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The Royle Family at 25

25 years after it first aired, the Royle Family is a landmark of popular working-class culture on screen — the inventive masterpiece of its brilliant but troubled creator, Caroline Aherne. 

‘You see all these kitchen sink dramas with beautiful kitchens; nothing out of place, no dirty pans,’ said the woman shown sat on screen in a small and untidy kitchen, ‘well, people’s kitchens aren’t like that.’ In spring 1974, BBC One broadcast The Family.

In the new documentary series, the Wilkins family from Reading — a working-class family living above a greengrocers — would be filmed for eighteen hours a day, which would be edited and broadcast in weekly half-hour instalments. The Family became a phenomenon; there were calls for this type of show to be banned altogether, and a peak of 8,000,000 viewers watched simultaneously as the series climaxed with the marriage of nineteen-year-old Marian Wilkins and the work-averse pub dreamer Tom. Sometimes you just watched the family watching television; an entirely new thing. 

With its aspirations spread uneasily across patrician, entertainment and even radical values, The Family epitomised a certain strand of Britain’s formal mass television culture in the 1970s and 80s. In his history of British comedy Sunshine On Putty, Ben Thompson credits that culture with the comedy innovations of the 1990s. A generation reared not just on comedy like Fawlty Towers but on broadcasting like Play For Today, Parkinson or The Family became the 1990s generation that would subvert those values to create a peak period for British television comedy. 

One of that generation was Caroline Aherne. Aherne was born on Christmas Eve 1963 in Ealing, North London. The much-coveted Christmas number one slot that week was The Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand, the song chiming in a new era of northern proletarian cool that decade. Caroline and her older brother Patrick were the children of two recent Irish immigrants, Bert and Maureen Aherne. Maureen worked as a dinner lady, while Bert was a railway worker, a reportedly hard-drinking and sometimes violent patriarch. 

When Caroline was two, the family moved to Manchester’s Wythenshawe Estate. Like Ealing, Wythenshawe was home to a sizeable Irish community. Then and now, it is the second largest council housing estate in Britain and was the product of a 1930s project aimed at housing Manchester families in clean and smokeless homes outside of the industrial city, with gardens front and back. 

Caroline and Patrick had both been born with retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer that affects young children. A dance was held at the local Irish centre to raise money for the children to visit Lourdes, the Catholic pilgrimage reputed for its potential healing powers. The retreat didn’t entirely succeed; Caroline would be partially sighted for the rest of her adult life. 

In 1977, fourteen-year-old Caroline caught the BBC One transmission of Abigail’s Party. The play, starring Alison Steadman, had been devised by Salford writer-director Mike Leigh and picked up by the corporation after a sell-out run at the Hampstead Theatre. The social satire of a single evening in a suburban living room was viewed, on one broadcast, by 16 million people. For the rest of her life, Aherne would credit that moment with her decision to become a writer. 

By the time Aherne graduated with a drama degree from Liverpool Polytechnic in the 1980s, her home city of Manchester had spawned a lively comedy circuit running concurrently to its music scene in pub back-rooms and city-centre clubs. She worked at BBC Manchester as a secretary for Janet Street-Porter while debuting comedy characters around town, like country singer Mitzi Goldberg or the inadvertently foul-mouthed nun Sister Mary Immaculate. During a broadcast with Frank Sidebottom (a.k.a. Chris Sievey), Aherne developed Mrs Merton, a prim pensioner drawn heavily on the elderly women Aherne had grown up with around Wythenshawe. Getting on stage was tough for Aherne, and booze steadied the nerves. 

At Stockport’s independent KFM radio, Aherne was introduced to North West comedy performers like Steve Coogan, John Thompson and Terry Christian. ‘I had a list of male friends I could go out for a drink with,’ remembered Coogan in 2004, ‘and when I thought, who will make me laugh, I’d always end up ringing Caroline because she was the funniest person I knew, and she would spend the whole evening taking the rise out of me.’ Most importantly, though, at KFM she met Craig Cash, a painter and decorator moonlighting as an indie DJ at nights. The pair began writing together, even briefly entering into a relationship.

Aherne won the inaugural City Life Comedian of the Year Award for Sister Mary Immaculate, written with Cash. ‘I remember us going back to her flat,’ said Cash in a 2018 interview, ‘throwing the money up in the air and jumping up and down as it tumbled around us.’ UK television culture in the 1990s was relatively anarchic, close to the ground and open to younger entrants. For someone as obviously gifted as Aherne, there were opportunities; a Granada pilot here, a late-night Channel 4 sketch show there. Her appearances on The Fast Show as schoolgirl Janine were early indications of a savage gift for dialogue and the rhythms of everyday speech.

In 1993, Granada TV commissioned The Mrs Merton Show, which would air on the BBC. The pioneering format saw Aherne in character interviewing real-life celebrities, a strange and chaotic subversion of the chat shows like Parkinson or Wogan that Aherne had grown up watching. It would mint an entirely new format of show that would be replicated that decade by Steve Coogan and Sacha Baron Cohen. At Aherne’s insistence, the studio audience was entirely local pensioners, a generous source of the show’s comedy. 

Today, Mrs Merton is remembered for Aherne’s faux-naive interview style (to George Best: if you hadn’t done all of that running around and playing football, would you still have been as thirsty?). But the blue rinse wig and cardigan could disguise real bite. Towards the end of the show’s run, Aherne interviewed Bernard Manning. It’s astonishing footage; Manning flounders in the face of Aherne dressed as an old woman, her tightly authored questions giving him nowhere to hide, leaving him bragging impotently about his bank balance before making sordid comments about black people to a silent audience. The younger generation of North West comedy had just shot him down on what he had assumed to be home turf. 

It was during these years, though, that Britain’s tabloid press began to take an interest in Aherne. In 1994, she married the New Order bassist Peter Hook who she had met at the Hacienda nightclub. In his 2016 memoir, published shortly after Aherne’s death, Hook alleged that he was ‘an abused husband’ during the marriage and that Aherne put out cigarettes on his arms and attacked him with bottles, knives and chairs. ‘It would be set off by the slightest thing,’ wrote Hook, ‘talking or looking at another woman was a favourite.’ 

It was a short and unhappy marriage, interrupted by the death of Aherne’s father in 1995. By 1997, the marriage was over, and Aherne had bored of the Mrs Merton format. She bargained with BBC commissioners that she would only countenance a final series if they commissioned a pilot of an entirely different type of comedy programme that would be written by herself and Cash.

When Ricky Tomlinson first met Caroline Aherne at an industry function, he remembers returning ashen-faced to his wife. ‘Poor girl,’ he mourned, ‘she thinks I’m her dad.’ The next day, as Tomlinson tells it, he received a phone call from his agent that made sense of the encounter, asking him to reunite with his former screen wife Sue Johnston for a new comedy written by Aherne. 

Tomlinson and Johnston had appeared on British screens in the 1980s as the Grants in Channel 4’s pioneering soap opera Brookside. The soap had been Johnston’s first major role — in the 1960s, she had been part of the Merseybeat scene around The Beatles, friends with Paul McCartney and working for manager Brian Epstein. Tomlinson, meanwhile, came to acting after being blacklisted from building work in Merseyside following two years in prison for picketing a construction workers’ site (in 2021, after decades of campaigning, the conviction was overturned — the charges had been a conspiracy between the Conservative government and sections of the British state.) What had impressed Aherne, though, was a moment in Ken Loach’s 1993 film Raining Stones, where Tomlinson’s character is given some money by his daughter and silently breaks down in tears. This was Aherne’s vision: serious character actors, no celebrities, no stand-up comics. 

A good example of this was Liz Smith, cast in the role of Nana Royle, into which Aherne would pour all of her deep immersion in the study of British old women. Liz Smith always credited Mike Leigh with changing her life in 1971 by casting her in his film Bleak Moments and then again in 1973’s Hard Labour. She quit her toy shop job and worked relentlessly for the rest of her life. The Mike Leigh connection would have mattered to Aherne, who in interviews spoke of lending Meantime on VHS to Steve Coogan and being a particular admirer of his warm 1990 family drama Life Is Sweet (not mentioned is 1980’s Grown-Ups TV play, which contains a ticklist of future Royle tropes.) 

Early production for The Royle Family at Ealing Studios was fraught. BBC bosses worried aloud during script read-throughs. ‘She didn’t want a typical sitcom full of gags and pratfalls,’ remembered Tomlinson in his 2003 memoir, ‘it was almost the opposite.’ An early pilot with a studio audience was scrapped, with Aherne famously claiming to have buried the sole existing tape in her mother’s garden. 

Certainly, it took the hiring of young director Mark Mylod (who would later direct the Roy family on HBO’s Succession) for the project to cohere. ‘Mark set the photographic tone from day one,’ said Cash in a 2021 interview. ‘He shot documentary-style, hand-held, with the camera always at a certain height. He was one of the few directors who totally got us and enhanced what we were trying to do.’ 

The Royle Family became sculpted by vows of aesthetic chastity, resembling more Dogme 95 than it does one of its contemporary sitcoms like Dinnerladies. No laughter track; all shooting on 16mm film; action confined to the house (and the living room in particular). All events took place in real time, with no exposition, no backstory (the things that families don’t talk about are never talked about), no music (unless it’s playing in the Royle household). The show’s only needle drop would be Oasis b-side Half the World Away, one of Noel Gallagher’s most plaintive, yearning songs of escape from an Irish working-class south Manchester background very much like Aherne’s. Its use at the end of each episode could undercut even the funniest moments with heartbreaking pathos.

Between the completion of the first series and its transmission, in July 1998, Caroline Aherne attempted suicide at her Notting Hill home. We know this because of heavy tabloid intrusion into her life at the time; evident in reports from that month that reports were outside her home, contacting her family members and aware of an unusual level of detail from the police arrival at the house. Aherne checked into the Priory rehab clinic. ‘I went in for depression and they told me I was an alcoholic,’ remembered Aherne in a 1999 interview. ‘I said, “I’m not”. They said, “You are”. And this row went on for ages.’

On Monday 14 September 1998 at 10 pm — following a 9 O’Clock News transmission about Bill Clinton’s impeachment, John Prescott addressing the TUC, and the impending licensing of Viagra on the NHS — the first half-an-hour episode of The Royle Family was broadcast. The plot? A phone bill is expensive and must be queried. Jim, the father of the family, buys a pair of jeans. The end. By the time that the show’s initial three-season run had finished — twenty episodes and two years later on Christmas Day 2000 — The Royle Family had soared from 3 to 10 million viewers.

Where the kitchen-sink drama of the 1960s had focused on the changing sexual freedoms and gender roles in working-class life, or in the 1980s, working-class drama had taken the pulse of the economic shocks of Thatcher-era monetarist policy, in the 1990s, The Royle Family ran counter to an upwardly mobile, image-obsessed media culture lingering on to life in the aftermath of deindustrialisation and what remained of Britain’s welfare state. The Royles barely worked; by the end of the series, viewers can just about deduce that Jim was made redundant during the Thatcher era, but it’s never clearly expressed. This wasn’t unemployment as a social issue; most of the time, the family just sat and watched lots of telly.

‘Within its enclosed domestic setting,’ wrote Ben Thompson in 2004, ‘The Royle Family seems to enshrine all the ideals of working-class and familial and communal solidarity which were supposed to have been demolished by the Thatcher government.’  Aherne loved and drew influence from Only Fools and Horses, which had just finished its epic fifteen-year run. In that show, the women were only ever wives and girlfriends rolling their eyes at the antics of the primary male cast. Likewise, the supposedly dynamic new comedy culture of the 1990s was dismally blokey. 

This was not the case for the Royle household, where Aherne’s ear for dialogue was particularly sharp when it came to working-class women. The show had enormous fun cutting between the men and the women in separate rooms. In Denise, Aherne created a character that was frequently irredeemable and often outright terrifying. In the show’s second season, Aherne wrote a slow-burning plotline about Barbara’s struggles with the menopause. It’s sensitively handled, there throughout the second series if you begin to look for it, and causes the facade of the family to temporarily break down in one of its finest episodes. ‘This isn’t life,’ says Barbara at breaking point, ‘it’s just existing.’ 

Though affectionate, Aherne and Cash’s writing is alive to the nastier elements of their working-class life, and as Nathalie Olah writes in Steal As Much As You Can, their proximity meant they could call it out from a place of authority. Take Jim’s bullying of Anthony, or the relentless weight-shaming in millennial British culture. It was sharp, too, on British alcohol culture. ‘I can’t get tanked up like most nights,’ reflects Denise on announcing her pregnancy, ‘but I can still have a good old couple, can’t I?’

Aherne could sum up a whole lifetime of horror with haiku-like economy. ‘She married a joiner, moved to Leeds,’ says Liz Smith’s Nana Royle of a childhood friend, ‘he knocked her about a bit, but her home was lovely.’ A generation earlier, Alan Bennett had been able to ventriloquise social comment through the mouths of old dears, but the work that explores class and his Leeds upbringing is tempered with the (often understandable) distance provided by his Oxford escape or his sexuality. Bennett’s work is defined by the dread sense of a life being lived elsewhere; not so Aherne, who knew the showbiz metropolis and decided that a South Manchester living room was infinitely more interesting. Because of that, she liked her subjects a lot more. 

Victoria Wood could be similarly affectionate, but her work was straightened into conventional packages more easily acceptable to the light entertainment formats of the 1970s and 80s. Aherne’s closest comparisons are Shelagh Delaney and Andrea Dunbar, two writers whose own biographies have echoes of Aherne’s own life and challenges.  The New Labour government, in its first term across the show’s original run, was embarrassed by people like the Royles. These were years when Blair evangelised for a new, larger middle class, ‘characterised by a greater tolerance of difference, greater ambition to succeed, greater opportunities to earn a decent living.’ Blair declared that ‘the class war is over.’ 

Jim’s absolute ambivalence about ‘Tony bloody Blair’ spoke perhaps more accurately to a mood of ambivalence that set in across that first term. The changing tastes and aspirations of the Blair years are symbolised in Denise’s ambitions to cook pasta (‘does Dave know about this?’ asks a concerned Barbara), wood laminate flooring, Dyson hoovers and Barbera’s enjoyment of Changing Rooms. The funniest thing about Aherne’s attitude to class was just how absolutely uninterested she was in the middle class, only at the end of the third series introducing Antony’s girlfriend Emma’s parents, who are mocked mercilessly for their grasping materialism and ambition.

Though the show was often assumed to be heavy on improvisation, it was anything but. Aherne would write and rewrite on the day if something wasn’t working, and Sue Johnston described the show as ‘one of the most disciplined things I’ve ever worked on.’ The long Pinteresque silences would be timed for maximum comic effect. Barbara’s bright ‘oohs’ and neighbour Joe’s droning minimalism located the absurd and surreal in the Manchester everyday. Aherne delighted in a language that was caustic, scatological and often outright vulgar, which audiences loved and gave the show an edge over the euphemistic twee of middle and upper-class authored comedy.

The best moments in The Royle Family — the stuff you sensed Aherne had been building it all along for — was when it was able to shake the edifice of the family and reveal some of its heart. In its fifth episode, there’s a long sequence where late at night, the family are brought downstairs by an argument and begin to sing. Pub singalongs, theme tunes from adverts, a Merseybeat hit that Barbara sang to her children as little babies. Here, it isn’t anything from British sitcom past that it brings to mind, but Terence Davies’ 1988 film Distant Voices, Still Lives, where singing stands in for intimacy and shared memory. 

The show’s most powerful scene came at the end of its second series. For the first half-hour of the Christmas Day episode, Christmas Day is like any other day in front of the television. Then, a heavily pregnant Denise’s waters break upstairs offscreen. A hesitant Jim has to keep his terrified daughter company before the ambulance can arrive. Charlotte Church’s Pie Jesu plays on a tiny yellow portable CD player, framing the moment in stained glass. ‘I remember the first time your mum,’ remembers Jim, sniffing back tears and holding his daughter tightly on the avocado bathroom floor, ‘when your mum put you in my arms and I looked at you…oh, God, you were beautiful and I knew… I knew then…I’d do anything for you, anything for you.’ Shot in one take, it is the summit of Aherne’s achievements. 

Shaped by a mass formal television culture, The Royle Family unwittingly became a kind of eulogy to it. A lot of 1990s culture brought in postmodern pop culture references, which The Royle Family was able to do by turning the television into a central character. It only really made sense in a world of linear broadcasting with one screen in the household. Fittingly, the end to the original series is simply Jim receiving that other marker of Blair era change — Sky Digital.

As The Royle Family became one of Britain’s most-watched programmes, Aherne’s celebrity became debilitating for a woman already struggling with depression. ‘She’d tell me, I just don’t want to live anymore,’ remembered screenwriter and friend Jeff Pope in 2016 of Aherne during the Royle years. ‘She tried all sorts of drugs and brutal treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy. At that time, she lived in a beautiful rooftop apartment in Covent Garden, and would be so low, so lost, that she’d go to a cashpoint and take out £200, find some homeless person sitting in the plaza begging, and give it to them — just for the look on their face. It lifted her spirits for a moment, then it was back to the blackness.’ 

Where the 1990s tabloid-media culture lapped up the Gallagher brothers behaving badly in public, Aherne’s behaviour — answering her mobile phone on live TV sat next to a visibly bemused Michael Palin, or heckling Sir Nigel Hawthorn to ‘get one with it’ during the British Comedy Awards — was met with patronising concern. ‘I was as pissed as Caroline,’ reflected Cash to the Independent in 2011, ‘but women get put under an intense spotlight.’ Jonathan Ross made jokes about her alcoholism at the British Comedy Awards. In an interview with Chris Evans, he makes grim, sexualised observations about her and weirdly holds her hand. ‘It was as if some papers decided her destiny was to die tragically,’ wrote Jon Ronson in 2005, ‘and they almost tried to make it happen.’ 

David Walliams’ 2012 memoir contains an account of their short-lived and tempestuous 1999 relationship; meeting for the first time at The Groucho Club, Aherne tells him, ‘don’t lose your anonymity. It’s the most terrible thing to lose.’ After the third series of The Royle Family — which Aherne had directed entirely herself — Aherne walked from the show. After a 2001 holiday was marred by press intrusion, Aherne announced to Hello! Magazine her retirement from public life: ‘I’ve realised that if I really want a private life, I’ll have to be a private person again.’

Despite having delivered the BBC an enormous hit, the BBC could be accused of being only really interested in Aherne and Cash for that hit. Aherne wrote Dossa and Joe during a temporary relocation to Australia, a black comedy about a retired Australian couple that was met with mixed reviews and ratings indifference. Craig Cash fought hard for the BBC to commission Early Doors, a sitcom set in that other site of working-class stasis — the pub. Aherne had been set to work on the project but left just days before production was set to start. The show — which is excellent — was barely promoted and only really got serious recognition when it was repeated on BBC Four and iPlayer in early 2023.

But with the success of Phoenix Nights and Paul Abbott’s Shameless, The Royle Family had become quietly influential on British television. CBS even commissioned a doomed pilot for an American remake — The Kennedys. Aherne was adrift, reportedly working on an autobiography with the soon-to-be-disgraced celebrity therapist Beechy Colclough. ‘As it became apparent she was unwell,’ said Cash in a 2021 interview, ‘I suggested to Phil (Mealey, Early Doors co-writer) that we should try to help her by getting back into writing. Maybe for a Royle Family special.’ Aherne was receptive to the idea. ‘We sat down and started writing scenes but Caroline was clearly still depressed. She’d lost a lot of confidence and just didn’t know if she was funny anymore.’ 

The resulting episode, 2006’s The Queen of Sheba, dealt with the death of Nana Royle and would win a BAFTA for Best Situation Comedy. In the credits, Aherne’s psychiatrist Dr Jennifer Gomborone is given special thanks. There would be a handful of future Christmas episodes which, although successful in viewership, were so cartoonishly rendered and deviated so sharply from the show’s blueprint so as to place them outside of the canon.

Not much is known about Aherne’s later years. She lived in a bungalow in the Trafford suburb of Timperley, watching Coach Trip, Three in a Bed and The Jeremy Kyle Show on her seemingly huge television. In 2013, fifteen years after The Royle Family first aired, the show’s influence reached new expression in Channel 4 documentary-reality series Gogglebox. The TV show that allowed viewers to watch people on TV watching people on TV, Aherne was asked to be the show’s voice-over.

At best, Gogglebox makes sense; it is a warm and funny celebration of ordinary people, not celebrities, and their convivial humour. Viewed at another angle, Gogglebox is a symptom of a TV culture that commodifies working and lower-middle-class voices without ever allowing them to make decisions about how they are presented, or shape that success. It’s an extension of a news culture that confuses vox-pops with representation. Showmakers Studio Lambert have also been criticised by former employees and by the union Bectu for its unusually high number of complaints related to claims of ‘inhumane’ working conditions endured by staff to get the show on air. 

In 2014, Aherne was diagnosed with lung cancer. Aherne used her public profile to raise awareness of health inequalities in Britain around cancer deaths. ’It’s truly shocking to learn that Manchester came bottom out of 150 areas in England for premature deaths from cancer,’ said Aherne at a rare public appearance at a 2014 Manchester cancer fundraiser. ‘Our survival rates are 25 percent lower than the national average and the number of people getting lung cancer is a third higher.’ On 2nd July 2016, alone at her home in Timperley, Caroline Aherne died aged 52.

‘Caroline was a leading light in showing that working-class people can be on TV, being ourselves,’ said co-star Ralf Little on Aherne’s passing, ‘That you can be a working-class kid, living out your life, and that can be interesting and funny and dramatic and entertaining. Right now, I don’t see anyone else doing what she did and I do think there is a noticeable gap left in Caroline’s wake. Her death is a reminder how much she and her writing were, and still are, the exception.

In the year following Aherne’s death, the BBC launched a new bursary scheme aimed at northern female writers and performers: The Caroline Aherne Bursary for Funny Northern Women. Awarding the successful applicant a £5000 grant and the opportunity to develop work alongside an experienced BBC commissioning editor, the first winner was Bolton comic Sophie Willan. In 2020, BBC Two commissioned her excellent comedy series Alma’s Not Normal, which explored subjects ranging from intergenerational trauma and sex work to Manchester’s regeneration. 

But while bursaries are welcome, they are ultimately a sticking plaster on a wider crisis of people from lower economic backgrounds making television in their own voice and image. These are nightmare conditions for working-class creativity, and we will never be able to quantify how many talents such as Aherne’s did not break into the industry, or tried to but were priced out in a playing field that only grows more unequal under late capitalism. 

The Royle Family happened because the conditions were just about in place to get each of the cast there, a moment of working-class ascension from the media brought about by the post-war welfare state and a tide that — on the available evidence — came back in some time ago. Aherne’s native Manchester talks big about culture and regeneration, but the Manchester model’s soaring rents have only made things harder for individuals to exist and for small venues and pub back-room circuits to flourish. The unification of ITV seriously weakened Granada TV — which from the late 1950s rightly prided itself on being an engine of North West talent — making it easy prey for inevitable cutbacks. Stockport’s KFM radio disappeared in a merger deal. The City Life Comedian of the Year award, of which Aherne was the first winner in 2000, was wound down in 2008. 

There have been excellent comedies about working-class life in the last half decade — the terminal boredom of rural life in This Country, or the inner-city pressure of People Just Do Nothing. But these are outliers among a wider collapse in working-class participation in the arts — last year, analysis of Office for National Statistics data found that the proportion of musicians, writers and artists from working-class backgrounds had shrunk by at least half since the 1970s. In the BBC’s own 2020 diversity report, it accepted that ‘those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are depicted negatively, fuelled by stereotypes and seen as the object of ridicule.’ 

A quarter of a century on from its debut on British screens, The Royle Family stands as a landmark of working-class life on screen, a eulogy for the television culture it was shaped by, and a radical leap forward in British comedy. And it is the masterpiece and crowning achievement of its brilliant, gifted and deeply cherished auteur, Caroline Mary Aherne.