'It's a Man in a F***ing Dress'-Why 11 Million People Cannot Get Enough of Mrs Brown's Boys

By Fagan, John | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

'It's a Man in a F***ing Dress'-Why 11 Million People Cannot Get Enough of Mrs Brown's Boys


Fagan, John, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


It's a big, silly, thick show--part pantomime, part It's-a-Knockout, part 1980's sitcom Bread, part CBeebies. It's the show that the BBC have been dying to commission for years, but couldn't find anyone from their usual flock of writers who'd turn in anything as knowingly base (Dent 2012).

With its emphasis on profanity, drag, vulgar sexual humour, physical clowning and sentimental family values, Mrs Brown's Boys (2011-) is a show that unashamedly taps into an end-of-the-pier comedy tradition and the un-pc aesthetics of 1970s/80s sitcom. It's also a sitcom that demonstrates a knowing awareness of the aesthetics of the sitcom form, relentlessly breaking the fourth wall for comic effect. A massive hit, this tale of a working class 'blue' comic in a dress, tending to her brood has secured audiences (and audience numbers, 11 million at Christmas 2013) that the BBC haven't seen since the heyday of Only Fools and Horses (BBC 1 1981-2003). It's a show that, as evidenced by TV critic Grace Dent's comments, has been reviled by many UK and Irish critics, affronted (or baffled) by the appeal of its supposedly 'low' comedy

of drag, incessant use of the F-word and throwback 1970s comic sensibilities. Indeed editorials in previous years of this review have repeatedly speculated as to the nature of the show's extraordinary popularity. In this piece the attempt to identify the appeal of the show primarily considers how the show emotionally, culturally and aesthetically connects its audience to its comedy.

The 'Forgotten' Audience

One challenge to exploring Mrs Brown's Boys audience is the remarkable absence of research on the specific make-up and character of its viewership (and, as Freidman et al, note on comedy audiences in general, 'a woefully under-researched area' (2011: 123)) so discussion here must be speculative. However, as Danny Cohen, BBC 1 controller in 2011 noted, Mrs Brown's Boys ' audience is one that had gone 'missing' in recent years, it's working class roots and sensibilities largely absent from mainstream BBC television comedy, ignored in favour of a preponderance of middle class sitcoms (My Family BBC 1 2000-11, Outnumbered BBC 1 2007 ongoing etc.) (Friedman et al 2011).

It was this 'forgotten' TV audience that Mrs Brown's Boys soon-to-be producer, Stephen McCrum, rediscovered when he attended the stage version of O'Carroll's show one rainy evening in Glasgow (The fancarpet 2011). Here was a working class viewership not catered for by television's obsession with self-aware, mock documentary comedy (The Office BBC 2 200103) etc) or 'smart' working class comedy (The Royle Family BBC 2 1998-2012, 2014). O'Carroll himself was keenly aware of this, seeing Mrs Brown's Boys as appealing to, the audience that comedy forgot ... somebody at the BBC read in a magazine that comedy is the new rock'n'roll. And they actually believed that and started pitching it only to the 18- to 25-year-old market, and left the rest behind (Langley 2014).

Yet the mere fact of a forgotten audience awaiting rediscovery could not guarantee the success that Mrs Brown's Boys has enjoyed. After all, new sitcoms 'die' with astounding regularity (London Irish (CH4 2014) anyone?). The show's engagement with its audience works effectively because of fascinating discourses at work in the roots of Mrs Brown's Boy's humour; on sexuality and how audiences engage with the sitcom machine as a popular comedy form.

The Merry Widow--Mining Female Sexuality in Mrs Brown's Boys

Mrs Brown's Boys is a show that places sex, bantering about it, remembering it, looking for it, at the centre of its comedy. So far, so sitcom--it's a form that has often relied on getting its laughs from the double entendre and the slapstick of bosoms and bottoms. Porter (1998) notes how traditional sitcoms of the 1970s and 80s (to which MBB undoubtedly owes a debt) saw female desire as essentially voracious and unsettling; presenting as either the busty blonde male fantasy (Barbara Windsor in any Carry-On film) flaunting their overt sexuality or as unattractive post-sexual spinsters or frustrated married women (Al Bundy's wife Peg in US sitcom Married with Children (Fox 1987-97). …

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