with them because he believed they would work. And they wouldn’t, no matter how they were presented. He soon realised the audience is always right. The job is to please them, not your own ego. 

Brendan had the pleasure to see Cecil Sheridan perform at a cabaret where he was working as a waiter. Cecil was a parody master, a panto king and one of his stage characters was a larger than life Dublin woman. 

Cecil gave the young waiter an insight into what makes an audience laugh. He got to see how Cecil could take the nuances of a woman and create a character, but without playing her as outwardly feminine. And Brendan understood that a man playing a woman can get away with so much more than a female actress: there’s a licence to be cheeky that comes with drag – if done right. Cecil went on to explain that jokes didn’t work just because it was risqué, they worked because people recognised the truth in them. And to a certain degree it’s why Mrs Brown works because people recognise the essential truth in her. 

Brendan tried his hand at everything including farming, publishing, window cleaning just about anything that would keep him away from the dole queue. But he always made sure that whatever job he did he would do it to he’s upmost best. It came to a point that he got to serve Mrs Thatcher during her reign in government. He never sought to climb the catering ladder, despite his skills and popularity. All he thought about was how he was going to get up on the day and make someone’s day. 

He would never relax. He needed to be moving forward, trying out new schemes, new strategies. He was always driven. He would feel out of sync with the world until he realised it’s just the way he is. 

At the age of 35 Brendan took to the stage to do some stand up comedy and with the luck of the Irish he managed to find his flow. He just opened his mouth and it all came out like verbal diarrhoea, and people seemed to think it was funny. 

But he needed to find a venue he could consistently perform at so he rang a bloke who ran a pub and tried to sell him on the idea of doing comedy. After some negotiation the pub landlord agreed as long as he came up with a theme and Brendan came up with the idea of doing a Blind Date since the show was popular at that time. 

The next week he walked onto the stage and didn’t have a clue what he was going to do. He blindfolded a guy and chose three girls to come up on the stage and asked them questions. The responses from the questions weren’t getting the laughs from the audience and Brendan prayed to God to make him funny. But what was funny was the answer from one of the girls who was being honest with her answer in what she was looking for in a guy saying ‘I don’t give a fuck so long as he has a big, swinging Mickey.’ That brought the house down, but really what they were laughing at was the fact that this girl was herself, while the other two had been acting. 

This brought home an invaluable message to Brendan. Apart from being able to tell jokes and make the crowd laugh it was about being himself. And it made him think about honesty. Realising he’d spent years being someone else and he should finally try to be himself, just like that girl on stage. 

It eventually became like a drug, going on stage and being funny and Brendan began to tour and his name would pop up in newspapers and various outlets. But he knew he had to keep promoting himself in order to become a brand name in Ireland. Brendan hung around the RTE studio canteen just to be seen. Going along on Friday afternoons pretending to be working on imaginary scripts, hoping to make contacts, to be seen as an important player. 

Still in debt and owing money to the bank Brendan found out that his wife had breast cancer while still pregnant. While having Chemo therapy Brendan had to still gig to earn money for his family and before going on stage at night he’d cry. People would say to him ‘How can you go on stage and be funny for two hours every night?’ But the truth was that for those two hours he didn’t have a wife who was suffering from cancer. He didn’t have a child who was certain to die. This was his world that he had created, a world in which no one could touch him. And while on stage nothing would faze him. If anything, the tragedy at home concentrated his mind so he had to think hard about being funny. He was desperate to be funny, to forget about everything else. And it worked. And it also made him realise the importance of comedy, for the person who delivers it and for those who receive it. 

Brendan was soon invited to appear on Dublin’s radio station 2FM. The radio presenter Gareth O’Callaghan did the interview and after the show he told Brendan that they are looking for something to give the show a lift. As in a little mini soap, a sketch or two every day and would he have any ideas for a character? 

Brendan was a stand up comedian, he played pubs around Dublin, telling gags as part of a show but he wasn’t a writer. But being Brendan the opportunistic he told the DJ that he had a couple of ideas he’d been working on as it happens revealing that one of those was a Dublin housewife. A typical Dublin mammy. Gareth asked him how soon can he come up with a script since he’d like to start the series next week. Brendan told him that shouldn’t be a problem. 

Back at home his wife questioned him on how he could have the balls to fib to the radio station. After all Brendan was dyslexic. He’d never written anything longer than a shopping list. How could he dream up a radio series? That didn’t bother Brendan, he sat down with a pad and pen and the words came fast and furious. The dialogue was already in his mind.

How did he come up with the idea? Simple, he thought of the woman who’d made the most impact on him which was his Irish mother. The indomitable Maureen O’Carroll who’d renounced her vows in order to marry, and produce a family of eleven, who’d had to cope along when her husband died. The tough battle worn woman who worked all day in the worst of weather and always showed the best of spirits. What he didn’t realises was that the character of Agnes Brown was locked away in his head for years, just waiting for the day she would be let loose. She was the universal mother that everyone had, whether it was the Jewish Mama, the black mammy or the tough creature who’d kill to protect her kids. 

In later years, on stage and TV as Mrs Brown, he’d reveal his talent as an ad-libber, how he could react to a situation and throw in a great, unscripted line. 

Yet after Gareth the DJ handed the scripts to his producer at the radio station the producer decided it was ‘too urban’ which meant it was unbroadcastable. Brendan was gutted but he didn’t give up on the idea. Brendan tried to appeal to the producer but he wouldn’t budge. But when the producer went on holiday Gareth agreed to take the risk and broadcast Mrs Brown’s Boys in his boss’s absence. Would it work? 

Another problem they had that the actress who was meant to play Agnes fell sick and couldn’t turn up for the recording. The show had to go on or be pulled from the schedule. Brendan stepped in and said there’s an easy solution. He’ll play Agnes. It was Irish luck mixed with a streak of nerve. He managed to stretch his voice upwards and recorded the first episode with the idea he’d then go back to using the original actress that when the editor listened to the recording he couldn’t believe how good the woman was who played Agnes not realising it was Brendan all along. Which made Brendan decide to take on the roll completely. A negative had been turned into a positive. A disaster had been turned into an opportunity. And it was emblematic of the way Brendan used to live his life. 

When the sketch was released on air it was jammed with requests for repeats. The show became so popular that taxi drivers would stop at the taxi ranks at 4:25pm and wouldn’t take fares until the five minute episode was over. 

Brendan didn’t make money from the radio show because he had to pay for studio time but at the end of every show, the presenter would plug the upcoming gigs. 

However the demands of writing a daily show almost brought Brendan to tears. When he had to write something to go out five days a week it was tough. Sometimes he’d stare at a blank page and not know what to write. Brendan knew that he couldn’t go to bed until he had those five episodes written for the week. So by five a.m. he’d come up with the goods. He was learning it was all about the work. This was a real craft. 

Brendan always believed in the Moto ‘write what you know’ and he had an idea to put on a theatre play which was a completely new challenge. While making the announcement he avoided mentioning the name of the play or indeed the subject matter. Not because he was being coy, it was because he didn’t have a clue what it was going to be about. 

Having taken a PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) course in the past he decided to write a play about a group of losers who sign up for a PMA seminar. With this idea in mind he began to shape the structure into a play and came up with a cast of oddball characters. Having completed writing the play he submitted it to the Dublin Theatre festival and got rejected stating that it wasn’t up to the standard required by the festival. 

His friends and colleagues who weren’t exactly encouraging told him to accept the fact that the Theatre Festival people have been in this business a long time and that they know what they’re talking about. Having made the last finishing touches to the play and just a few weeks prior to the Festival Brendan was seriously considering throwing in the towel. 

Feeling dejected Brendan was asked to attend the World Boxing Championship were his friend Steve Collins was fighting Chris Eubank for the middleweight title. The audience expected Eubanks to clinch the title and while at the ringside Brendan was asked to go and sit next to the commentator and do a piece to the camera since Brendan boxed in the past and new a thing or two about the sport. As he was speaking to the commentator about the upcoming fight Brendan looked at the monitors and could see the fighters arrive. Staring at the screen he could see Steven’s face under the hood, the close up, and he could read his lips. And they were saying, ‘Still the champ. Still the champ…’ which is something Brendan told Steve earlier that as long as he is still standing, he is still the champ. And you don’t stop being the champ until the fight’s over. 

At that moment it dawned on Brendan that he is still the champ. After Steve Collins retained the world championship, Brendan flew back to Dublin and announced to the press that the play was still going ahead and he wasn’t going to let the public down. His thinking was ‘I’m still the champ and I can win here.’ 

He told the press that the play would play at a little Fringe Festival and some of his colleagues thought he was crazy to do so since the negative publicity could kill off the play from any chance of success. Turning a neggie into a possie he paid for every newspaper to advertise his show with the tag line: the play that Dublin Festival rejected. 

The newspapers loved Brendan’s sheer Chutzpah and ran riot with the story and soon enough he had the most talked about play ever to hit Dublin. During a series of radio interviews he mentioned how delighted he was that his play had been turned down and stressed that the Festival plays were for the elite – while his play ‘were for the people who liked a bag of crisps and a laugh.’

With his clever marketing strategy Brendan became the People’s Champion, the voice and soul of the little guy. The battle lines were drawn between working class Dublin and the middle class theatre establishment. 

Just before the play opened Brendan took the cast and crew aside and told them even if this is the greatest theatre disaster ever, this is the most high profile play in Irish history and no matter what happens, you are going to be part of it. The production though hadn’t even sold enough tickets to fill the front row of the 600 seat theatre. Brendan thought it was all over but they had to go on. Then a miracle happened, as he set off for the theatre in the evening before the performance he couldn’t get into the street since the queue outside the theatre was running all the way down the road. 

Dublin had turned out in droves to see his play. He had misread his audience. They weren’t all regular theatre goers. They were not people to buy tickets way in advance. They went along on the night. And so the cast performed the play to a sell out crowd. And when the final line was delivered and the lights went down, the biggest cheer Brendan had ever heard in his life went up. 

The play went on to run for an amazing sixteen weeks and word of mouth was incredible. And surprisingly enough the play took more at the box office than all the other Festival plays put together. The fact that the play was about Positive Mental Attitude gave the tale an added piquancy. 

Brendan was crowned. He had created unashamedly populist theatre that was funny and his subjects loved the fact that he was anti-establishment. Brendan was a rebel and a fighter. He didn’t negotiate. He hired non actors. He didn’t follow rules. Not consciously, it was just his way. And he couldn’t have cared less. 

Having done stand up, the radio series, written three plays, four novels, two screenplays and made four stand up videos, Brendan believes this was all the result of the dumbing down he’d imposed on himself. It was all inside, desperate to come out. He says ‘I’ve always been funny. That’s not a boast, it’s just a fact. People have always laughed at me. But it’s not talk, it’s attitude. It’s about making the leap. It’s about facing the sun, rather than turning your back and wondering why your face is full of frost. I think I’m lucky in that I’ve always seen possibilities, whether it’s trying to grow my own food on a farm or setting up a company to sell videos. The ideas don’t work out, but I’ve never been afraid of failure. Most people see the negatives as soon as they come up with an idea. I see the positives. And the ideas keep on appearing.’ 

Brendan went on to say: ‘People aren’t born to enjoy success. We’re programmed to hunt and then sleep. Success is an unnatural state. The problem with success is that some people can’t cope with it – and they also worry if they can hold onto it.’ 

Even though Brendan was getting the gigs he was still in the red when it came to paying his mortgages on the houses he owned and the huge company debt he had as well. But he believed in the old saying that God doesn’t give you a cross to bear that you can’t carry. And that life is preparing you for every little thing and rarely do you come across something that completely devastates you. You’ve had preparation for that somewhere along the line. 

One day he got a call from a theatre manager who wanted Brendan to fill in a three week spot at his theatre and asked him to write something up but Brendan didn’t know what the hell to write about. Looking back at what he succeeded in doing he decided to write a Mrs Brown play since that is what the audience knew and to a certain degree expected from him. So he thought about what would give the character a device, an obvious backdrop for tension and a wedding came to his mind. He wrote the play in four days since the characters were already in his head and he found the character of Mrs Brown easy to write. The reason being that he was writing about his own life. He was writing about his mammy. He was writing about the relationship between a mother and her kids. When Brendan came up with the storylines he only had to think about the confusion in his own house, of how his mother was so switched on, but couldn’t switch a fridge on. He only had to recall the wisdom, the philosophy of his mum and transpose it into another frame. He believed that his mammy was looking down on him as he battered away at the typewriter keys. And he loved writing about his world, his own world, which he could recreate in fictional form and basing the characters on people he’d known as a kid, taking elements of personality and amplifying them. 

After capturing Agnes’s voice on radio he was concerned about how he could possibly look like a 60 year old woman. He called up one of his friends and asked him to make him up as Mrs Browne but he wanted to make sure that there were no mirrors in the room since he didn’t want to see the transformation take place but wanted to see the complete, finished result. 

After being made up Brendan began to talk like Mrs Brown and as he talked he walked up towards a mirror looked up and said ‘Hello’ as she was standing there in front of him. He then knew this was going to work. 

When it came to the performance they didn’t have time for dress rehearsal and were so far behind with the technical rehearsals that when the lights went up for the very first scene, when the character of Mrs Brown walked onto the stage, it was the first time that the cast saw her. And Brendan’s Agnes was bang on the money. She looked like Maureen O’Carroll and she had many of her mannerisms. The Monday night audience bought into Brendan’s performance completely. His stage version of the character he’d created on radio was hilarious and the audience loved her from the moment she shuffled onto the stage. 

A newspaper review helped box office sales, but word of mouth was the major factor. By lunchtime on Tuesday, that night’s play was sold out. Having another hit on his hand Brendan was a little more subdued by the success this time round. He always came off stage feeling thankful that he’d gotten away with it, that they’d had a wonderful day. And then was their turn to take Mrs Brown on tour without the guarantee that it would be a success anywhere else. But Brendan always believed in taking a gamble. 

The great thing about working with Brendan was that he was like no other employer; you didn’t just join the cast, you became a member of the extended family. He always made sure to look after you. The cast would go to each other’s celebrations, to weddings, to birthdays. And after shows they’d go out and party together. Working with Brendan is like being part of an ongoing party because he has created this closeness, this sense of everyone belonging, that’s really unique. 

When Brendan’s second Agnes Brown play became a huge hit, it sold out in Dublin and did fantastic business in Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool. But Brendan made sure not to take success for granted and he made sure that every performance had to be special. He noticed that years ago with his first play after the second or third week, the actors had become really complacent. They knew their lines, they knew when they were supposed to speak and he noticed that they had a kind of glazed look in their eyes. 

To him comedy is like classical music. It has to be done with passion and, if it’s not, the audience will spot it. So on one night, to try and get them out of their glaze he asked one of them a question that wasn’t in the script. The actors stood there shocked but it worked. They didn’t relax on stage again. And that’s why he will suddenly ad lib in the middle of a play in order to keep everyone on their toes. 

Soon he realised it’s only funny if the audience are in on it as well – because they are paying. So what he’d try to do is keep the play fresh by introducing little bits every night that nobody has seen before. Like one night his character will break into a song and dance routine as she makes her way around the living room and neither the cast, nor the audience, know it’s coming. 

Brendan knew that his comedy act was like a shark; it had to keep moving or it would die. He tried to expand his fan base in Edinburgh after it’s success in Scotland but it didn’t have the same earthy, working class audience as some of the northern parts of England they’d been performing at. Some cities simply didn’t see Agnes as one of their own. The inability to spread the gospel according to Agnes especially in the south of England and Wales was worrying. Brendan needed to find someone who had the power that be and could take it on to the next level. 

As luck would have it Brendan had a writer and a creator of the BBC come to see his show which he loved very much. Of course knowing the BBC’s bureaucratic standards it had to go through various producers and levels in order to get approval for it to become a full fledged sitcom. After jumping through several hoops a pilot episode was to be written first and it’s a known fact that TV produces more pilots than British Airways, and most don’t make the airwaves. 

A problem Brendan had was to reduce his three hours of stage madness into 30 minutes of small screen hilarity. Plus he wanted to use his original stage cast who were mostly his family members or people he worked with for years while the BBC said it would only go ahead if he agreed to having cast real actors. Brendan stood his ground with determination and the Beeb backed down. 

Once the pilot got the green light Brendan still had to write the bloody script. Weeks turned into months and he couldn’t manage to get it right. While one of his BBC producer friends tried to keep the BBC bosses onside, Brendan took off to Florida to write and try and find a format that worked. He found it quite hard since he wanted to capture the atmosphere he had in the theatre but just didn’t know how to do it in the sitcom. He wanted to somehow capture the spontaneity, the energy that made Mrs Brown work in theatre. But how? 

Then he had his eureka moment. He decided he was going to film as if it were a live theatre play. That way, the audience at home will get the atmosphere of the gigs. He wasn’t going to try to convince the audience they’re in someone’s living room, he was going to let them in on the joke, let them see that he’s filming a show. They were going to film it live and they were going to let them see the mistakes, the cameras, the lot. 

But he’d first have to convince a whole bunch of BBC execs and producers that this could work. The BBC bosses had another concern. Would British and Irish viewers accept the locker room language? But Brendan dug his heels in. He said ‘If Agnes Brown says twenty pounds or twenty fecking pounds, does it matter? There are much worse words than feck. Plus, she’s the only person in the show who swears. Agnes Brown wouldn’t allow anyone else to swear.’ 

With the pilot script completed, Brendan’s producer fought hard to get clearance for a show that used the F-word 34 times in the 30min episode. But would the concept, the swearing, the crudeness, the fourth wall breaking idea work? 

Thankfully the series got the green light and the producers managed to convince the BBC to film a 6 part series instead of just a pilot. When the first show was broadcast the audience reaction was positive while some newspaper critics really came down hard on the show. But Brendan couldn’t care less what the reviews were like. He stated that he only writes what makes him laugh. And as a writer you hope the audience would agree. And the audience did agree. The numbers eventually swelled that by the end of the year it had achieved more than 6 million viewers plus the show was nominated for a BAFTA on that year and the year after that. And yes, it did win for the most prestigious prize in British television, for best situation comedy. 

Mrs Brown’s Boys became one of the biggest sitcoms of the 21st Century, yet its comic roots are in variety and 60’s sitcoms. And while modern media demands slick and sophisticated, Mrs Brown is rude, crude and lewd. Why do we laugh when we shouldn’t? 

Brendan took the time to appreciate how far he’d come, from rags to riches in the form of movie deals, to losing the lot, and now to building a Mrs Brown empire. He never had a grand plan. There have been things that have happened to him and that he thought it was the end of the world, but then he’d discovered it was meant to be. Everything happens for a reason. And he guesses his writing comes from these sorts of experiences. 

Brendan had developed his own philosophy on life, part Buddihst, part Zen, he had come to believe life was pretty much mapped out, but if you get a signpost you should follow it. And if you have a negative experience, try your hardest to see the positive in it. 

If he had some regrets, it was having spent so many years trying to be a great waiter or a great cleaner. What he should have done is try sooner to become a great comedian. That’s why he encourages his kids and friends to follow the path they feel they are pulled to. therein, happiness lies. 

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