Caroline Aherne: Royally Bows Out
Caroline Aherne was a character actress and comedian who made some wonderful original TV shows in the nineties. ‘Royal Family’ and ‘Mrs Merton’ were probably her most noted but she also starred in the cast of ‘The Fast show’ from 1994-1997, becoming known for the catchphrase ‘Scorchio’ delivered by her foreign weather girl character. Comedian Omid Djalili remarked ‘such a funny and talented woman’.
Aherne was born on christmas eve 1963 in Ealing, London to Irish immigrant parents, but grew up in Wythenshawe in Manchester. She studied drama at Liverpool Polytechnic then started work as a secretary at the BBC, before working as a character comedian on the comedy circuit where she developed several characters, one being an Irish nun and the other Mrs Merton. Subsequantly she was given a spot on the Granada TV discussion show Upfront in 1990, as Mrs Merton.
The character was further developed for a BBC series ‘The Mrs Merton Show’ (1993 -1998, 4 series, 29 episodes), in which she starred as the eponymous chat show host, daring to ask celebrity guests light hearted questions other interviewers would not, in front of an audience of pensioners who were sometimes spoken to directly by Mrs Merton. One much-quoted example is when Mrs Merton asked Debbie McGee: “And what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”. A sad McGee said of the occasion today ‘My interview will be a treasured memory’. The Mrs Merton Christmas Show won the best talk show BAFTA in 1997. Aherne was nominated for BAFTA’S for her performances in both shows, as well as for directing ‘The Royle Family’ in 2001. Comedian Jason Manford commented ‘She gave us all so many laughs and happy memories’
‘The Royle Family’ (1998 -2000, 3 series, 25 episodes plus specials) was described by the BBC News as a ‘masterpiece’. It was a light sit-com drama telling the story of a dysfunctional family. Aherne wrote it with co-star Craig Cash, drawing on her own childhood experiences and the people she met growing up. It starred Ricky Tomlinson, Sue Johnston and Liz Smith amongst the cast. The action was often just set around the couch in the living room with the family watching TV and chatting amongst themselves. Creating an atmosphere reminiscent of so many ordinary families in Britain. It had an immediate charm that caught the public’s imagination and broke writing barriers within sit-com. ‘The Royal family’ won four awards, including best actress for Aherne, at the 1999 British Comedy Awards, before going on to pick up the best sitcom BAFTA in 2000 and 2007. Presenter & Comedian Terry Christian said he was ‘so blessed to have known and worked with her from 1990 onwards most naturally funny person I’ve ever met’
Like so many other comedians Caroline had her problems. In 1996 she was voted best female performer at the British Comedy Awards but gave a rambling and slurred acceptance speech under the influence of alcohol. Four years later, Actor Sir Nigel Hawthorne was heckled by Caroline at the British Comedy Awards 2000. The comic shouted ”Get on with it!” from her table nearby as he received a life-time achievement award on behalf of writer Alan Bennett. The ‘horrified’ former ‘Yes Minister’ star glared angrily at Aherne and said ”Would you like to do this yourself madam? I’m not speaking for myself, you understand.” This highly embarrassing moment was played out in front of a live TV audience of millions. Host Jonathan Ross later apologised to Sir Nigel, saying: ”Not all of us can handle the drink, my friend, although normally she can.”
Caroline battling a drink problem, suffered depression leading to rumours of a suicide bid and treatment at the Priory in 1998. She also had a failed marriage to Peter Hook of rock band New Order (1994-1997). Through all this her friends and work colleagues supported her, but she announced ‘The Royle Family’ would end in December 2000 after a Christmas special, and that she would not appear on television again, although she would continue to write. Following this, the star moved to Sydney, to avoid the public eye.
She wrote ‘Dossa and Joe’, screened on BBC 2 in 2002 and on returning to Britain co-created sitcom ‘Early Doors’ with Cash, although later pulling out of the project. Although still keeping a low media profile she narrated the successful TV programme ‘Googlebox’ almost a reality show based on ‘the Royal family’.
Caroline had a constant battle with cancer throughout her life, being diagnosed with retinoblastoma a form of cancer in the eye in childhood, later bladder and then sadly Lung cancer which finally claimed her. Her friend & colleague Sue Johnstone said ‘I am devastated at her passing and I am numb with grief.’
Her importance as a female comedy innovator cannot be underestimated.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.