Mrs Brown's Boys review, Christmas Day episode: So awful that it's physically painful to sit through

Instead of being an update of the much-missed Father Ted, this BBC sitcom is merely television to nod off to

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 25 December 2018 23:56
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Christmas Day with Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special on BBC One

It will take me a long time indeed to forgive the BBC for its infatuation with Mrs Brown’s Boys, which is so awful that it is physically painful to sit through. Recall, if you will, the scene in A Clockwork Orange where the violent droog played by Malcolm McDowell undergoes forcible cinematic aversion therapy. His eyelids are clamped open while he is forced to watch unspeakable acts of horror, his ordeal part of some deranged official experiment.

Same here, when I get a commission to review the Christmas edition of Mrs Brown’s Boys.

I understand entirely its popularity. Well, actually, I find it unfathomable. What I mean to say is that I realise that, yes, a lot of people watch it. But then lots of us used to enjoy a day out at a public execution, or an afternoon down the boozer watching a bear being attacked by dogs. One day, one hopes, Mrs Brown’s Boys will be viewed with the same shaking of heads and wonder at the depths to which popular taste can descend.

This special festive edition revolved around a competition to win the best interior-decorated house in Finglas, the Dublin neighbourhood Mrs Brown (Brendan O’Carroll) and the rest of them live. She doesn’t win; there’s a rubbish romantic interlude involving Buster, whoever he is, and the show’s highlight is a musical number. Not any old musical number though. Oh, no, they decided to sing and dance to Shakin’ Stevens’ 1985 Number 1 hit, “Merry Christmas Everyone”, by the far the most inane of the many inane “modern carols” we get sick of hearing each December.

Mrs Brown’s Boys suffers from original sin. It’s based on drag. This genre is inherently unfunny and should have been retired when Arthur Lucan died, in his frock, as Old Mother Riley in 1954. Even in the best, the most comedically gifted hands – Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane in Nuns on the Run, say, or the sketches Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough used to do as Cissie and Ada – it yields mediocre results. It doesn’t really work. It’s too lazy. Proper drag queens are something else – outrageous, sexy, deviant. A fat fella in a perm wig is not really making much of an effort.

Nor does O’Carroll’s writing. There was one exchange along these lines:

Mrs Brown: “I suppose it was big of me” (pronounced “bigamy”)

Her mate: “That’s illegal”

This is a slight variation on a joke first that appeared on film in the Marx Brothers classic Animal Crackers in 1930, and had probably been used in their vaudeville stage act for about a decade before. Thus, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s gift to the licence payers on Christmas Day 2018 is a pun that can be carbon dated to circa 1918. What’s more, Groucho’s vintage cast-off was the best gag in the show. The worst? A ridiculous camp man telling a pub that his companion “took me up the canal” on holiday in Venice. Runner up: “I have a monogamy sideboard.”

There’s a lot to be said for foul language, smut and toilet humour – I’m a huge fan, but only when they are deployed to artistic purpose. That is, when they’re funny. In Mrs Brown’s Boys there is no point to it, except to throw in a bit of mock-shock for the audience, semi-comatose as they undergo the horrors of digestion. Presumably.

The same goes for what might have been a novel post-modern twist on the situation comedy format – continually breaking the fourth wall, telling “insider” jokes to the audience and, as in the Shakin’ Stevens cover, simply dropping one format (sitcom), for another (trad variety show). But it is squandered, because the jokes are so third-rate.

There is an even more grievously missed opportunity. Agnes Brown could have been a sort of Irish Alf Garnett; a bigoted, anti-gay, feck-the-English, baby-Jesus-worshipping, semi-drunk symbol of an older, nastier Ireland, Brown’s bile used as if by a thug on a scooter with a can of oven cleaner to attack the modernising forces of Leo Varadkar. It would be deeply satirical: a woman refusing to go quietly into that progressive, Europeanised, secularised, sober Irish twilight, railing still about the Black and Tans, gobbing every time Arlene Foster turns up on the telly, swearing in fluent Irish.

Mrs Brown's Boys could be a sitcom with an edge to it, an update of the much-missed Father Ted. Instead, O’Carroll’s creation is a way to nod off in front of the telly, safe in the knowledge you’ll not miss much.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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