Liam Williams on Caroline Aherne: ‘the Bambi-eyed princess of northern naturalism’

The Royle Family, with its comfy-caustic scripts, brought my household together like no other show – and Aherne was the subtlest, most surprising, member of its talented cast

A while back, I interviewed one of my heroes, Tim Key, and asked him to list his comedic idols. He reeled off a predictable enough list – Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Stephen Fry – but among the alt-comedy patriarchs he named a less obvious influence. In doing so, he confirmed in my impressionable student’s mind that Caroline Aherne was one of the funniest, smartest, coolest figures of the last golden age of British comedy.

I hadn’t really thought of her since the culmination of the third series of The Royle Family in 2000. But now a child of the new wave of offbeat comedians had given her props, I was licensed to revere her once more, that Bambi-eyed princess of northern working-class naturalism, whose voice (now familiar to viewers of bad TV show Gogglebox) croaked and trilled and danced about prosodically like a sun-tired child hopscotching on a balmy summer’s eve.

Let some emphasis fall on her skilful and charming turns in The Fast Show, and more yet on her float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee chatshow host, Mrs Merton, who as a pioneer of the faux-naif celebrity interviewer shtick, paved the way for Sacha Baron Cohen’s brand of wind-up merchantry. But give laudatory priority to her best piece of work, her collaboration with Craig Cash, the TV show that the BFI deemed the 31st best ever made in Britain, the sitcom the nation agreed to be its 19th favourite and the piece of entertainment that brought my family together more closely than anything else: The Royle Family.

I’ve met a few people who didn’t take to it, found it crude or dull (though I always suspected obtuseness or snobbery behind the disapproval), but I’ve met many more who thought it was great. I can remember few other programmes that had the whole household (two sullen teenagers and two boring adults) sitting happily together laughing and saying things like “You do that, dad!” and “No, I don’t, children”. “They’re just like us!” we probably told each other, but in truth they weren’t. We watched the Royles with a combination of sentimental nostalgia for the kind of working-class habits that my parents had all but left behind, and a fond middle-class amusement at their parade of inelegancies.

The writing was mainly comfy but sometimes caustic, like Alan Bennett’s comedy. Stylistically, it was like nothing I’d seen before. The Office hadn’t happened yet, and anyway, it wasn’t mockumentary. It was something else, something both intimate and voyeuristic – a sort of fly-on-the-sofa style. Mike Leigh is the most obvious reference point; Aherne recounts being blown away the first time she saw Abigail’s Party. But whatever the influences, it felt utterly new and it was massively successful. A bold sitcom, original and yet hugely popular – it hardly seems conceivable in this rubbish modern age of TV comedy.

And for me Aherne was the best thing in it. All the characters were funny and real and distinctive, of course. Sure, Sue Johnson was the hard-working engine, the show’s regista, to borrow a footballing term. But Aherne was the attacking playmaker: sparky, full of flourish, always there to deliver a masterful punchline to Johnson’s concerted set-up work. She was the subtlest, the most surprising, the most arresting of a talented cast.

And usefully for a comedian, she’s very funny. But not just funny; brave too, and poetic too, and nice too, and a lot more besides.

• Liam Williams’s show Capitalism is at Soho theatre, London, 23 to 28 February & 4 to 7 March. Then touring until 6 June.


Liam Williams

The GuardianTramp

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