How the character of Mrs Brown from Mrs Brown’s Boys first made it to the screen as a small indie movie directed by and starring Anjelica Huston.
Love it or loathe it, Mrs Brown’s Boys is a modern comedy behemoth. It’s a Christmas Day ratings winner, it was boasting sell out arena tours, and it sparked a big hit movie too. There’s no doubt that its star and creator Brendan O’Carroll knows his audience. But the history of Mrs Brown’s Boys encompasses much more than gurning to a studio audience.
O’Carroll conceived the character of Mrs Brown for a radio play in 1992 before expanding the premise into a novel entitled The Mammy. He endeavoured to give the novel some verisimilitude by trying to capture what he saw as the real Dublin through the eyes of central character, Agnes Browne. O’Carroll fills his pages with fully rounded characters who exude warmth and humour, the same characters that make up the Mrs Brown canon to this day.
And that book got turned into a movie.
Separately, Anjelica Huston was partly raised in Ireland, her father John Huston gaining Irish citizenship in 1964. Although hugely successful as an actor, perhaps most notably as The Grand High Witch in Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches in 1990, she wouldn’t follow her father’s footsteps into the director’s chair until 1996 with Showtime film Bastard Out Of California.
Agnes Browne though was her first real passion project, and she was drawn to bringing O’Carroll’s novel to the screen. Drawing extensively on her background, she ultimately directed the picture and produced it alongside iconic Irish director Jim Sheridan. In an RTE interview, Huston revealed that she attempted to convince Sheridan to direct, but he felt he had already covered the territory in previous productions, thus she took on the job herself. She also stated that “I grew up in the West, in Connemara, so I had that basis [for the character], but the girls on Moore Street were very helpful to us and put us to work in the market for a couple of days”.
The plot as written by O’Carroll and John Goldsmith is not dissimilar to what would become the television series, or indeed to the subsequent feature film spin off.
Huston plays Agnes Browne, matriarch and mother hen to several children, all with their own frailties. She owes money to loan shark Mr Billy, played with some relish by Ray Winstone. But the film is less about plot than it is about the bond between Agnes, her children and her best friend Marion, played by Marion O’Dwyer.
While it may not contain the pantomime performances of the eventual sitcom, similar DNA is weaved into the fabric of the film. Huston’s Agnes is just as vociferous and vehement in her opinions as O’Carroll’s take on the character, and the role of Marion is very much akin to the role of Winnie McGoogan in the series. Jennifer Gibney, who would go on to marry O’Carroll in 2005 and become an integral member of the Mrs Brown company, takes a minor role here as Winnie The Mackerel alongside O’Carroll, who himself cameos as Seamus The Drunk.
O’Carroll’s only previous feature film credit prior to Agnes Browne was in Stephen Frears’ 1996 Roddy Doyle adaptation The Van. His writing has been described as Doyle-eqsue, concentrating as they both do on good humoured working-class Irish characters.
The film was not a financial or critical success, indeed one of the only prominent critics to praise it was Roger Ebert. Another, Franz Lindz, lambasted Ebert for holding this opinion, coming out with a phrase that seemed to be gift wrapped for critics in the first place – “Huston, we have a problem” – during a recording of the Siskel and Ebert show.
Despite this, the building blocks had been laid for O’Carroll to develop Agnes Browne into a series of comedy plays for Irish television and stage. His only subsequent film role outside of the Mrs Brown series was in a story with far fewer laughs; as ‘Man In Pub’ in the seminal Alan Parker directed Angela’s Ashes.
After accruing a fanbase from live performances, in 2011 the BBC asked O’Carroll to write Mrs Brown’s Boys as a studio audience sitcom, transferring the chemistry of the live stage cast onto television. It was and continues to be a winning formula. O’Carroll brought the story full circle in 2014 when he wrote the grammatically problematic Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie. The plot borrowed liberally from Agnes Browne, not least the overt usage of Moore Street Market. The film smashed box office records in the UK and to this day there remains active talks of a sequel (although O’Carroll memorably said a few years back that Brexit had derailed the chances of that).
Whatever your opinion of Mrs Brown’s Boys, the fact is that it brings a lot joy to a lot of people. Whether she’s played by Angelica Huston or O’Carroll himself, Mrs Brown is a force to be reckoned with and her popularity shows no signs of abating. As a standalone film though, Agnes Browne deserves to be rediscovered as a poignant portrait of a working-class Irish family, and as one of the quiet highlights of Anjelica Huston’s career both in front of and behind the camera.
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