Obituary: Caroline Aherne - the reluctant celebrity who refused to play the game
Caroline Aherne created legendary television characters who brought laughs to millions – the acerbic spoof chat-show host Mrs Merton and the idle couch potato Jim Royle – but she lived her own life through a series of dramas, battling cancer, depression and alcoholism, and attempting suicide.
As an actress and writer, she found national fame on taking the agony aunt Mrs Merton from Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio to television and asking outrageous and “naïve” questions of her celebrity interviewees. “So what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” she asked Debbie McGee in The Mrs Merton Show (1995-8).
Aherne’s elderly alter ego, complete with grey hair, floral dresses and cat spectacles, sat in front of an audience of pensioners and lulled guests into a false sense of security with banter about the price of milk and the hardships of the Second World War. Then, she would go in for the kill and pose questions laced with barbed comments. “You were a right old slapper in the Seventies, weren’t you?” she said to Germaine Greer.
The programme was so successful that it transferred from BBC Two to BBC One, although three 1997 specials recorded in Las Vegas with stars such as Tony Curtis, Engelbert Humperdinck and Bo Derek were less well received.
After four runs, Aherne and her regular co-writer, Craig Cash, found themselves running out of ideas and wanted to script a sitcom. The spin-off Mrs Merton and Malcolm (1999), with Cash playing the now bedridden character’s son, was popular with viewers but panned by critics who considered the “mummy’s boy” to be making fun of people with learning difficulties. Aherne and Cash wrote the series with the performance poet Henry Normal, who had worked on some Mrs Merton Show scripts and went on to produce Steve Coogan films and television programmes.
The three then created one of television’s most groundbreaking sitcoms, The Royle Family, with astute characterisations and authentic dialogue. It was shot on film, without a studio audience or laugh track, and set almost entirely in the working-class Northern family’s living room, but the natural silences, humdrum conversations and lack of plot captured viewers’ imaginations.
Ricky Tomlinson was cast as Jim, the slob rooted to his sofa in front of the television, with the remote control by his side, scratching himself, breaking wind, announcing his visits to the lavatory and making “My arse!” a national catchprase. Sue Johnston acted Jim’s long-suffering wife, Barbara, who switched between the living room and kitchen, and the family was completed by Aherne as daughter Denise, Ralf Little as son Antony, Liz Smith as Nana, Barbara’s morbid mother, and Craig Cash as Dave Best, Denise’s henpecked boyfriend (later husband). Denise was as lazy as her father while Barbara’s work at a bakery made her the only member of the family to have a job – in addition to running around after her husband. Antony was similarly treated as a dogsbody, although later became a successful businessman. Various satellite characters included family friend Twiggy (Geoffrey Hughes), Antony’s dim friend Darren (Andrew Whyment) and Antony’s first girlfriend, Emma (Sheridan Smith).
After three series (1998-2000) – like The Mrs Merton Show, switching from BBC Two to BBC One after the first run – Aherne insisted she would write no more episodes. However, such was the sitcom’s popularity that she and Cash returned with a 2006 special, followed by four Christmas specials (2008-12) directed by Aherne. A decade after it began, The Royle Family was the most watched television programme on Christmas Day 2009.
When the original run came to an end, Aherne retreated from the spotlight. Suffering from depression, she had attempted suicide in 1998, washing down sleeping pills with several bottles of champagne. She sought treatment at The Priory clinic, London, and was diagnosed as a binge alcoholic.
In 2014, it was announced that Aherne had been diagnosed the previous year with lung cancer. She had previously suffered from bladder cancer and, from birth, retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the retina that her older brother, Patrick, also had and left her with only partial sight in one eye. The three were connected.
Aherne was born in London to Irish immigrants, Bert, a railway worker, and Maureen, a school dinners assistant. The family moved to the Wythenshawe district of Manchester when Aherne was two and she later revealed that her father, an alcoholic, had been part of the inspiration for Jim Royle. She told The Independent in 1999: “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.”
Her childhood talent for impersonating stars such as Cilla Black won her a prize in a Butlin’s holiday camp competition. She was also remarkably intelligent, with an IQ of 176. On leaving the Hollies Convent Grammar School, West Didsbury, Aherne studied drama at Liverpool Polytechnic.
Then, while working by day as Janet Street-Porter’s secretary at BBC Manchester, she performed at the city’s venues as lead singer in the comedy country and western act The Mitzi Goldberg Experience. In 1987, the musician and comedian Frank Sidebottom (the outsize papier mâché-, then fibre glass-headed alter ego of Chris Sievey) invited Aherne, a friend of his brother-in-law, to voice the next-door neighbour, Mrs Merton, in his Radio Timperley comedy show on the BBC station’s commercial rival, Piccadilly Radio. The pair took their characters to television in the Channel Four game-show Remote Control (1989-90) and Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show (1992).
Aherne was then seen in her various character creations, including Sister Mary Immaculate, in television comedy programmes such as The Dead Good Show (1992-3), alongside Steve Coogan and John Thomson, Better Late and Just for Laughs (both 1993).
This led to Aherne joining the team of writers and performers in the BBC sketch series The Fast Show (1994-7), where her characters included Spanish TV weather presenter Poula Fisch, exclaiming “Scorchio!”, and Rochdale teenage mum Janine Carr.
In 2001, following the success of The Mrs Merton Show and The Royle Family, Aherne announced her intention not to appear on television again. “Celebrity is just a game,” she said. “It’s a fascinating game and loads of people love playing it. But I can’t be arsed playing it any more because I’ve decided I’m no good at it.”
She reportedly had a breast reduction and moved to Australia but was persuaded to co-write, with Peter Herbert, and direct Dossa and Joe (2002), set in that country and starring Anne Charleston and Michael Caton as a retired couple undergoing marriage-guidance counselling. It was made for the BBC but failed to catch on. In the same year, Aherne walked out on the pub sitcom Early Doors, on which she had been working on with Cash (Phil Mealey replaced her).
In 2006, she left London to buy a modest house in Timperley, Cheshire, close to her mother and brother, and remained out of the limelight. However, with Jeff Pope, she co-wrote the one-off comedy-dramas The Fattest Man in Britain (2009) and The Security Men (2013). As well as acting in the Royle Family specials, she made rare appearances as a barmaid in one episode of the comedy-drama Sunshine (2008), written by Cash and Mealey, and The Fast Show Faster (2011), which reunited the sketch-show team. Aherne also voiced the animated children’s series Strange Hill High (2013-14) and narrated the reality show Gogglebox from 2013 until this year. Her final acting role was a cameo in the Cash-directed Sky 1 comedy After Hours last year
In 1997, after three years of marriage, she was divorced from the Joy Division and New Order bass guitarist Peter Hook, whose group Hooky and the Boys were the house band for the first two series of The Mrs Merton Show.
Caroline Mary Aherne, actress, writer, producer and director: born London 24 December 1963; married 1994 Peter Hook (divorced 1997); died Timperley 2 July 2016
Independent News Service