By Stuart Jeffries
Caroline Aherne, who has died aged 52 of cancer, was responsible for some of the most distinctive and memorable comedy creations of the 1990s. From Mrs Merton to The Royle Family, her characters were waspish but warmly observed, and gave audiences an all-too-rare taste of comedy that reflected their relationship with television and love-hate feelings about celebrity. She was one of the few members of the British comedy pantheon not to be male, metropolitan and privileged, and her work often drew on her background.
Aherne made her name with the Mrs Merton Show, a chat-show featuring the eponymous horn-rimmed, chintzy-sleeved northern housewife who fired faux-naive questions at her hapless celebrity guests: “What first attracted you to the short, balding millionaire Paul Daniels?” she once asked his wife Debbie McGee.
The Royle Family, the sitcom she co-wrote with Craig Cash, was groundbreaking in its portrayal of a working-class Manchester family watching TV in their front room. It was a sitcom that drew on the British tradition of 1950s kitchen sink dramas and the films of Mike Leigh, but it was more compassionate than either. The writer Jimmy McGovern said of it: “There is great love in that family, but it is never stated. That’s so true to life.”
Though the sitcom cannot be said to have ushered in a new era of comedy drawing on working-class experience – British TV comedy remains, with a few exceptions, as dominated by ex-public school boys as it ever was – it did pave the way for at least two subsequent TV series. Paul Abbott, creator of Shameless, the Channel 4 comedy drama set in a low-income northern milieu, said he owed his show’s success to The Royle Family. More recently, Gogglebox, Channel 4’s documentary series observing viewers watching television – narrated by Aherne – owed an obvious debt to its sitcom precursor.
There was more to her comic armoury than Mrs Merton and Denise Royle, though they were her best-known characters. In the 1990s sketch programme the Fast Show, Aherne played the Mediterranean weather girl Paola Fisch (catchphrase “scorchio!”), and a cheeky checkout girl who insulted customers. The comedy series Dossa and Joe, which she wrote and directed in the early 2000s while in self-imposed exile in Australia, focused on a couple who had been happily married for 40 years yet found their marriage floundering after retirement. The show was a critical success but a ratings flop.
Aherne was born in London to Irish immigrants, Bert, a labourer on the railways, and Maureen, a school dinner lady. When she was two, the family moved to Wythenshawe, Manchester. The Royle Family may well have been inspired by the Aherne family, with her father serving as unwitting prototype for sharp-tongued, moaning Jim Royle. She recalled later: “My dad was always going on about the immersion, and about lights being left on. ‘It’s like feckin’ Blackpool illuminations,’ he used to say.”
Both she and her older brother Patrick were born with a rare cancer of the retina, retinoblastoma, that caused Patrick to lose an eye, and left Caroline almost unsighted in one eye. She became the family joker, impersonating TV characters like Margot and Barbara from The Good Life and celebrities such as Marti Caine and Cilla Black. “Nobody else in the family was like that,” Patrick said. “But she was funny from the time she was really little.” As a teenager, Caroline watched Mike Leigh’s television play Abigail’s Party (1977) and resolved she would become a writer like him.
Precociously intelligent, she scored 176 in an IQ test and received nine As in her O-levels at the Hollies Convent grammar school. She studied drama at Liverpool Polytechnic, and in the late 1980s took a job at BBC Manchester as secretary to Janet Street-Porter. During this time she began to develop an act on the Manchester comedy circuit, with characters including Mitzi Goldberg, lead singer of the comedy country and western act the Mitzi Goldberg Experience, and a nun called Sister Mary Immaculate, whose ambition was to kiss the Pope’s ring.
Mrs Merton was developed in collaboration with Henry Normal, then a performance poet in Manchester, Craig Cash, with whom she presented a show on Manchester radio station KFM, and the comedian Dave Gorman. But it was the late Chris Sievey, the man behind the outsize-masked comic character Frank Sidebottom, who ensured that their creation made it to the big time. Sievey asked Aherne, a friend of his brother-in-law, to voice the part of Frank’s neighbour Mrs Merton on his album 5:9:88 (1988), and later on his Piccadilly Radio show in Manchester.
The following year, Sievey invited her to reprise the character in Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show (1992) on ITV. She was supposed to be Sidebottom’s sidekick, but Mrs Merton overshadowed him and was so well received that Granada TV commissioned her to make her own comedy vehicle.
The result was the Mrs Merton Show, which ran from 1995 to 1998 on the BBC. It had an audience composed of real-life pensioners and an in-house band, Hooky and the Boys, led by her first husband, Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook, whom she married in 1994. The couple divorced in 1997. The Royle Family ran for three seasons from 1998 to 2000, followed by specials until 2012. Mrs Merton and Malcolm, with Cash as a 37-year-old son still living at home, had a single series in 1999.
For all that she was feted by critics and garlanded with awards, Aherne struggled with fame and with her health. In 1998, at her mews home in Notting Hill, she tried to take her own life. She was treated for depression and alcoholism at the Priory clinic in 1998, and was also treated there in 2002. In addition, she suffered bladder cancer related to her eye condition. In 2014, as part of a charity drive to raise money to treat other patients suffering from the disease, she announced she was suffering from lung cancer.
In 2001, she announced she was quitting show business, because she no longer wanted to be famous. She moved for a while to Australia, returning in 2002 to collaborate with Cash one last time, on Early Doors, a fondly observed sitcom about the regulars of a Manchester pub, but she quit, leaving Cash to write and star in the hit show that some critics misguidedly called the British Cheers.
In later years, Aherne never equalled her earlier successes, still less the celebrity that came from writing and performing in two hit TV shows. She eschewed the media spotlight and lived quietly at a house in Manchester not far from her mother’s home.
She wrote such dramas as The Fattest Man in Britain (2009) and The Security Men (2013), as well as taking minor roles, such as a barmaid in a comedy called Sunshine (2008) with Steve Coogan. She also narrated programmes including Pound Shop Wars (2014), a BBC1 documentary, and voiced some of the characters in CBBC’s animated series Strange Hill High (2013-14). Perhaps fittingly, one of her last TV roles was to narrate Gogglebox, the weekly Channel 4 documentary series in which TV viewers watch other TV viewers watching TV.