Meet the man behind Mrs Brown's Boys
If you've seen Mrs Brown's Boys, the TV show that has made Brendan O'Carroll one of the most successful entertainers in Ireland, you've seen Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie. And if you've seen either of them, you'll know that Brendan O'Carroll's stock in trade is a line of broad comedy that was first in vogue back when Ireland still had snakes.
But familiarity breeds contentment, and O'Carroll has in Mrs Brown a character that has spawned copious merchandise, three books, five stage shows and two movies (the first, Agnes Browne, starring Anjelica Huston, was released in 1999).
"I'm following my mother's rule," says O'Carroll in a Dublin accent that's every bit as thick as that of the panto dame he plays. "If something is successful you have to treat it like disco music - don't analyse it, just dance to it. And I am dancing, baby."
The movie marks O'Carroll's first time taking his performance to the big screen, but the formula is much the same as with the TV show: a domestic comedy staffed with stock characters (many of them played by members of his own family), jokes of a crusty familiarity ("Why don't you buy her a book?"; "Ah, sure, she's already got one"), a liberal dose of salty language, and a refreshing disrespect for the fourth wall (one of the best gags comes early, as a faux set is pulled down to reveal an identical real location behind it).
O'Carroll had no fear of stepping up to the big screen, he says. His mother - whose name he invokes often and with great reverence, as we shall see - taught him as a child to be unafraid to try, to fail, to succeed.
Musical: The pram-and-dance routine that opens the fim.
"That dark place that failure sends you to," he says, "well I've been there and it doesn't hold any fear for me."
That's not just tough talk, either. In fact, he owes his career to some rather desperate circumstances.
In his early 30s, O'Carroll co-owned a pub with a mate, Kevin Moore. One day in 1990, Moore simply disappeared with the takings, fittings and contents of their bank account, leaving O'Carroll with a debt of ₤96,000.
Brendan O'Carroll and his wife, and co-star, Jennifer Gibney at the world premiere of the movie in Dublin last month.
Unable to claim unemployment benefit (because he had until then been self-employed), O'Carroll turned to stand-up comedy, even though he'd never tried it before. "It was 'get cash now', get out and do something," he says.
The first night he cleared ₤25; within a month, he says, "there were 750 people there and I was up and running".
But there have been missteps along the way. In 1998 he lost millions on a failed film venture. And in 1993 O'Carroll was briefly arrested on suspicion of murder after Moore was found hanged. "The inquiries didn't last long," O'Carroll told his official biographer, Brian Beacom, last year. "It was soon established that Kevin had killed himself."
Moore in fact had AIDS and suffered severe depression. "I probably would have killed him if I'd got my hands on him but I didn't realise he wasn't well," says O'Carroll now. "I often think of him and say a prayer for him; I suppose I should get down on my knees and thank him because that disaster in my life turned out to be the making of me."
O'Carroll is now reportedly worth ₤8 million ($14.5 million), has versions of his show in production in Romania, Russia, Czechoslovakia and Lithuania and, he says, under negotiation in both South and North America. "You have to check out Tanti Florica, the Romanian version," he says. "He [the actor, Florin Calinescu] doesn't even f---ing bother [to try to look like a woman]. It's so funny to watch, it really is."
Of course, plenty of critics have pointed out that the core problem with Mrs Brown's Boys is precisely the fact it seems to think a man dressed as a woman, and not terribly convincingly at that, is intrinsically hilarious.
But to hell with the critics. Last year's Christmas special was watched by 9.6 million people in the UK - they can't all be wrong, surely?
The movie - sorry, D'Movie - looks set to emulate that success. Made for a reported ₤3.6 million it has already grossed more than ₤11.8 million in less than three weeks in the UK and Ireland.
Why is it so popular? "People I think are recognising the universal mother," O'Carroll says.
Though his Agnes Brown is a working-class woman who runs a fruit-and-vegetable stall at a street market (in the film, the market is under threat from corrupt developers), O'Carroll's own mother was something else entirely - a one-time nun who had 11 children, was elected to the Irish parliament in 1954, and later served at the United Nations.
"She was an amazing woman," he says. "I was very lucky to have had a very clever woman as a mother, and to have her undivided attention."
Undivided? But you were one of 11 kids.
"My dad died when I was seven, and she retired from politics," he explains. "I was a very late child and the older kids had emigrated or were out of the house working or married, and I had the undivided attention of this genius of a woman."
He claims she spotted and helped him deal with his dyslexia as a child, and credits her with teaching him to "think outside the box". It was from her, too, that he got his entrepreneurial streak, he supposes.
For all that, he used to insist that Agnes was not inspired by his mother. But more recently he's changed his view on the matter.
"The more I think about it, the more I realise Mrs Brown is my mother - only without the education," he says. "My mother had a bachelor's degree from Galway University.
"If Agnes had a bachelor's degree, there'd be no living with her."
Mrs Brown's Boys, D'Movie opens on July 24
Sydney Morning Herald