Friends and colleagues fondly recall the brilliance of Caroline Aherne, known for being clever and witful, yet also a bit scatterbrained. She was a key member of the Royle Family.
Tomlinson has a vivid memory of his first encounter with Caroline Aherne. He was attending the Royal Television Society awards with his wife, Rita, who asked him to fetch something from the buffet table. As he approached the table, he accidentally bumped into a young girl in front of him. She turned around and exclaimed, “Oh, you’re my dad, right?” Tomlinson was taken aback and returned to his wife, mentioning that the girl seemed to be struggling with mental health issues. The following day, he was invited to audition for The Royle Family, which marked the beginning of his successful career. In the show, Tomlinson played the role of Jim Royle, the father of Aherne’s character, Denise.
It has been 25 years since the initial airing of The Royle Family, 22 years since Aherne declared her departure from the spotlight, and 7 years since she passed away from cancer at 52. A new BBC film, Queen of Comedy, now commemorates her life and impact. However, this title fails to fully acknowledge the significant role she played in British and Irish culture during her brief lifetime. Aherne’s accomplishments include two groundbreaking TV series (The Mrs Merton Show and The Royle Family), comedy that shed light on racism (particularly her Mrs Merton interview with Bernard Manning), a memorable catchphrase (“So what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”), and a sitcom in The Royle Family that rivals the works of esteemed playwrights Beckett and Pinter. Let’s also not forget her captivating sketches in The Fast Show (“Scorchio!”). Aherne, a working-class woman, was one of the first female TV comedians to have complete control over every aspect of production, with the influence to turn down the “big boys.” In 2001, she was the sixth highest-paid British TV personality, earning an estimated £2 million per year. However, she did not hold on to much of her earnings for herself.
Tomlinson is speaking from his residence in Liverpool. Did he ever mention to her that he believed she was not quite right in the head? “Yes, I told her more than once that I thought she was crazy.” He greatly enjoyed portraying the flatulent, obsessed-with-rear-ends, remote-control-obsessed, work-shy grouch. We should have disliked Jim, but instead, we adored him. This was due to the skillful writing of Aherne and her colleagues, Henry Normal and Craig Cash. At first glance, Jim may have seemed like a stereotypical slob, but he had a rare ability to experience joy and show tenderness.
The Royle Family was a tribute to Aherne’s two greatest loves in life: ordinary working-class individuals and television. It stood out from other sitcoms of its time by having no live audience, canned laughter, or traditional studio. Instead, a single camera captured the Royles as they sat in their living room, discussing their dinner plans (“We were going to have toad in the hole, but there were no sausages left so we just had the hole”) and engaging in casual conversation.
Tomlinson expressed that working on The Royle Family was his favorite job. He thoroughly enjoyed going to work and there was constant laughter from the moment they started until the moment they finished. He greatly appreciates Aherne’s kindness, which he often reflects on. A tradition they had after finishing filming on Friday nights was for Caroline to set up tables in the hallway. She would provide drinks for everyone, including a few cans of Sainsbury’s mild for Tomlinson, some lagers for the cameramen and grips, bottles of wine for the makeup artist and wardrobe stylist, and a bottle of champagne for Aherne and Sue Johnston, who played Barbara Royle. Additionally, Caroline would give a lottery ticket to everyone on the production team as a way of thanking them.
Aherne was born on December 24, 1963, in Ealing, a western district of London. When she was two years old, her family, who were Irish Catholics, relocated to Wythenshawe in Greater Manchester. Her father, Bert, worked on the railway and her mother, Maureen, was a school lunch lady. Both Aherne and her brother, Patrick, were born with a unique type of cancer, which resulted in him losing sight in one eye and her having limited vision in one eye. Their mother instilled in them the belief that they were special because of their cancer. Aherne credited her mother for making them resilient.
During her early childhood, Aherne frequently had to stay in the hospital. Later on, she achieved high marks in her O-levels and pursued a degree in drama at Liverpool Polytechnic (now known as Liverpool John Moores University). She also worked as a secretary at the BBC, using this opportunity to develop characters that she would eventually showcase in her standup comedy acts at live events and on television.
Caroline’s friend, Cal Lavelle, mentioned that she was already employed at the BBC when he began working there. When asked if she excelled in her role, Cal replied that Caroline had a fondness for typing. Both of them attended a convent school where they were trained in touch typing. As she pursued her standup career, Caroline would occasionally take on temp jobs.
Lavelle is currently at her apartment in Didsbury, Manchester, with her friend Di Conlan. Cal, Di, and Caroline were close friends since their 20s until Aherne’s passing. During that time, the trio would often go to car boot sales in hopes of making some money by selling their belongings. “I believe she enjoyed car boot sales because she got to interact with people,” says Conlan, who has since retired after working at British Gas for 30 years. Did she enjoy meeting new people or using them as inspiration for characters? “A bit of both,” she replies.
Can you describe her personality? “She was extremely reserved,” Lavelle recalls. “But also very smart.” She pauses. “Although she lacked practicality. She didn’t have a lot of common sense.” Can you provide some instances of her intelligence? She would purchase almost every newspaper on a daily basis. She was an avid reader. When she was young, her mother took her to the doctor and expressed worry because she spent all her time reading. The doctor reassured her that it was not a problem.
What about her lack of intelligence? “She was the most incompetent driver. She would consistently go the wrong direction on roundabouts,” Lavelle explains.
Conlan’s fashion sense is nonexistent.
Lavelle stated that while receiving awards, the person in question would often be seen wearing a top from the store Primark that was not new.
Is that not very silly? “So, one time she was going out on a date and we were in a taxi and she was fixing her lipstick. She got out of the car and I believe it was Craig who asked, ‘What did you do to your lips?’ Instead of applying lipstick, she accidentally used eyeliner.”
Aherne had a peculiar personality – she was very shy around strangers, but completely unrestrained with her friends. Lavelle recalls, “She would say the most outrageous things.” When asked for an example, he replied, “Oh, nothing appropriate for printing.” But when pressed, he shared, “She once introduced me to Sean Lock, the late comedian, and said, ‘This is my friend Cal. She’s a bit shy because she has a very pungent discharge.’ She would make comments like that all the time.” How did you respond? “I couldn’t stop laughing.”
Was Conlan also discharged?
“No, I actually did not,” states Conlan.
“I am not as refined as Di,” Lavelle says. “Di had a fear of wigs, so whenever she would arrive, Caroline would have us hiding in a room wearing wigs and jumping out at her. It was quite terrifying!”
Conlan reflects, “Upon further consideration, she was quite kind to me. She doted on my children excessively. During school breaks, when she watched them, the highlight of their day was visiting the budget store. She could easily walk there from her residence in Timperley. She would give each child £10 and instruct them to spend it within a certain time frame. Then she would playfully embarrass them by asking the shopkeeper, ‘Abi wants to know the cost of this?’ or ‘Elliott is curious about the price of two of these.’ The children would protest, saying ‘No!’ Now that they are 23 and 18, they still deeply miss her.”
While still employed as a secretary, Aherne would experiment with new characters among her friends. One of her early creations was Mitzi Goldberg, a Jewish country and western singer. Henry Normal, a poet, writer, and producer, first encountered Aherne while she was performing as Mitzi. “She had a companion named Dwayne who played guitar. He was similar to Craig – quite serious. She poked fun at him and sang satirical country and western songs.” Was she talented? “Absolutely. It was hilarious. There was a rebelliousness to her performance that added to its charm.”
Sister Mary Immaculate was a popular early character known for her clever and outrageously dirty humor. She once asked, “How many Protestants does it take to change a lightbulb?” before answering, “None. They live in eternal darkness.” Another time, she shared a story about her experience on a Virgin airlines flight, where she received a discount for subliminal advertising. She recalled the captain inviting her to the flight deck and showing her the control panel, but she was disappointed because she had hoped he would show her his genitals instead.
According to Normal, it was an exciting time for working-class individuals like himself in terms of cultural opportunities. In Manchester, there was a growing music and comedy scene and poets such as Normal and Lemn Sissay had the ability to earn money through performances. In the comedy world, there was a small group of individuals who shared similar views – Steve Coogan, John Thomson, Cash, and Aherne. They did not belong to the declining group of working-class comedians who relied on prejudice for their jokes, nor did they fit into the Cambridge comedy scene that produced Monty Python and The Goodies. They also did not align with the comfortable, middle-class suburban sitcom style of Terry and June. Instead, they were determined to do things differently.
Soon after, Aherne, Cash, and Normal formed a writing partnership for The Mrs Merton Show and later The Royle Family. Mrs Merton, a postmodern character, was portrayed as a kind elderly woman who interviewed and critiqued real-life celebrities. In one memorable instance, she confronted Manning about his racist views on her show by asking him, “Bernard, who will you vote for now that Hitler is dead?” In Sissay’s book Queen of Comedy, he praises Aherne for exposing Manning in a way that professional journalists had not been able to do.
Craig Cash is currently at his residence in south Manchester during our conversation. He and Aherne previously worked together as presenters on KFM Radio in Stockport, Greater Manchester. When asked about Aherne’s presenting skills, Cash responded, “No, she was not a good presenter. She struggled with it. She would say, ‘Cashy, I have no idea what to say. My links are terrible. I just said, “Here’s two by REM” and played two songs by REM.’ And I would ask, ‘What did you say after that?’ And she would reply, ‘That was two by REM!'”
What were his thoughts on her? “It felt like we had a connection that went beyond just meeting. It may sound bad to say, but she fit in well with my group of friends. She was mischievous and always up to something.” What kind of mischief? “For example, if we were taking a train to London, she would disappear for a few minutes and come back with the train conductor, giggling. He would then offer to let me sit with the driver, saying, ‘I hear it’s your birthday and you would like to sit up front. Follow me.'” And when I checked into a hotel, she would discover which one I was staying at and send a list of my preferences through fax: “If possible, find a nice Thai boy who enjoys being kissed on both cheeks and tucked in. And when he stands up, he likes to be kissed on his face as well.” The receptionist would be chuckling as I checked in.
Once he began, he couldn’t stop. One time, while riding the train with Henry, he fell asleep and unfortunately someone had a magazine with a picture of a woman in revealing clothing. They took a pair of underwear out of their bag and placed it on Henry’s head. Later, the person woke him up and gave him a warning. They would go to great lengths for a bit of humor.
If someone who has not met Aherne asks Cash to describe her, he might say, “She was extremely clever but also a bit silly. Didn’t she have an IQ of 176?”
Cash and Aherne were inseparable, often portrayed as a married couple in The Royle Family and as an elderly mother and possibly autistic son in Mrs Merton and Malcolm. They were also drinking partners and best friends. Like many others, Cash praised Aherne for her generosity. He even remarked that the phrase “generous to a fault” could have been created specifically for her. When asked why, he explained that she was always giving away her money. She would even go so far as to buy houses for her family. On a smaller scale, Cash recalls how they would meet in town and Aherne would stop at a cash machine to withdraw money, only to give most of it to a homeless person without waking them. This selflessness extended to their outings, where Aherne would often say she had no money and Cash would have to cover the bill. On their way home, Cash would jokingly ask the homeless person for spare change, knowing that Aherne had already given most of their cash away.
Aherne was the creator of The Royle Family and she shared with Cash her vision of strict guidelines that would be followed. She was insistent on not straying from the living room setting, which remained a constant for a significant period of time. Cash mentions several sources of inspiration such as the 1994 documentary Three Salons at the Seaside, the realistic dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, and the works of filmmaker Ken Loach.
However, the television executives were not convinced, according to Normal. They asked, “Can there be a plot in the second episode?” and we responded, “There is no plot in the first episode.” They also suggested, “Can the characters be more likable?” and “Can they have a positive relationship?” Our response was, “The characters already love each other. This is the North. We show love by teasing and making fun of each other. My father never even said ‘I love you’ in his entire life.” Unfortunately, the executives did not understand.
Normal claims that the executive producer of the show, Andy Harries, may not have fully understood it. When they presented him with the first episode, he did not laugh at all and they nicknamed him “Squeak” due to his high-pitched voice. However, he ultimately supported their vision and provided the necessary funding without interfering. Normal appreciates him for his hands-off approach.
Have you ever inquired if he found it amusing? “No, I have never asked Andy Harries for his opinion on what he finds funny, despite knowing him for a long time.”
Cash states that Aherne successfully coerced BBC executives, despite others attempting to dissuade her. She was determined to have another Mrs Merton series, and made it clear that if they did not comply, she would not continue with the show. As a compromise, it was decided that a new Mrs Merton series would be made if the network also agreed to take on The Royle Family.
“Was it humorous to me?” Harries appears displeased by the inquiry. “I do not recall that particular reading, but I am not one to audibly laugh regardless. I found it incredibly amusing. Remarkable.” However, he admits that those he was pitching it to did not comprehend it. “The head of comedy at the BBC clearly stated that it would not be successful because it lacked a live audience.”
A live pilot was poorly received by an audience, much to Aherne’s dismay. However, she eventually prevailed and the show became a massive hit. As its popularity grew, the tabloids relentlessly harassed Aherne. In the first season of Mrs Merton, her former spouse and well-known member of Joy Division and New Order, Peter Hook, led the studio band. After their bitter divorce in 1997, the tabloids delighted in the drama. When Aherne intervened in a fight between Hook and her new boyfriend, TV researcher Matt Bowers, the tabloids had yet another story to exploit. And when Bowers and Aherne split after only four months, they were quick to capitalize on the news. Tragically, Bowers passed away from stomach cancer at the young age of 28, making headlines once again. The media also fixated on Aherne’s drinking habits, often publishing photos of her appearing intoxicated or stumbling.
“We all experienced press intrusion, but Caroline’s was particularly severe,” Johnston explains. “This was especially true because she enjoyed drinking, as we are all aware. The tabloids thrived on those moments when she was a little tipsy. She struggled with this.”
According to Cash, there were outdated double standards at play. He could be heavily intoxicated and the media wouldn’t bat an eye, but all the attention was on Aherne. The turning point for their reputation was winning awards. They had written something they were proud of and it was gaining success, allowing them to travel to new places. The excitement of it all was intoxicating. They would take the train from Manchester and arrive in London drunk, feeling like they were on top of the world. Cash fondly remembers those days as being full of joy and celebration.
The most poignant moments of The Royle Family were the ones that touched the heart the most. One particular standout was when Denise unexpectedly went into labor on Christmas Day and Jim comforted her in the bathroom, both of them shedding tears of both fear and hope. It was undeniably humorous (“Denise? Are you sure it wasn’t just a really big pee, love?”), but it was also incredibly moving. According to Tomlinson, all of the tears in that scene were genuine. “What struck me about that scene was that everyone was crying, everyone. When they called ‘Cut!’, it was the first time I’ve heard the cameraman say, ‘That’s it, we’re not redoing it, it will never be better than that.’ And when we turned around, the cameraman was in tears.”
Was Aherne perceived as a daughter figure by him? “Yes, we all felt the need to protect her because she could be quite emotionally fragile.” In what manner? “During that particular scene, she was genuinely crying. I believe she was longing for a child of her own. She was completely lost in the moment and not simply acting. That was truly her, reliving something from her past.”
Johnston expressed that he would have been happy to witness her getting married and having children. He believed that she had a nurturing personality that would suit having a large family. When they met some of her partners, he and Ricky would evaluate them as potential parents. They took on a parental role and wondered if the person would be the right match for her and if they would hurt her. However, things did not work out in the end.
Aherne desired to have children, but she was fearful of passing on the cancer gene. She was informed that there was a 50% likelihood of a child being born with cancer. According to Lavelle, Aherne contemplated adoption as she could not have a biological child due to the inability to identify the cancer gene at that time. Even in later stages, she considered becoming a single mother through adoption.
In the meantime, the media continued to relentlessly criticize her. She found it intolerable. Despite her attention-grabbing behavior, she valued her privacy. According to Cash, “She struggled with the constant invasion of her personal life. Being recognized in public was not an issue, as the general public was always kind. However, when you are constantly in the news for negative reasons, it can really affect you. I would tell her, ‘Just don’t read the newspapers,’ but she couldn’t resist.”
Harries expressed that it was difficult to witness her life unraveling. He stated, “She received just as much criticism from the media as Diana did, and it deeply affected her. It was a terrifying experience. She had a vulnerable side that could be unsettling.”
Herne had been battling with depression for an extended period. She experimented with various methods, such as antidepressants and ECT, but none were successful. She expressed, during an interview with Michael Parkinson in the late 90s, that she could not shake off the constant sadness within her. Despite receiving support from her loved ones, her depression persisted.
Sean Winterton, a friend of Caroline Aherne, recalls her saying “I feel like I’ve lost my life.” Winterton, who went from being a bricklayer to a lorry driver, was the inspiration for the beloved character Twiggy in The Royle Family, played by Geoffrey Hughes. He shares that he loved Aherne but wasn’t a fan of television and didn’t understand the hype around the show. Similar to TV executives, he didn’t quite grasp it. Aherne had asked him to audition for the role of Twiggy, but he declined, stating “Thanks for the offer, but I’m not interested.” When asked if Aherne would have given him the part, Winterton believes she would have if he had the courage to try. He had no prior acting experience, joking that he only acted like a fool at work. Aherne was always offering to do things for him, including paying off his mortgage, but he wasn’t interested. Winterton admits that he often sat next to her at events because she didn’t eat much and would sneak food onto his plate. One time, she even slipped an envelope filled with money onto his plate, but he gave it back, causing her to become upset and not speak to him for a few days. He explains that he wasn’t ungrateful, but would have been happier if she had just bought him some tobacco instead.
Maybe one of the reasons she appreciated you was because you didn’t expect anything from her and you weren’t trying to flatter her. “You’re absolutely right. Every Christmas, she would throw a party and tell me to be there, but I would refuse and tell her, ‘Caroline, I’m not doing it. I went last year and everyone treated you like a deity.’ She laughed and said, ‘I hate that’.”
In 1998, she tried to end her life. She took too many pills and called Cash. In the documentary Queen of Comedy, he becomes emotional as he recalls their conversation. “She was essentially saying goodbye. But she simply said, ‘I love you and I’m sorry, but I’m going. I’ve taken too many pills.’ And I told her, ‘Make yourself vomit. Make yourself vomit, MAKE YOURSELF VOMIT!’ I had to call her mother and inform her. Her mother called for an ambulance and thankfully, they arrived in time, broke down the door, and saved her.”
I inquired Lavelle and Conlan if they observed any escalation in the depression. Conlan confirms, “Yes, she began canceling plans at the last minute.”
Do they believe she truly planned to take her own life?
Both of them immediately reply with a “No.”
“Later on, she felt embarrassed,” Lavelle recounts. “She couldn’t imagine that she had behaved in such a way, particularly towards her mother. She had consumed excessive alcohol which triggered the situation. I believe she was watching a melancholic film and became overwhelmed with negative thoughts, leading her to believe that everyone would be better off without her.”
Aherne openly discussed her attempted suicide and subsequent treatment for alcoholism at the Priory. She humorously portrayed the experience as a sitcom scene, recalling how she initially went in for depression but was eventually diagnosed as an alcoholic and joined the “alkies” in the treatment program. After initially denying her alcoholism, she eventually accepted it and received support from those around her.
Her friends believed it was meaningless. Her work was impacted by her depression, but her alcohol consumption was not. I mention to Cash that he used to drink in the past. He sounds offended. “What do you mean ‘was’? I still drink. I didn’t stop! I was heavily intoxicated last night. When they mentioned an alcohol issue at the Priory, I was shocked because I didn’t think I had one.” Did he genuinely believe he had a problem? “No, I didn’t. And I didn’t think she did either.”
In 2001, Aherne granted her final official interview to a newspaper. She expressed that her fame had brought her dissatisfaction and she made the decision to step away from both it and television. She temporarily relocated to Australia before ultimately returning to Greater Manchester to reside in Timperley and lead a more peaceful existence.
Lavelle believes that the individual in question has left behind their fame and returned to their humble beginnings. They resided in a modest bungalow filled with televisions. According to Lavelle, the person always had their televisions on in the background while they conversed, and would often wear pajamas if they were not leaving the house.
“Conlan also mentions that the remote control was in close proximity to her.”
She gradually had fewer people in her social circle: mostly just family and a small group of friends. Lavelle believes it wasn’t because she didn’t care for others, but because she found contentment in her own little world.
In 2006, after six years since the conclusion of The Royle Family’s third series, Cash convinced her to collaborate on a Christmas special. He was determined to support her during her battle with depression, but was unsure of how to do so. He eventually realized that the best way to help her was to get her back into work. Despite her initial doubts and feelings of inadequacy, it became evident that her depression was clouding her true talent. As they worked together, she gradually regained her confidence and found joy in writing and humor once again. Despite some disagreements along the way, the experience came full circle and proved to be a positive step in her mental health journey.
They now co-directed the show, and would argue in front of the rest of the cast and in the editing suite. They would sometimes spend entire days debating the best approach, but they enjoyed it. Aherne was a skilled director, paying close attention to every detail and confidently voicing her vision. They both had strong opinions. In the edit suite, they had a paper plate dubbed the “plate of destiny” where they would write their names and spin it to determine whose decision would prevail. This helped alleviate tension as they were both very passionate about their ideas.
The initial holiday installment of The Royle Family, known as The Queen of Sheba and featuring the death of Nana, is often praised as the best episode of the series. It is a touching and uplifting portrayal, culminating in a memorable singalong to honor Nana’s memory. Four additional Christmas specials were produced, drawing in large viewership each time.
In 2014, Aherne made the announcement that she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She chose to do so in her usual manner, using it as an opportunity to raise awareness and funds for charity. She also made it known that she had previously battled bladder cancer. Her final regular job was providing the voiceover for Gogglebox, a TV series that features people watching TV. This was a fitting role for Aherne, as her previous sitcom, The Royle Family, was known for its realistic portrayal of everyday life and even inspired a reality show based on the characters. When she was unable to continue with Gogglebox due to medical appointments, she asked Cash to take over for her. He now works on the show full-time.
In April 2016, Aherne informed those closest to her that she had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and was given a prognosis of three to twelve months to live. She passed away two months later on July 2, 2016. Lavelle shares that one of the things bringing comfort to the family is the fact that Aherne’s brother, Patrick, had promised to bring her nephew to visit her. Aherne spent her last day in her pyjamas, wrapped in a blanket, watching TV with the remote in hand. She passed away with the happy thought of seeing her nephew the next day and doing what she loved most.
Johnston informed me that following Aherne’s passing, Tomlinson had portraits made of her and gifted one to Johnston. She shares, “Ricky and I constantly reminisce about her. She was such a generous person and we owe her so much.”
She heads off and returns with the portrait – a tender headshot showing Aherne in reflective mode. “It’s lovely, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s hanging on the wall at the bottom of the stairs, so I see her every morning as I come down. I go, ‘Hello!’ I suppose if you don’t see people every day, you can imagine they’re still there.”
Unfortunately, upon her passing in 2016, the majority of her funds had been depleted due to her generosity towards loved ones. Her assets were evaluated at approximately £500,000, which was equivalent to three months of her highest earnings. In 2018, Maureen, her mother, experienced further heartache when Patrick, a cabaret performer who appeared on The Mrs Merton Show, passed away from a fall down the stairs. Maureen currently resides in Galway and is facing health challenges. Bert passed away in 1995.
Cash reflects on the difficult time he faced after the loss of Aherne. He also lost his father and father-in-law within a year, which was challenging. He describes all three of them as the funniest people he knew, and their absence has been irreplaceable. While he has become more accustomed to Aherne’s death, he acknowledges that it is not something one can fully get used to. He mentions a recent experience where he saw a film that he knew Aherne would have loved and found himself emotional, realizing that she was no longer there to share it with him. The film in question was “The Banshees of Inisherin.”
I inform him of Johnston’s painting of Aherne situated at the base of the staircase. “Oh, I was not aware of that. That’s pleasant. I have a small picture of her displayed on my mantelpiece downstairs, among my father and father-in-law, Bill. It’s not a spot you aspire to be showcased in!”
He informs me about a poem that has aided him in understanding Aherne’s passing. The author is Robert Frost and the poem is titled “Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It Lacks In Length.” This is how he perceives his time with Caroline – although it was short, they made the most of it and had a great time together.
The program “Caroline Aherne: Queen of Comedy” will be airing on BBC Two at 10:25pm on Christmas Day.
In the United Kingdom and Ireland, individuals can reach Samaritans for support by calling 116 123 or emailing [email protected] or [email protected]. Those in the United States can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling or texting 988, chatting on 988lifeline.org, or texting HOME to 741741 to connect with a professional counselor during a crisis. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline can be reached at 13 11 14. For other international helplines, resources can be found at befrienders.org.