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.

Contributor

Liam Williams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Caroline Aherne remembered by Ricky Tomlinson
The Royle Family actor on how the show’s creator had a brilliant feel for ordinary life, but kept her own hidden

11, Dec, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
'She was fearless': in praise of Caroline Aherne
At a time of gonzo blokey comedy, she was one of the few women to shine. Her genius lay in the honesty and vulnerability of her creations, from Denise Royle to Mrs Merton

Sarah Morgan

05, Jul, 2016 @7:28 AM

Article image
Caroline Aherne, award winning actor and comedian, dies aged 52
Bafta award-winning writer of the Royle Family died at home in Manchester after suffering from cancer, says publicist

David Batty and Chris Johnston

03, Jul, 2016 @9:11 AM

Article image
Jeff Pope on Caroline Aherne: 'I'll remember her on the sofa with a bag of Minstrels watching her huge TV'
Even at the peak of her success, she was battling cancer and depression. But, says her friend and writing partner, she turned everything into a funny story

Jeff Pope

04, Jul, 2016 @5:05 PM

Article image
Omid Djalili on Mel Smith: comedy's answer to Man Utd's dream team
A master of set-ups and punchlines, Smith had the crossing ability of David Beckham and the goal-scoring precision of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole

Omid Djalili

18, Mar, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
Naturally funny, cross-generational: Steve Coogan on Caroline Aherne
‘She used to make me cry with laughter’, Coogan pays tribute to his friend of over 20 years

Steve Coogan

02, Jul, 2016 @6:32 PM

Article image
Mrs Merton and the naughty nun: Caroline Aherne’s first comedy gigs
She sometimes said she’d rather be a hairdresser but Aherne’s cheeky early appearances in the pubs and clubs of Manchester led her to TV fame

Rachael Healy

13, Jul, 2021 @5:00 AM

I heart Caroline Aherne

I've developed a bit of a crush on all the women of The Royle Family, but Aherne's is a dazzling talent

Gareth McLean

15, Feb, 2008 @7:00 AM

Article image
Ricky Gervais review – anti-woke tittering over Liam Neeson and Louis CK
Casting himself as a taboo breaker for his Netflix show Supernature, the cacklesome comic delivers a squarely liberal-baiting set

Brian Logan

30, May, 2019 @11:46 AM

Article image
Ralf Little webchat – your questions answered on football, The Royle Family and Caroline Aherne
The actor and producer joined us live from the National Theatre to weigh in everything from his most-coveted role to which packet of crisps goes best with two pints of lager

28, Feb, 2017 @1:14 PM