On Christmas Day 2017, the most watched TV programme wasn’t Strictly Come Dancing, EastEnders, or The Great British Bake Off – it was a BBC comedy called Mrs Brown’s Boys that is loathed by critics and yet has become a silent smash hit.
Starring Brendan O’Carroll dressed in a frock as the titular Mrs Brown, a foul-mouthed matriarch who can’t help but meddle in her children’s lives, the show is full of lazy innuendo, slapstick comedy, and has been described as ‘end-of-pier trash‘ and ‘the worst comedy ever made’; Metro.co.uk called it ‘jaw-droppingly past its sell-by date‘ when the first episode aired in 2011.
Yet it consistently brings in some of the BBC’s highest-ratings; in 2017 it pulled in 6.8 million viewers on Christmas day, and over the past four years each special has had an average over 9 million.
Why? The divide between critics and TV viewers has long been wide, but perhaps never as wide as when it comes to this show.
And perhaps a lot of it is to do with class and generation; as we saw with Brexit, social media and the critical press may be overwhelming liberal and left-wing, but it turns out much of the country is yearning for a return to ‘the good old days’.
Roy Collins, 66, is a big fan of the show, and admits it’s O’Carroll’s straight-talking ways that have him creased every episode.
‘I just like the sense of humour, and what he says is what a lot of people would like to say,’ says Roy.
‘You think, I’d like to say that, it’s the straight-talking but he’s just thinking what most of us think and he gets away with it. I think that in life now, you can’t say anything can you? Everything is either racist or… I don’t know.
‘But years ago you had Love Thy Neighbour and Alf Garnett and all that – you can’t get away with it now.’
Linda Oulton, 54, agrees: ‘In a way I suppose we all behave like Mrs Brown and have daily situations like her.’
Based on a radio show and later a play, Mrs Brown’s Boys maintains a lot of the theatrical elements, including filming the show live, regular breaking of the fourth wall, and a slightly ramshackle pantomime quality to the episodes.
‘I think it’s a wind up, and he doesn’t take it serious,’ adds Roy.
Many of those we spoke to have been watching for years, but for Liz Bowman, 63, it’s the Irish connection that drew her in.
‘I love the humour and as my mother was Irish, it reflected a lot about her friends,’ she said.
‘It is different and appealing, and older people like it because of the Irish connection; not many young people have Irish parents, it is more the older generation.’
Only Fools And Horses, Morecombe And Wise, and The Two Ronnies are all referenced by fans as other favourite shows, and Linda suggests that ‘there aren’t many comedies on TV now’ that can offer what those did.
‘I love the cast; I associate certain characters with people I know and sometimes there’s a serious message in there too.’
For Roy, one scene in particular stands out that epitomises his love of the show: ‘When Grandad “died” and was at his own funeral, and I keep singing it – “Father Quinn, Father Quinn!”
‘That’s a brilliant sketch. It’s like, “if I died I wonder who would turn up at my funeral?” – Grandad’s in his coffin and they say, “does anyone want to say a few words?” and no one wanted to speak and then he ‘comes alive’, and then the song…. that humour was so good.’
The Christmas special, which drew in nearly 7 million viewers, was the first of a two-parter; the second episode will air on New Year’s Day and will see Mrs Brown and Winnie join a neighbourhood watch scheme after a crime wave hits the area.
Perhaps it’s draw really is a generational issue.
‘Somebody at the BBC read in a magazine,’ O’Carroll once said, ‘that comedy is the new rock’n’roll. And they actually believed that, and started pitching it only to the 18-25-year-old market. And left the rest behind.’
‘Life is different with the youngsters and they see it totally different,’ admits Roy.
‘But what [O’Carroll] says is right, and I think the older generation can relate to what he’s saying.’
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