Mrs Brown’s Boys may be achieving surprising levels of success both in Ireland and the UK, but does this mark a cultural regression, asks Dermot O’Rourke
For a show that is remarkably reminiscent of the sitcom parody When the Whistle Blows in Ricky Gervais’ Extras, even down to the animated opening credits and poor critical reception, Mrs Brown’s Boys is something of a cultural phenomenon. The show has attracted such a large audience in the UK that it would seem it has been nothing short of a huge success for Irish programming and for the promotion of Ireland.
Not only has Brendan O’Carroll’s archetypical ‘Irish Mammy’ been a hit with Irish audiences, it has been one of our most successful cultural exports to Britain by being one of the most popular shows currently airing on the BBC. In fact, the Christmas special episode was on at primetime on RTÉ One on Christmas Day as well as primetime on BBC One on St. Stephen’s Day, where it attracted 6.61 million viewers. The second series has just begun on BBC One with audiences of over five million per episode and it has already been granted a third series.
The popularity of Mrs Brown’s Boys in Britain however, does prompt the question: in a time of true innovation in television programming, why has Mrs Brown’s Boys, an Irish show with a seemingly outdated television format and the broadest of comedic sensibilities, become one of the most popular programmes on British television? Is it that British audiences are nostalgic for the working-class family sitcoms of the sixties and seventies, and the sexual innuendo humour of the Carry On films in this time of post-Office sitcoms, or does the reason for its popularity lie at a deeper ideological level?
It is actually quite rare that an Irish television show achieves the mainstream success Mrs Brown’s Boys has had in Britain, much less commissioning by a British channel in the first place, which must draw us to the conclusion that this is good thing for Ireland, right? Well, no.
It is important to recognise that any Irish show on British television is portraying an Irish national identity for British consumption. In relation to Irish culture and Irishness there has, culturally and historically, existed the notion of a cultural ‘otherness’ in Britain in which British culture and Britishness is defined by what the Irish are not. For instance, if the Irish are Catholic, terrible at football and unruly, then the British are Protestant, good at football and civilised. What this means is that the Irish culture represented in Mrs Brown’s Boys beamed into British homes becomes a reference point by which British audiences characterise British culture and Britishness.
The format of Mrs Brown’s Boys is similar to the multi-camera setup performed in front of a studio audience preferred by working-class family sitcoms prevalent on British TV in the post-War era. It is a sitcom format that is old fashioned and thus signifies backward thinking for British audiences, a signifier which is mirrored by both the characters and plots themselves. The characters in Mrs Brown’s Boys are also portrayed as stereotypically happy-go-lucky, sexually immature and, often, overtly idiotic, all of which leads to quite an unflattering picture of Irish people as relatively backward and one that, by virtue of this representation of a cultural ‘other’, reaffirms a subtextual British colonial dominance for audiences.
This idea of British audiences enjoying the Irish portrayed in this negative light for reaffirmation of dominance is not new in Britain. It is interesting to note that the only two other Irish TV programmes to be picked up by British channels and achieve mainstream success – Father Ted and The Rubberbandits – have attracted multiple complaints for negative portrayals of Irish people (interestingly, most commonly from the British themselves).
Furthermore, the notion of colonial dominance can also be seen through the gender paradox of the character of Mrs Brown. It has been argued that, historically, British and European colonialism was congruent with Western sexual stereotypes and it meant that political and socio-economic dominance could be symbolised as the dominance of man and masculinity of the colonial power over the more passive female and femininity of the colonised country. Examples of this can actually be seen clearly in the work of Irish poets throughout the time of British rule who made references to Ireland as ‘her’, Irishness as something that is feminine, and most startlingly, that colonisation itself represented a violation.
Mrs Brown’s Boys, but more specifically Brendan O’Carroll as Mrs Brown herself, is an extension of this idea in modern times. O’Carroll dressing as a woman for his portrayal of our national identity for British audiences upholds this gender stereotype symbolisation and can be viewed as a feminisation of Ireland in the eyes of British audiences, and thus augments the subtextual colonial dominance.
Although arguably our most commercially successful cultural export of last year, to say that Mrs Brown’s Boys is a good thing for Irish television programming and, more pointedly, Irish culture, would be naive. It would ignore the issues that lie on a deeper ideological level and the fact that the show actually represents a regression in the projection of Irishness in Britain. Mrs Brown’s Boys good for Ireland? As Ricky Gervais in When the Whistle Blows would retort: “Are you ‘avin a laugh?”