BRENDAN O’Carroll, the star of the Bafta award-winning BBC comedy Mrs Brown’s Boys, is over the moon. He’s finally cracked Edinburgh – he hopes.
All the signs are certainly good. Today’s St Patrick’s Day performances of Good Mourning Mrs Brown at the Edinburgh Playhouse will see the 56-year-old bring down the curtain on a sell-out run that could have been sold twice over.
“Edinburgh was, and still is, a mystery to me,” he admits, over coffee in Ocean Terminal. “We know how to crack a city. It takes three visits. First time, you introduce yourself. Second visit, people have heard about the show. Third, you get a decent crowd all week and sell out Friday and Saturday. By the fourth visit you’re sold out for the week. That’s how it usually works.
“First time in Edinburgh we had sparse crowds. Second, we had a full house by the Saturday night – that was so quick I said, ‘That’s it, we’ve cracked Edinburgh’. Third visit, it was like we’d never been before. Fourth, we were jammed. Fifth, we had the bad snow. So it has been up, down, up, down – I can’t get a handle on this city at all.”
The irony of that roller-coaster relationship with the Capital is that it was here, at the 1995 Book Festival, that O’Carroll first played Ireland’s most famous mammy before a live audience. A performance that changed his life and may, or may not, have been predicted by a spiritualist some 22 years ago.
The Dubliner explains: “I’ve no time for spiritualists, but I happened to be in London at the time, with a day to spare – the meeting I’d come over for had been put back a day. I was making a phone call and, as I took out my phone card, a couple of business cards slipped out of my wallet. One was for a place where I used to be restaurant manager. On the back of the card was a name and number. I remembered that my ex-boss, who was into spiritualism, had given me the card for my sister, who was also into that kind of thing and living in London, saying, ‘This woman is very good, she should go and see her.’
“I thought, ‘I’ve never been to a spiritualist, and even though I don’t believe in them, somewhere down the line, as a writer, an experience like that would be invaluable.’ So I rang her.
“Turned out she could see me. It cost a fiver and she told me things that stunned me. Then she said, ‘I see you in a recording studio, in front of a microphone and cameras.’
“I said she could be right as I was in London promoting a band, but she said, ‘No. This isn’t about any band. This is you.’
“I had no intention of going on the stage at that time but she insisted, ‘Remember this, will you? Edinburgh will change your life. Not today, not tomorrow, but remember I said that.’
“I kept that in mind for years, but the thing is, there are a couple of things that have happened here that she could have been referring to . . . or, of course, it could just have been coincidence.”
The first occasion that brought O’Carroll to the city was the publication of his debut novel, The Mammy, which introduced readers to Mrs Agnes Brown.
“I was invited to the 1995 Edinburgh Book Festival to read excerpts from The Mammy – it was one of their top six European books that year,” he recalls. “I was just starting at the time so it was a big, big thing for me.
“At the time, Penguin had also brought out an anthology of comic writing, which included two chapters of my novel.
“I’d never done a book reading before and on the first night, four of us – three other famous Irish novelists and myself – gathered in a marquee in Charlotte Square to read our pieces from the anthology.
“The first author started to read and I realised he was just reading. The second guy just read his chapter too. I thought, ‘I can’t read it like that’. So when it came to me, I started doing the voices of Agnes and all the characters. The place was in hysterics.
“That was the first public performance, where the audience actually saw me playing Mrs Brown.”
O’Carroll had drawn on his previous experience as a stand-up comedian, and it paid off.
“The next morning the girl from the Book Festival, who had been off-hand the night before, was all over me. When I asked what sort of audience she was expecting for my lunchtime reading she said, ‘You haven’t seen the papers this morning, have you?’
“I went and got the papers, the biggest headline was in The Independent, it read: Fringe upstaged by Irish man of letters. It went on to say that the comedy Fringe was laid bare by this man doing a book reading.
“The result was the Book Festival had to move me to a bigger marquee, where I read a few passages from the book.
“Again, I acted them out. I got a standing ovation. At the end, my publicist said, ‘Things will never be the same for you again’.”