Just Who Is Watching Mrs Brown's Boys - The Show Everybody Loves To Hate?

Savaged by critics and social media users alike, yet the BBC One comedy is regularly the most watched show at Christmas.
Mrs Brown's Boys
Mrs Brown's Boys

This article was originally published in December 2020.

When the BBC announced that Mrs Brown’s Boys would once again feature in their festive programming, it was impossible to ignore the savage response on social media.

Forget Covid, there’s my Christmas ruined,” one Twitter user exclaimed.

“Root canal work is an attractive alternative to Mrs Brown,” wrote another.

“As if 2020 wasn’t bad enough, Mrs Browns Boys is back. Still not found anyone that admits to watching it... I demand to know who watches it and who likes it?” asked another.

Critics agree.

“The worst comedy ever made,” was how Grace Dent positioned it in The Independent. And last year, Guardian columnist Joel Golby posed the question: “How did the worst show on TV become a festive must-watch?”

But the stats and accolades speak for themselves.

The Christmas special in 2018 was one of the most watched programmes of the day, drawing in 6.7 million viewers, and a film version, 2014′s Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie, was top of the UK and Irish box office for two weeks.

The show beat Ricky Gervais’s After Life and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag to Best Comedy at the viewer-voted National TV Awards earlier this year, and the comedy has also bagged four Bafta awards: Best Scripted Comedy twice and Best Male Performance in a Comedy Programme for its creator, writer and star Brendan O’Carroll, also twice.

Brendan O'Carroll and Jennifer Gibney and cast of Mrs Brown's Boys with the award for best comedy at the National Television Awards 2020
Brendan O'Carroll and Jennifer Gibney and cast of Mrs Brown's Boys with the award for best comedy at the National Television Awards 2020
Doug Peters/EMPICS Entertainment

It’s inevitable that TV shows – especially comedies – are divisive, but the level of vitriol aimed at Mrs Brown’s Boys - a show about a nan called Agnes (the drag persona of creator Carroll) and her tumultuous relationships with her family members - feels unprecedented.

So much so, that Brendan has even responded to his critics publicly. “Just change the fucking channel,” he bluntly told his detractors.

I wasn’t fond of it to begin with either,” says fan, Melissa. “I started watching it with my nan who doesn’t have good taste in TV programmes so I automatically wrote it off as ‘dated’ humour, but after watching a few episodes, not only was I giggling along, I ended up setting a series reminder.”

Perhaps judging the show too quickly is a common problem: Writing in The Telegraph in 2020, Ed Power admitted that persevering with it can pay off.

Watching a preview of last year’s Christmas special I, for instance, found myself rolling my eyes but also – and feel free to judge – stifling the very occasional chuckle,” Ed wrote.

Melissa agrees. “Give it a chance: don’t write it off,” she says.

Mrs. Brown's Boys
Mrs. Brown's Boys

Another fan, Amy, believes many of the show’s detractors are overthinking it.

“Embrace it for what it is - light-hearted fun,” Amy says. “Don’t overthink it. And it’s more relatable than people think - the storylines and characters might be exaggerated, but because it’s based on family life, there is likely to be something people can recognise in their own families.”

Both Amy and Melissa believe another of the show’s charms is that we get to see when its stars mess up, adding a layer of farce.

“Muck-ups give the show it’s edge,” says Melissa. “It’s real. It’s hilarious when it happens and it sends the message that they don’t take themselves too seriously. My nan and I have also seen the show live and you feel so connected to the actors when the muck ups happen.”

Amy agrees. “Out-takes are always brilliant,” she says. “They manage to do it in a way that doesn’t feel like it holds up the actual story for that episode. It brings the viewer in - we get to see the dynamics between the actors and the close bond that exists between them as a real-life family.”

““Muck-ups give the show it’s edge. It’s real. It’s hilarious when it happens and it sends the message that they don’t take themselves too seriously.”

But it isn’t all muck-ups and toilet gags. For Irish fan David, the show is “a parody of all the stereotypes the British labelled the Irish with”.

“Foul-mouthed, sex-mad women, thick, lazy, work-shy, criminal, religious hypocrites. They’re all in there,” he observes.

“Coming from an Irish family I’ve experienced a lot of the stereotyping, and that’s what makes it so hilarious. All the haters are actually hating the labels their country stuck on us in the first place. Oh how the irony should burn.”

Speaking of haters...

“Mrs Brown’s Boys is just tiringly unfunny, dull and repetitive to the point of eye watering boredom,” non-fan Matt says. “Maybe it’ll be like all those forgettable 70s sitcoms that have been filtered out of collective memory - where Mrs Brown’s Boys belongs too.”

But why do so many people get so incensed by the show? Could a class issue be at play?

A survey by YouGov found that 67% of people who dislike the show are middle class. It also revealed that Mrs Brown’s Boys fans are more likely to laugh at toilet humour and impressions, while detractors are more likely to prefer observations on current affairs and wordplay.

For others, the show is more than just unfunny: it’s offensive.

“The portrayal of the characters is so far removed from any kind of reality that it’s painful to watch. The show is harmful to young LGBTQ+ viewers as it enforces archaic portrayal of gay men,” says gay TV fan James.

“Sure, the moment she embraces her son when he comes out is a touching moment and one as a gay man I wish I could have shared with my own mother, but from there on in the gay son [Rory, one of Anges Brown’s five children] is used as the punchline.”

Mrs. Brown and her gay son Rory, played by Rory Cowan until 2017.
Mrs. Brown and her gay son Rory, played by Rory Cowan until 2017.

Harmful representation is the weightiest claim against the show: no longer just subjective quibbles about comedy, if the show spreads dangerous stereotypes, then perhaps that should become more of the focus of the critical debate.

But as it stands, the debate feels more about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ comedy, when the lesson we’ve learned from Mrs Brown’s Boys is that there’s no such thing: love it or hate it, the ratings and awards speak for themselves.

Mrs Brown’s Boys may not be progressive, but then again, neither is criticising somebody else’s taste in comedy.

For Christmas 2021, Mrs Brown’s Boys airs on BBC One at 10.20pm on Christmas Day (like you care).


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