Mrs Brown’s Boys is a curious beast. It’s based on trilogy of best-selling novels, the first of which was adapted as a film starring Angelica Huston as Agnes Browne. It was then adapted as a television series, which ran for seven series on Irish television. Yet this latest incarnation has been critically panned, despite being nominated for a BAFTA and consistently gaining viewer figures of more than two million. So is it as the bad as the critics say?
Mrs Brown’s Boys is about Agnes Brown (played by Brendan O’Carroll), a foul-mouthed Irish matriarch who devotes her life to interfering in the lives of her adult children and verbally abusing her 92-year-old father-in-law and ditzy best friend Winnie. The series has a very laissez-faire attitude to production, with quite a few outtakes being left in the finished programme, each episode opening and closing with a monologue from Agnes to the audience.
Many have derided the programme for being a drag show, with the Irish Times’ review of the first episode opining that “The whole thing is entirely predicated on viewers finding a man dressed as a foul-mouthed elderly woman intrinsically funny”.
The programme isn’t intended as a drag show. In an interview included on this DVD, Brendan O’Carroll states that the only reason he plays Agnes is that he couldn’t find anybody else who wanted to. Additionally, the fact that Agnes is played by a man is only referenced once in the whole series. Another thing that has led to people panning the show is the amount of swearing.
One of Agnes’s most prominent character traits is that she swears frequently. Actually, frequently is an understatement. Almost every other sentence has the word “fuck” or “feck” in it. At times it’s unnecessary and tiresome but Brendan O’Carroll pulls it off very well in most cases, and usually manages to inject it with the right amount of aggression or annoyance.
The critics taking issue with swearing uncovers quite an interesting double standard on their part – The Thick Of It has more swearing in it than pretty much anything on television, yet because it’s a niche, semi-improvised comedy on BBC Four, it’s praised to the hilt for containing so much swearing because it’s being gritty and raw, whereas Mrs Brown’s Boys is much more mainstream, and therefore derided as being lowbrow and idiotic for containing a lot of swearing.
But it’s not all swearing and knob gags. There are some great farcical moments, and some excellent character-based comedy along with a few light elements of satire. There’s also more pathos than you’d except in a mainstream BBC One sitcom, which helps to flesh out the characters a lot and make them more sympathetic.
The key to the programme’s success is Brendan O’Carroll himself. The rest of the cast (many of whom are members of O’Carroll’s family) are always the straight men, leaving it up to O’Carroll to pretty much carry the humour himself, whether through somewhat dry wit, profanity filled-outrage, or outrageous physical comedy. The scene that best illustrates this is the scene in episode six, where two Mormon missionaries make the mistake of paying Agnes a visit.
It’s not perfect, though. A lot of the humour is signposted far too clearly, such as the mix-up between a taser and a telephone in the first episode. And we’ve seen quite a few of the jokes crop up in some shape or form on television ad infinitum. Another negative is that, at times, the series seems to repeating itself. The “watch your fucking language in this house” joke is used twice in the series and is practically the same each time.
It may be something of a throwback to the sitcoms of the 1970s, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When they’re done well, farce and innuendo can be an excellent form of comedy. And Mrs Brown’s Boys pulls them off with real panache. And dated comedy isn’t really such a bad thing. With the hyper-realistic sitcom steadily being milked for all it’s worth, it’s refreshing to see a more traditional comedy with a lot of the clichés of sitcom’s earlier years. Mrs Brown’s Boys is a sitcom I’d highly recommend.
The DVD has a healthy array of bonus features including trailers, deleted and extended scenes, outtakes, an interview with Brendan O’Carroll, and the series’ pilot episode. There’s roughly an hour and a half of extras on the second disc, which certainly go some way to making the DVD worth its retail price.
The video and sound quality are naturally of high quality given that the series was filmed in HD, and the animated DVD menus are well constructed. The lack of subtitles on both the main feature and the extras will be an annoyance to some.
You can rent or buy Mrs Brown’s Boys at Blockbuster.co.uk.