Nothing in TV reviewing is more obvious than the Mrs Brown’s Boys takedown. No series better represents the perceived gap between critics, who have poked, mocked and abused Brendan O’Carroll‘s drag sitcom since it first aired in 2011, and the fans, who have lapped it up in droves up and dismiss the bad reviews as humbug. The programme’s previous Christmas specials have been watched by around nine million people, and a similar number will doubtless watch this one, many of them awake and facing the right way. It seems especially popular with old people, who don’t mind its hoary old humour. This is Brexit TV, a programme that puts two fingers up to the snooty metropolitan elite and appeals to viewers with fond memories of the early 1970s, who feel left behind by fayncy high-falutin comedy out of that London.
It is not that Mrs Brown’s Boys doesn’t have any jokes. Measured by gags per minute, it is one of the most frenetic around. It’s that so few of them are funny. This latest edition is 40-odd minutes of sweepings from the cracker-factory floor, delivered with all the subtlety of a 10-year-old in a nativity play. Sample:
“I did listen to my heart.”
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“What did it say?”
“Boom boom, boom boom.”
The plot of this episode, one of two festive specials, is a straight riff on It’s a Wonderful Life. O’Carroll’s cardigan-clad, foul-mouthed matriarch Agnes Browne has infuriated her friends and family with her rudeness and meddling. She wonders aloud whether it would be better if she had never been born, whereupon she’s visited by Clyde (Kevin Kennedy, mainly seen in Coronation Street), who says he is an angel and is going to show her what life would be like if the wish was granted. High-jinks ensue as Agnes meets the same friends and family, except they have no recollection of who she is, and have jobs and lives.
The cast, many of whom are O’Carroll’s own relatives and friends, have an obvious camaraderie. Together with the studio audience, who whoop and cheer and boo at every gurn or arrival, it creates the feeling of an in-joke you are not in on, as if everyone else has taken a mysterious drug an hour before you arrived. Especially well received are the moments where Agnes breaks the fourth wall and the machinery of the set is revealed, or drops a gruff, masculine “f***” amid her grandmotherly ditherings.
Maybe it’s churlish to complain about this comedy that gives joy to so many, and after all is little more than panto. But there is so much confidence and craft to the entertainment, such faith in even its weakest wordplay, as when Agnes leaves “master baker” hanging in the air, to general corpsing. O’Carroll has a rare command of his audience, and you can’t help but wonder what he might achieve if he was more rigorous with his material, or if he was granted a more discerning crowd.