Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations

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The cultural wars fought out between disdainful highbrows and resentful lowbrows over the precise merits of certain works of art that were such a feature of the inter-war era seem to have lost their savour here in the modern age. Apart from the Amazon review slots, which are still crammed with amateur critics briskly proclaiming that Cormac McCarthy, say, is a charlatan, it seems to be generally agreed that people are allowed to like the books, films and music to which their tastes instinctively incline, irrespective of the judgements handed down by the New Statesman, or whoever the recognised cultural authority of the age happens to be.

On the other hand, if the storm whipped up over the unsuspecting head of Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie is anything to go by, the controversies which so animated a Cyril Connolly or a JB Priestley 80 years ago are not wholly extinct. The widescreen exploits of the Irish comedian Brendan O'Carroll's alter ego have largely been derided as the most frightful rubbish (a solitary star in The Guardian) by every cineaste invited to review them; simultaneously, the film's commercial success – No 1 at the box office – has sparked the devastating revelation that the matriarchal, be-corseted and foul-mouthed Mrs B is currently more popular among British cinema-goers than Tom Cruise.

The culturally circumspect may, of course, feel that Tom Cruise's overthrow by the cross-dressing chatelaine of a Dublin market stall is pretty small beer. But there is a rather more intriguing aspect to this stand-off over the attractions of Agnes and her extended family, and that is the fact of their nationality. Indeed, when Mrs Brown's Boys first arrived on the BBC as a situation comedy, an Irish critic declared that it was the kind of thing that made him ashamed to be Irish, consisting as it did of a burly middle-aged man in a dress and curlers saying "f***" at five minute intervals, and peopled as it was by a cast of sidekicks avid to display the symptoms of every piece of Irish stereotyping (fecklessness, ignorance, belligerence and so on) known to distant Hibernia.

And by talking about "distant Hibernia" I am no doubt contributing to that caricature myself. On the other hand, in her own highly stylised way Mrs Brown, and her brood, confirm a truth long known to cultural historians, which is that stereotyping – whether national, regional or purely local – is rarely imposed from on high, that it is much more likely to be collusive, or even collaborative, and that, once the stereotyping process has got under way, it relies on a complex calibrating mechanism of inches given and received, personae that are as much created by those on whom stereotyping is wished than those who are assumed merely to be patronising them from afar.

Take, for example, the emergence of the stage Irishman, with his watery eye, his barely intelligible brogue and his "Top o' the morning to you" catchphrase who, shamrock and tankard of stout to hand, wanders into English popular art in about the 1840s and whose appearance in it is the consequence of what might be termed a head-on collision between the tides of Irish history and the development of English tourism.

The original 19th-century travel writers, such as Crofton Croker, John Barrow and Samuel and Anna Hall, who set out into the debatable lands west of Dublin produced elegant little topographies, "romantic" in the Wordsworthian sense (picturesque landscapes, sinuous rills, ruined castles and so on) which gave little idea of the state of the country and the political divisions that lay at its core. At the same time, the divisive effects of nationalism had begun to polarise Irish society, transcending the ancient barriers of class and geography and uniting such diverse social groupings as Protestant aristocrats and Ulster farmers or, on the other side of the divide, middle-class Catholics and the rural poor, into single points of focus.

Out of this unification, and into the countless books of "Irish travels" with which Victorian booksellers beguiled their clientele, wandered Paddy and Seamus and their remote cousins, the alcoholic half-pay officer and the penniless Irish lord – stereotypes, certainly, but stereotypes who knew what was expected of them and played up to the expectation. Thackeray's The Irish Sketch-Book (1843), for example, is full of deedy ancients doffing their caps to the English visitor to inquire "Wad yer honour loike to see a big pig?" and Thackeray rightly suspects them of exaggerating their Irishness, merely to make a profit out of the tourist trade. The English had come in search of local colour and the off-duty grooms hanging around the market square in Ennis were determined to ensure that they got it. There are some aspects of early-Victorian Ireland that infuriate Thackeray, and some that terrify him, but a significant part of his response is simple amusement at native slyness, the thought of a bargain that is being made without the other party even knowing that it exists.

Later on, this process led down into stereotyping's darker side – the contempt for and, in certain cases, fear of otherness, that produced the Irish joke and, to delve darker still, the wrongful imprisonment. But the principle – that the caricature version of a country or a locality owes at least something to a wish to have a part in that caricature's devising, and occasionally to poke fun at the person who is supposedly patronising you – holds good both in the Emerald Isle and beyond it. A friend of mine, for instance, southern born and privately educated, once paid a visit to his girlfriend, who lived in a Sheffield council house. The door was opened by her father who, catching sight of his guest's somewhat brightly coloured trousers, remarked: "Eeh lad, tha's wearing lairy keks."

Two or three days by the familial hearth disclosed that this was not, in fact, how he routinely spoke. No, he was having a little fun with a toff, and once the joke had been made and demarcation lines established everyone got on rather well. Exactly the same point could be made of undergraduate life at Oxford in the early 1980s, where inconceivably brainy Lancashire scholars stood in the lunch queue remarking that they really did like a nice pie, and no northern chemist left his room without donning a lumberjack shirt, giving his scurfy locks an extra twist and putting his lecture notes in an Adidas bag. It is the same awareness of cultural possibilities that makes chavs behave like chavs, animates the cast of Almost Royal, which is doing such great business in the United States at present, and a century ago, in the wake of Hardy's novels, caused Dorsetshire peasants to behave with what one observer called "the vanity of the artist's model".

None of this is to suggest that the Mrs Brown franchise is at heart a cunning, deeply ironical exercise in Postmodern sleight of hand, for the public sees through these things and won't go if they suspect the artefact on display isn't genuine. No, if I can venture a cultural judgement for a moment, it is the most terrible low-brow nonsense of a kind which you thought had reached the end of its natural lifespan 40 years ago.

And yet, Mr O'Carroll clearly knows what he's doing – devising entertainment to work on two levels, flattering both his audience and himself (if for different reasons) and which never forgets that in the realm of the popular stereotype, it takes two to tango.

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