Sunday 25 February 2018

'Mrs Merton' creator dies of cancer at 52

Caroline Aherne won five Bafta awards

COMEDY GENIUS: Caroline Aherne with Ricky Tomlinson in a scene from ‘The Royle Family’
COMEDY GENIUS: Caroline Aherne with Ricky Tomlinson in a scene from ‘The Royle Family’ Newsdesk Newsdesk

Caroline Aherne, who died yesterday, aged 52, shot to television stardom in the mid-1990s, playing Mrs Merton, a bespectacled chat-show host more than twice her age, before becoming an alcoholic, creating a sitcom about dysfunctional television-fixated slobs in The Royle Family and finally abandoning her career because, as she put it, she was "sick of being famous".

As the purse-lipped, iron-permed, Crimplene-clad Mancunian pensioner in the first series of The Mrs Merton Show in 1995, Aherne became a household name with her faux naive question to Debbie McGee: "So, tell me, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?" Caroline Aherne had recently married a millionaire of her own, Peter Hook, the bass guitarist in the group New Order, and for a time appeared under the name Caroline Hook.

Read more: Tribute: The Royle Family and Mrs Merton put Caroline Aherne among the comedy greats

With her arch manner and gimlet stare (the result of partial blindness in one eye), she became the queen of the loaded question, such as, "Were you breast-fed, Carol Thatcher?" "Does your wife like Supermarket Sweep, Dale Winton?" "George Best, was it playing all that football that made you so thirsty?" and "Tell me, Germaine (Greer), what is the difference between being sexually liberated in the Sixties and an old slapper now?"

She labelled this killer interview technique "a warm and gentle kicking". Such questioning, deployed in front of an elderly and vociferously partisan Mancunian audience, would have been considered too venomous for a genuine talk-show host to ask, but that was precisely the point.

"With Mrs Merton, you can ask people questions that you couldn't ask yourself," Caroline Aherne said. "There's also a kind of innocence about her that makes her sound well-meaning, even when she's being rude."

Read more: 'Thanks for the laughs' - Stars pay tribute to comedy icon Caroline Aherne who has died aged 52

By the third and fourth series, however, as more A-list celebrities began turning down invitations to submit to even the gentlest of kickings, the stress of keeping each show pin-sharp took its toll on Aherne, who was becoming increasing dependent on alcohol (a dressing-room bottle of her favourite Asti Spumante was famously included in the show's budget).

Her divorce from Peter Hook, the death of her new boyfriend Matt Bowers, various drunken public appearances and her split from the actor Alexis Denisof culminated in July 1998 in a suicide attempt when she washed down a bottle of sleeping pills with several glasses of champagne.

Discharging herself from the Priory Clinic in south-west London where she had been diagnosed as a binge alcoholic, Caroline Aherne joined Alcoholics Anonymous. But in less than a year, she had started drinking again and her spin-off sitcom for BBC1, Mrs Merton and Malcolm, flopped.

Craig Cash, her co-writer on The Mrs Merton Show, played Malcolm, the overgrown, simple-minded son, to Caroline Aherne's controlling mother, and the fact that almost nothing ever happened made it one of the weirdest programmes of the 1990s.

Much more successful was The Royle Family, a sitcom set almost entirely in the front room of a Manchester council house. Again, there was very little plot, the family hardly ever prised out of the smoke-filled front room, where they watched TV.

Read more: 'I shall sing for you tonight... My god you made us laugh!': Noel Gallagher pays tribute to Caroline Aherne

The success of the series lay in the characters: the permanently disgruntled layabout Dad, Jim (Ricky Tomlinson); his long-suffering wife, Barbara (Sue Johnston) and their lanky, gormless adolescent son Antony (Ralf Little).

Aherne herself played Denise, the bone-idle, selfish yet endearing daughter, who married her DJ boyfriend Dave, played by Craig Cash. With no laughter track or studio audience and Jim's signature catchphrase "my arse", the series became one of the comedy hits of the late 1990s.

But in 2001 Caroline Aherne cancelled plans for a forthcoming chat show and film and announced that she was leaving the country.

"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."

The daughter of an alcoholic Irish railway labourer, Caroline Mary Aherne was born on Christmas Eve 1963 in Ealing, west London, but the family moved north when she was two and she was brought up on a council estate in Wythenshawe, a working-class suburb of Manchester.

Like her elder brother Patrick, she was born with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the retina.

She compensated for her eye problems (she remained practically unsighted in one eye) by becoming the family joker, with a precocious ability to mimic TV characters, such as Barbara and Margot from The Good Life.

After the Hollies Convent School, where her IQ was measured at 176 and she achieved nine A grades in her O-levels, Caroline Aherne studied Drama at Liverpool Polytechnic, then took a job at BBC Manchester as a secretary, first on A Question of Sport and later to Janet Street-Porter, then the head of youth programmes.

Her ambition was to become a programme researcher. In the late 1980s, she joined the production team of daytime phone-in Open Air.

In the meantime she started co-presenting a show with Craig Cash on KFM, a pirate radio station in Stockport, and developed her own comedy characters. In 1990, she asked Cash to manage her.

At his suggestion, she redefined another character, Mrs Merton, originally conceived as an agony aunt, into a talk-show host. Aherne had sent home-made tapes of Mrs Merton to the Radio 2 presenter Martin Kelner, who played them on his show.

Read more: Obituary: Caroline Aherne - the reluctant celebrity who refused to play the game

In her agony aunt persona, she once encouraged a girl with buck teeth not to worry. "A lot of people have made it big in the movie world simply because of their awful teeth. And I'm thinking here of people like Cilla Black and Bugs Bunny."

At Tony Wilson's Hacienda Club in Manchester in 1993 she met Peter Hook, a part-owner of the club, and married him the next year.

The Granada pilot of The Mrs Merton Show was a failure but the series was finally commissioned by the BBC.

In 1997, The Mrs Merton Show transferred from BBC 2 to BBC 1, and with her earnings boosted by a six-figure contract to write and appear in a series of commercials for British Gas, Caroline Aherne became one of the country's highest-paid entertainers.

She won five Baftas, two for The Mrs Merton Show and three for The Royle Family.

Having largely given up showbusiness in 2001, saying she was unhappy with fame, she had breast-reduction treatment and moved for a time to Australia. In 2008, she was the subject of an unflattering newspaper story that claimed she binged on two bottles of Bollinger a night.

After revealing she had been treated for cancer of the bladder, linked to the retinoblastoma she had suffered as a child, in May 2014 she announced she was recovering from treatment for lung cancer. Earlier this year, it emerged that she had throat cancer, although she continued as the narrator of the reality show Gogglebox on Channel 4. Latterly, she lived quietly near her mother and brother in south Manchester.

Sunday Independent

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