The UK has already succumbed to the anarchic humour of Mrs. Brown’s Boys. Now the BBC is set to launch The Walshes, a new sitcom about an oddball Dublin family, as the search for comedy gold is increasingly leading broadcasters to cross the Irish Sea.
Graham Linehan, the writer of Father Ted and The IT Crowd, has returned to his native Dublin with a new sitcom, produced in collaboration with Diet of Worms, an Irish comedy troupe whose work he discovered through a series of YouTube webisodes.
The Walshes, which airs on BBC4 next month, follows the fortunes of the loud but lovable Walsh family, who live in the fictional west Dublin suburb of Strollinstown.
Wife Carmel is the “typical Irish Mammy”, struggling to maintain order over her “eejit” taxi driver husband Tony, dimwitted son Rory and aspirational daughter Amy.
The series, also broadcast on RTÉ, follows hot on the heels of the Irish broadcaster’s success with Mrs. Brown’s Boys, Brendan O’Carroll’s madcap sitcom about a foul-mouthed Irish matriarch, which became the most-watched programme on Christmas Day 2013, with 9.4 million BBC1 viewers.
Linehan, who co-created Father Ted in 1995, said The Walshes was a more naturalistic show than the “pantomimey” Mrs. Brown’s Boys, whose broad slapstick divides critics.
“Irish people are very witty, funny people but often that is not represented on Irish television,” Linehan said. “Often it’s very bland so it’s nice to put that cynicism and wit into a show.”
Although The Walshes features archetypal Irish characters like the “Mammy” (Philippa Dunne) and her naïve son (Rory Connolly), even the “eejit” Tony can be “sharp as a tack” when the occasion demands, Linehan said.
Linehan declined to make comparisons with Mrs. Brown’s Boys, which is set to spawn a feature film, game show and an animated spin-off, earning creator O’Carroll £16 million.
“It (Mrs. Brown’s Boys) is more pantomimey but I haven’t actually seen it,” he said. “I think it’s more larger than life than what we’re trying to do. I was never really a big fan of Brendan’s in Dublin so it probably wouldn’t appeal to me. It’s an interesting phenomenon. I don’t expect a mass migration from their show to ours. We’re probably aiming at different audiences.”
YouTube has allowed new Irish comics to build an online audience, bypassing the traditional talent-spotting networks. The five-piece Diet of Worms uploaded five webisodes of their online sitcom, A Taste Of Home, supposedly shot by the family uncle on a shaky video-camera.
Linehan was so impressed with the webisodes, he agreed to help turn the concept into a television series, adding structure and a story arcs to the characters. With the BBC onboard, he directed full-length episodes which retained the web version’s “naturalistic” visual style.
YouTube also helped launch The Hardy Bucks, an Irish mockumentary series, which began as an online improvisation and was commissioned by RTÉ. Universal Studios backed a €300,000 feature film, following the characters on holiday abroad, which became a box office success in Ireland following its release last year.
Damo and Ivor, a comedy duo portraying a pair of Dublin stereotypes, won an RTÉ series after an online pop video for their song “Everybody's Drinkin'”, went viral.
Linehan said: “You see a lot of individual sketches online that are very good. When I saw the Diet of Worms episodes I thought I had better pay attention as they were too good to ignore. They had a very strong visual comedy sense and strong characters. It’s unusual to find both in clips made by amateurs.”
Three episodes of The Walshes will be shown on BBC4 next month, with the cast hoping that a full series of six will follow. The BBC believes the “warm-hearted” comedy might ultimately repeat the success of The Royle Family.
The Diet of Worms troupe dismissed comparisons to the BBC’s current hit Irish sitcom. They had begun writing their series in 2010, a year before Mrs. Brown’s Boys had even aired, the comedy actors said.
Linehan, who co-wrote the cult sketch show Big Train with Arthur Mathews, called for a revival of the sketch series genre. He urged broadcasters to commission an “open house” show, giving young joke writers the chance to work with a team of established performers.
Linehan, 45, said he was inspired to write comedy as a child after watching the credits for the Alas Smith and Jones show and realising that anyone could send in material for submission.