Brendan O'Carroll: 'I became Mrs Brown by complete accident'

Brendan O'Carroll: 'I became Mrs Brown by complete accident'

YOU’VE got to hand it to Brendan O’Carroll. On a sunny Thursday in central London the 58-year-old star of Mrs Brown’s Boys is as upbeat as the weather. He’s dressed for the occasion too, sporting a vibrant rouge-coloured short-sleeved shirt which seals a bronzed complexion honed on spending much of the year in Florida.

Warm, animated and hugely welcoming in-person, the Dubliner is in town to plug Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie, his latest Agnes Brown vehicle and a widescreen incarnation of the hit BBC show that has enjoyed phenomenal success since first going to air in 2011.

O’Carroll has been on a journey with Mrs Brown since 1992 and his resilience through the highs and lows make him a fascinating character.

A member of Mensa (O’Carroll’s reported IQ of 153 puts him in the top 1% in the world), he owes much to his own mother, Maureen O'Carroll who, at 41, was elected to the Dail serving as the Irish Labour Party’s chief whip from 1954 to 1957 – all whilst also raising 11 children.

In part, Mrs Brown is O’Carroll’s gift to her and we sat down with O’Carroll to talk about Mrs Brown, the influence of his own family and how his success may have turned him into a very different person three decades ago……

Brendan, Mrs Brown’s Boys the show has made you an over-might success at 58. How would you have handled such success had it happened earlier on in your career?

I’d probably be a junkie! I feel terribly sorry for the likes of Justin Bieber and young boy bands that have it thrust upon them. It’s not easy. You look at today, I’ve done 25 interviews and Graham Norton tonight will be the 26th. You try doing that when you’re 15 or 16 years of age and people ask questions that you think are quite innocent and they know they’re not, because they’re a lot older than you are, a lot more experienced than he [Justin Bieber] is.

Then he’s surrounded by people whose telling him he’s a genius, and that he can walk on water, and telling him if you want to throw it out the window, throw it out the window! They’re just glad you’re here. The hotel don’t care if you wreck the place they’re just glad you came. So, I think everything happens for me the way it’s supposed to. Well, I accept that when something happens that’s what’s supposed to happen.

You were 30 when you started out as a comedian, so it’s almost taken three decades to hit this level of success. Were there ever times that you felt like giving up or did you always keep the faith?

I always kept the faith, but there are times when I look back and I wonder what kept me going. You know you drive 180 miles to a gig, there’s 14 people in it, you’ve spent £60 on petrol, you’re on the door and it’s been £2 in, so it’s been £28 in total. You go on and do the gig, come off the gig and then you have to make your way home. And then you hope that you have enough money from the gig to get you enough petrol to get home, and yet the next morning you get up and do the next gig and you wonder ‘what in the hell made me think that this would work?’

I don’t know what it was, but I think it’s because I was put in a position where there was nothing else that I could do at that time, there was no work about. It was 1989/90, which was the last Irish recession, there were no other jobs. So, it was a question of keep going, and what kept me going was probably the fact that I had no choice but to keep going.

Is it true that a fortune teller predicted your success?

A really weird one, I went to her by accident. I’ve never been to one before and I’ve never been to one since. I just happened to be in London where I was due to have a meeting. I booked an APEX flight, it was a cheap fair but you had to book it a month in advance and you lost the flight if you didn’t take it.

The meeting was nothing to do with show business, I was in the bar business at the time and it was a band I knew and I was trying to get them some help. It was with a fellow called Bruce White, he’s passed away now. I had a meeting with him to do with the band, but he had to cancel the meeting until the next day. I couldn’t cancel my ticket so I had to fly over. When you have no money in London for a day it’s a pissy place to be.

So, I got off the plane and just to let him know I’d arrived I took my wallet out and the old phone card to ring him, and as I pulled the phone card out a business card fell out. I put my foot on it as I was on the phone to him [Bruce], I said ‘I’m here.’ He said, ‘we’re not meeting till tomorrow but you’re here so I’d like to see you for dinner tonight.’

So we arrange to meet for dinner and once I’d hung up the phone and picked up the business card and it was a business card from an old hotel that I used to work in as a head waiter. I flipped it over and it was a woman’s name and a phone number on the back of it, and I thought, ‘what am I doing with that?’ And then I remembered, I had been in the hotel for a drink after I’d stopped working there, and the owner came down to see me and said, ‘hey Brendan, you’re sister she likes these mediums and fortune tellers doesn’t she?’ I said, ‘yeah.’ She said she’d met a great one and wrote the number down on the back of a business card and said next time you’re in London give that to your sister [who lived in London].

I put it back in my wallet and thought, I’ve never been to one of these, I must ring and see if she has any time or space today. So, I call her, she lived in Northolt, which was just around the corner from Heathrow. She said, ‘I was booked up, but would you believe I’ve got two spots that have been cancelled.’ So I went down to see her, and remember I’m a complete sceptic, and went in. She said, ‘I can tell by your accent that you’re Irish.’ ‘I only just got off the flight,’ I said.

She said, ‘you must be gasping for a cup of tea.’ As she was making the tea I said ‘this is a lovely place, it’s nothing like where I come from.’ She said, ‘don’t tell me too much, I don’t want you to go in there and then come out thinking I told her too much.’

So, we went in and sat down and she went through a couple of things that made me f****** hairs pin back. The first thing that surprised me was there was only two chairs in the room, it was a council house. What surprised me was that there were pictures of the Virgin Mary and Crucifixes, I wasn’t expecting any religious aspect to it, I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe Voodoo dolls or whatever. So, that surprised me a little bit. She said, ‘If you don’t mind, before we start I’d like to say a little prayer.’

‘Out loud?’ I said. ‘No, no, just to myself,’ she said. So she put her head down, and it dawned on me, I hadn’t said a prayer in a long time. So, why don’t I say a little prayer that I don’t allow myself to be hood-winked here. So I said a little prayer to myself and thought to myself, I’m not going to help her but I’m not going to trick her either. If she says to me ‘you’re name begins with a B, I’ll say it doesn’t. But, if she says, your name is Brendan, I’ll say yeah it is, I’m not going to say no. I’m not going to lie to her.’

mrs browns boys movie1-n The movie version of the hit BBC series is now in cinemas across the UK (Photo: Universal Pictures)

So she started, and the first thing she said was, ‘I want to read you’re aura.’ I said, ‘ok, what’s that?’

She said, ‘everybody has an aura, they have an individual aura, it’s like a fingerprint, but a spiritual print. If you don’t mind I’m going to outline you’re body.’ I’m sitting there, she’s looking around me and says, ‘wow, you’ve only got one colour in your aura.’

I said, ‘is that unusual?’

She says, ‘yeah, you’ve got a golden aura. I’ve never seen one before.’

I said, ‘is that good or bad?’ She said, ‘I don’t know I’ve never seen one before.’

This was no f****** help to me. Then she said ‘close your eyes. There’s a line of people behind you who are dropping golden keys in your lap. I don’t know what you have coming to you but whatever it is, god you really deserve it. They’re all saying you deserve this. She then went on to some other stuff about my family and it really pegged me up a little bit, then two things happened.

First one I would ride off for many years. She said, ‘I see a studio, a stage and a microphone. Amazing success. I’m thinking the band, so I said, ‘yeah, I’m here to hopefully get a friend of mine who’s in a band, to get them away.’

‘No, no,’ she said. ‘You’re at the microphone.’

I said, ‘you’ve got that wrong I have no interest in that. I’m representing the band I don’t sing.’

‘No,’ she said, ‘it’s you. Do something for me, remember Glasgow. Remember Glasgow, it’ll change your life.’

I also took notes, I asked her if she minded. I know people that go to fortune tellers and they come out after an hour and in ten minutes they tell you what was said, and I’m wondering, ‘you’ve been there for an hour!’

I wanted to keep notes of what she said. As it was going on she’d say, ‘go away,’ she’d be talking to somebody over here and say, ‘go away. Please stop. I’m sorry but somebody wants to give a message to you. Does Chalky mean anything to you?’

‘I said no.’

She said, ‘are you sure because he’s convinced you’ll deliver the message.’

I said, ‘I don’t know any Chalky and I’m not taking any messages.’

She said, ‘will you take this message, he’s prepared to give you the message even if he thinks you won’t deliver it.’

I said, ‘I’m not taking any message for any spirit and carrying it around with me.’

She said, ‘please just write it down that’s all I’m asking you to do. The message says, ‘off course I’m proud of you, I’ve always been proud of you and I love you.’ ‘

She said, ‘he’s gone away so happy you have no idea.’

So, I thought nothing of it. I left a bit stunned and I said as I was leaving, maybe I’ll see you again. She said, you will. So I got a taxi to meet Bruce and his wife. I’m not a drinker but when I got the menu I was asked what I’d like to drink so I said a vodka and coke. I didn’t realise that I knocked it straight back once it came. I said to Bruce, ‘you know what I had a really unsettling experience today.’ And I started to tell him about it. I got to the message and told him about it and he said, ‘are you f******* winding me up?’

I said, ‘no, what do you mean?’

He said, ‘Chalky. I’m Bruce White. Chalky White was my dad.’

I said, ‘Bruce I know nothing. Does the message have any relevance?’

He said, ‘yes it does, my dad was in the printing business.’

Bruce was 19 years of age when he left school/college, and went into his dad’s printing business, but he didn’t want to be there. He wanted to be a music promoter, and he had started up managing a band part time, and some other bands. He was really into reggae music so he used to get the boat out to Jamaica and bring Desmond Decker and reggae bands back, and his label became a great success.

But, his dad wanted him to take over the printing business.

He [Bruce] said, ‘Brendan, I came into the printing business and my dad was still doing cold print, I brought the business into the twentieth century, I had the business flying. But I didn’t want to be in the business I wanted to be a promoter. The amount of printing materials I had I could have made my dad a multi-millionaire but he wouldn’t take one order off me. I bought a house just around the corner from my mum and dad, he didn’t ignore me but there was a cold war. One morning I got a call from my mum saying my dad had collapsed in the hall. I rushed over, he’d had a stroke. We’re waiting in the ambulance, and I looked into his eyes and said, ‘don’t you f****** die without telling me you’re proud of me.’ ’

And that was the message, and then I thought ok, I’m going to remember Glasgow.

And the first success we had was in Glasgow in the Pavillion Theatre. When a representative from the BBC saw the play it was in Glasgow, when we made the TV series it was the BBC in Glasgow.

You’re the youngest of 11 kids, is that where the on-screen interaction of family came from?

I think you’re probably right, a bridge of closeness. Not just a love of family but interdependency when you’ve got so many kids in the family. I never knew what feminism was, that kind of thing when the boys shovel the coal and the girls make the beds, I don’t know that. Our house didn’t operate like that.

The boys made the beds when the beds needed to be made and the girls shovelled the coal when the coal needed to be shovelled, whoever was handy. It didn’t matter whether you were a boy or a girl. We were interdependent, we reared each other. I was the baby and that gave me a bit of a start in the ‘notice box’ as we call them in Ireland. I only had to walk across the floor and they all clapped. I think that was helpful.

By the time I got into my formative years, because I was such a late child and my mother was 46 when I was born, the rest of them had emigrated or married and headed off on their own lives. My dad died when I was seven and by the time I was nine my mum retired from politics. Now there was just me and her, and I had the undivided attention from this genius of a woman.

The comedic end of things probably stemmed from that. First of all she was a very huggy, lovey person, which I am and which my kids and family are. And also, my life’s goal from that age on was to make my mum laugh and I did many many times, all the time.

I think I just wanted to impress her. It’s very hard for every one of us to get out of bed in the morning without having a reason. When you get and have your first kid, within six months of having that kid you can’t remember life before that child. You can’t remember what motivated you. Obviously the stark motivation is if I don’t feed this thing it dies. But, after that you can’t remember what motivated you. You’d do anything for this child, nothing would stop you. There’s that motivation and that steer, but it’s having a reason and my goal was to keep my mum laughing. It wasn’t that she was depressed or sad; I just liked making her laugh. When my mum laughs, she was a big woman, she rocked with laughter and it made me feel so f****** good, it still does, making people laugh.

Could you imagine how your life would be without Mrs Brown?

I think it still would have been ok.

I’d have done well at something. I’m an eternal optimist, I’m one of these people that grew up thinking I was always a millionaire, I just never had the money. But, I was always destined.  I grew up knowing I was different from other kids, because my mum spotted it. I didn’t know I was dyslexic. Back in 1960 who knew what dyslexia was?! But she knew I couldn’t learn like other people, she was a really sharp woman. She knew I had to find a different way of learning so that I could keep pace. So, without realising it she was teaching me how to think outside the box without realising she was doing that.

So, I’m always proud. I left school at 12 so I had seven years of formal education but I’m a member of MENSA. I’ve got an IQ in the top 1% in the world and I’m very proud of that. And that comes from the fact that I lived with the genius of this woman who constantly made me challenge myself and challenge what I think. Every day you’d get up and think, is what I think today the same? If it is, then challenge it and challenge yourself.

I’m 58 years of age, and I realise that I only feel alive when I’m challenging, so it’s her.

How did the movie version of Mrs Brown challenge you?

First of all, the challenge was not to go mad. I didn’t want to betray her or the audience. I wanted a Mrs Brown audience to go to a Mrs Brown movie and feel like you’re in a Mrs Brown movie, not Mrs Brown in a movie.

So, I didn’t want to do the cliché thing of take her to Spain, Australia, America, or Africa, which is usually what they do in a TV series. They take them away and see how they cope in a Crocodile Dundee type of thing. I didn’t want to do that, I just wanted to expand her world and tell one of her stories within her world and allow the audience to peek into the bits they know about.

They know she’s a dealer in a market, now I get to show the market and show her selling fruit in the market. See her direction with authority, because they know she doesn’t like authority, but it’s usually authority on the phone or authority someone else is talking about. Here, we get to show the authority and to reel in and make sure she doesn’t have the power of flight, I’m lucky enough I have a director who’s perfect for that. When I come up with a scene he’ll say it’s a great scene, but he’ll say ‘is it Mrs Brown?’

We’re able to tell a Mrs Brown story within the context of her surroundings and I think we showed the best of the characters and my city. It’s a love letter to Dublin, Dublin looks magnificent. Dublin tourism should write Mrs Brown a cheque and say thank you. You’ll look at it and you’ll want to go there, I live there.

The British seem to have this affinity with a guy dressed as a woman, what was the appeal for you?

Getting paid for it! It was a complete accident; I wrote Mrs Brown for the radio, it was five minute soap opera every day. I had no money so I got everybody I knew to do the voices. If you look at granddad, he was my window cleaner, Pepsi was my roadie who plays Mark and Rory was my press agent for 22 years.

When we did a recording I had an actress booked to play Mrs Brown, and she didn’t show as she had a kidney infection. We had the studio booked so I thought I’d read her lines and when I get her in, we could just play it back and she could do her lines. So for fun, I did Mrs Brown’s voice. I brought it into the editor when he was digitising. He asked me who the actress was that was playing Mrs Brown, I said ‘f*** off that’s me.’ He said ‘you have to keep it! I believe her!’ That’s how I started doing it on radio.

When it came time to changing it for the stage I would get a woman who sounded like Mrs Brown to play her, but Jenny said ‘give it a go, why don’t you just try it?’

So I rang a college that my daughter had been attending, Dublin Institute of Technology, where they did all different aspects of the movie business. I rang the make-up department and asked if they had a good guy or girl coming out of the department, they said they had a guy graduating this year. Tom McInerney, he’s subsequently gone onto win IFTAs and awards for Tudors and other stuff. So he came out and I told him I wanted him to make me up as Mrs Brown.

I told him, ‘I want you to see what you think is Mrs Brown, but don’t show me a mirror until it’s finished. And if I turn around and I see Mrs Brown I’ll do it, but if I don’t see Mrs Brown I’m not f***** doing it.’ Then he said, ‘one thing’s missing.’ He made a mole and said, ‘done!’ Then I turned around and thought ‘f*** me, it’s Mrs Brown.’ That’s how I ended up doing it, completely by accident.

My mother had a great word for success. If something is successful you’ve got to treat it like disco music, don’t analyse it just dance with it. Since five minutes on the radio, I’ve been dancing.

Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie now out in cinemas across the UK