Mrs Brown’s Boys has been voted as the greatest sitcom of the 21st Century. Better than Peep Show. Funnier than The Inbetweeners. The masterpiece that is The Office came second to a show about a man in a dress who says “feck” a lot and which once featured a joke about a dildo being mistaken a for whisk. The poll was conducted by Radio Times and canvassed 14,000 people. Twitter is up in arms about it.
Such derision is nothing new for this unfairly maligned, genuinely great show. Critics have trashed the sitcom since it was first broadcast by the BBC in 2011, but that hasn’t stopped Mrs Brown selling millions of DVDs, achieving Christmas special ratings that trounced the Queen’s speech and winning Best Sitcom at the National Television Awards (a gong that, tellingly, was voted for by viewers rather than critics).
The adventures of the titular matriarch, played by 60-year-old Brendan O’Carroll, are not that adventurous: the 30-minute episodes take place in a shaky set made out to look like a traditional working class Irish home, and are filmed before a live studio audience. Mrs Brown’s sons, daughter and neighbours mill aimlessly about and she spends much of her time sparring with her father-in-law, Granddad (who sort of looks like John Prescott dressed as Rab C Nesbitt). It’s shamelessly sentimental and always centred around family. It’s like being sent back to 1975.
That cosiness is integral to the show’s appeal. Mrs Brown’s Boys harks back to a time in which families still live cheek-by-jowl, no one moves away, and you needn’t bother locking your door. There’s a sense of conviviality to the whole thing, which is no surprise when you learn that the cast is made up of O’Carroll’s friends and family (weirdly, his wife Jennifer plays his daughter Cathy), who have been performing these characters on stage for more than 20 years. Crucially, it’s telly for working class people, made by working class people. How often do you see that on the BBC?
You can tell that the cast is close. They improvise, and frequently crack each other up. And crucially, viewers are invited to share the joke with them. Mrs Brown breaks the fourth wall (“It’s just a man in a fecking dress!”) to directly address both the studio audience and us at home, reinforcing that sense of inclusivity. Our politicians are reptilian poshos and the company you work for is a faceless conglomerate that does not give a fuck about you. Yet here you can turn on your TV and enter Mrs Brown’s living room, where you feel the warmth of the central heating whacked up high, there’s always a cup of tea being made and you’re guaranteed a laugh. She also came out in favour of gay marriage before last years’ Irish referendum (62 percent voted yes), which is just fucking cool.
Despite the bawdy humour and copious swearing (which prevents the sentimentality from becoming too cloying), there’s an old school feeling to the slapstick and drag of Mrs Brown’s Boys. The last, third series of the show was broadcast in 2013, but there have been ratings-busting Christmas and New Year’s specials every year since. Personally, it reminds me of going to see the pantomime at Christmas with my family every year when I was a kid – something that doesn’t happen any more due to death and distance.
A recent live special concluded with O’Carroll stepping out of character to say: “If you ever feel lonely or a bit down, turn on the television and flick to comedy. From Dad’s Army to Fawlty Towers or Only Fools And Horses. We’ll be there – you can depend on that.” There’s no way Mrs Brown’s Boys is funnier than the biting comedy of Peep Show, The Inbetweeners or The Office, but it’s a much more soothing form of escapism, which is sometimes just what you need.