‘She was sharp as a tack however daft as a brush’: buddies and colleagues keep in mind the genius of the Royle Household’s Caroline Aherne | Caroline Aherne

Ricky Tomlinson will always remember the primary time he met Caroline Aherne. “I used to be on the Royal Tv Society awards with my spouse, Rita. She requested me to get one thing from the buffet. I walked throughout to the desk and bumped right into a younger woman standing in entrance of me. She circled to take a look at me and went, ‘Oh, you’re my dad, aren’t you?’” Did she say the rest? “No. I went again to the desk and mentioned to Rita, ‘I feel that poor woman’s bought psychological well being issues.’” The following day he was requested to audition for The Royle Household. “And the remaining is historical past,” he tells me. Tomlinson was forged as Jim Royle, the daddy of Denise, performed by Aherne.

It’s 25 years since The Royle Household was first broadcast, 22 since Aherne introduced she was strolling away from the general public glare, and 7 since she died of most cancers on the age of 52. Now a brand new BBC movie, Queen of Comedy, celebrates her life and legacy. If something, the title underplays the contribution she made to British and Irish tradition in her quick life. There have been two groundbreaking TV sequence (The Mrs Merton Present and The Royle Household), comedy that uncovered racism (her Mrs Merton interview with Bernard Manning), a query that grew to become a nationwide catchphrase (“So what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”), and in The Royle Household a sitcom that compares to one of the best of Beckett and Pinter. That’s to not point out her scene-stealing sketches in The Quick Present (“Scorchio!”). Aherne was a working-class woman who grew to become one of many first ladies in TV comedy to manage each factor of the manufacturing course of, with the clout to say no to the massive boys. In 2001, she was the sixth highest-paid British TV celeb, incomes an estimated £2m a 12 months. Not that she stored a lot of it for herself.

Tomlinson is speaking from his dwelling in Liverpool. Did he ever inform her he thought she was a sandwich in need of the complete picnic? “Yeah. I advised her greater than as soon as I assumed she was bonkers.” He adored enjoying the fartalicious, arse-fixated, distant control-hogging, job-shy curmudgeon. By rights we should always have hated Jim. However we liked him. That was all the way down to the subtlety of Aherne and her fellow writers, Henry Regular and Craig Money. At first look Jim may need appeared like a cartoon slob, however he was a slob with a uncommon capability for pleasure and tenderness.

The Royle Family’s Ralf Little, Craig Cash, Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston
The Royle Household’s Ralf Little, Craig Money, Sue Johnston and Ricky Tomlinson. {Photograph}: Danny Rohrer/BBC/Ardour Docs

The Royle Household was a love letter to 2 of the issues Aherne most adored in life: common working-class individuals and TV. It was not like some other sitcom on the time: there was no viewers, no canned laughter, no conventional studio, barely a plot – only a single digicam following the Royles watching the TV in the lounge, speaking about what they’d for tea (“We had toad within the gap, however we didn’t have any sausage left so we simply had the outlet”) and taking pictures the breeze.

Tomlinson says The Royle Household has been his favorite job. “I liked going to work. We might chuckle from the minute we went on until the minute we left.” The factor he returns to repeatedly is Aherne’s generosity. “Once we completed on a Friday evening, Caroline used to place a few tables within the hallway. In them days I had a drink, so she’d get me just a few cans of Sainsbury’s gentle, she’d get just a few lagers for the cameramen and grips, a few bottles of wine for the make-up woman and the woman who dressed them, and a bottle of champagne for her and Sue Johnston, who performed Denise’s mom, Barbara Royle. That was each single Friday. And everybody from the director down bought a lottery ticket off Caroline. It was her manner of claiming thanks.”

Aherne was born in Ealing, west London, on Christmas Eve 1963. Her Irish Catholic dad and mom moved to Wythenshawe, Larger Manchester, when she was two. Bert was a railway employee, Maureen a faculty dinner woman. Each Aherne and her brother, Patrick, have been born with a uncommon type of most cancers, leaving him blind in a single eye and her nearly blind in a single eye. Her mom advised them they have been particular as a result of they’d most cancers. “Mum made us so sturdy,” she mentioned.

Aherne spent a lot of her early childhood out and in of hospital. She went on to get 9 As in her O-levels, research drama at Liverpool Polytechnic (now Liverpool John Moores College) and work on the BBC as a secretary, by which era she was creating characters that she would later carry out in standup routines at stay venues and on TV.

“Caroline was already working there after I began on the BBC,” says her good friend Cal Lavelle. Was she good at her job? “Yeah, she favored typing. We each went to convent college the place we needed to study to the touch sort. As she did extra standup, she simply did occasional temping.”

‘The Royle Family’ TV Series - 1999Caroline Aherne as Denise Best (née Royle), Craig Cash as Dave Best, Sue Johnston as Barbara Royle, Ricky Tomlinson as James “Jim” Royle, Ralf Little as Antony Royle, Geoffrey Hughes as Twiggy and Liz Smith as Norma Speakman (Nana)
Royle Household gathering: Denise (Aherne), Dave (Money), Barbara (Johnston), Jim (Tomlinson), Antony (Little), Twiggy (Geoffrey Hughes) and Nana (Liz Smith). {Photograph}: ITV/Shutterstock

Lavelle is at her flat in Didsbury, Manchester, along with her good friend Di Conlan. Cal, Di and Caroline remained quick buddies from their 20s till Aherne died. Again then, the three of them spent a lot of their time at automobile boot gross sales making an attempt to make just a few bob flogging all of the garbage they owned. “I feel she favored the automobile boot gross sales as a result of she met individuals there,” says Conlan, who’s now retired, having labored at British Fuel for 30 years. She favored assembly individuals, or mining them for characters? “A little bit of each,” she says.

What was she like? “Very shy,” Lavelle says. “So clever.” She pauses. “However a bit gormless. No widespread sense.” Can they provide me examples of her intelligence? She would purchase kind of each newspaper, daily. She learn on a regular basis. When she was little, her mum took her to the physician’s and mentioned, ‘I’m actually involved as a result of she simply reads on a regular basis’ and the physician mentioned, ‘Oh, that’s effective.’”

And her gormlessness? “She was the worst driver ever. She’d at all times go spherical roundabouts the flawed manner,” Lavelle says.

Conlan: “No garments sense by any means.”

Lavelle: “When she was getting awards, she’d be carrying an outdated prime from Primark.”

That’s probably not gormless, is it? “OK, at some point she was happening a date and we have been in a taxi and he or she was redoing her lippy. She bought out of the automobile and I feel it was Craig who mentioned, ‘What have you ever completed to your lips?’ As an alternative of placing lippy on, she had put eyeliner on.”

Aherne was a wierd combine – so shy in entrance of individuals she didn’t know, but completely uninhibited with buddies. “She mentioned probably the most outrageous issues,” Lavelle says. What like? “Oh, nothing you may print.” Strive me. “Who’s that attractive comic who handed away a few years in the past? Sean Lock. I used to fancy him. So she launched me to him and mentioned, ‘Oh, right here’s my good friend Cal. She’s a bit shy as a result of she’s bought a very smelly discharge.’ She’d say issues like that on a regular basis.” How did you react? “I used to be laughing my head off.”

Did Conlan additionally get the discharge remedy?

“No, I didn’t, truly,” Conlan says.

“Di’s a bit extra refined than I’m,” Lavelle says. “Di was fearful of wigs. So at any time when she was arriving, Caroline would have us in a room carrying her wigs, and leaping out on her. Aaaaaargh!”

“She was lots kinder to me, fascinated with it,” Conlan says. “She spoiled my kids horrible. When she taken care of them within the college holidays, the spotlight of the day was going to the pound store. She may stroll there from the place she lived in Timperley. She’d give them £10 every and say, ‘Proper, you’ve bought so lengthy to spend it.’ Then she’d say to the shopkeeper, ‘Abi desires to understand how a lot that is?’ Actually embarrass them. Then she’d say, ‘Now Elliott desires to know if he buys two of those how a lot will that be?’ They usually’d be going around the store going, ‘Noooo!’ They’re 23 and 18 now. They each miss her terribly.”

Aherne with friends Cal Lavelle and Di Conlan in Manchester
Aherne with buddies Cal Lavelle and Di Conlan in Manchester. {Photograph}: non-public {photograph}

Aherne would check out new characters on her buddies when nonetheless working as a secretary. One of many first was Mitzi Goldberg, a Jewish nation and western singer. The poet, author and producer Henry Regular first got here throughout Aherne when she was performing as Mitzi. “She had a bloke along with her known as Dwayne enjoying guitar. He was like Craig – very dour. She made enjoyable of him and sang mock nation and western songs.” Was she good? “Wonderful. Snort out loud. There was an anarchy to it, which was a part of the attraction.”

One other well-liked early character was Sister Mary Immaculate. The humour was intelligent and fabulously filthy. “What number of Protestants does it take to alter a lightbulb?” she requested “None. They stay in everlasting darkness.” The following minute she would inform the viewers about her flight on Virgin airways the place she bought a reduction for subliminal promoting. “The captain got here as much as me and mentioned, ‘Sister Mary, I’d like to indicate you one thing’ and he took me into the flight deck and he confirmed me the management panel. I used to be very dissatisfied as a result of I had thought he was going to indicate me his penis.”

Regular says it was such an thrilling time culturally for working-class individuals like him – there was a burgeoning music and comedy scene in Manchester, and poets like him and Lemn Sissay may receives a commission for gigs, too. In comedy there was a small group of like-minded individuals – Steve Coogan, John Thomson, Money, Aherne. They weren’t a part of the dying technology of working-class comics whose comedy was predicated on prejudice; they didn’t belong to the Cambridge set that gave us Monty Python and The Goodies; they usually weren’t a part of the comfy, middle-class Terry and June suburban sitcom camp. They knew they needed to do issues in a different way.

Earlier than lengthy, Aherne, Money and Regular have been a writing workforce working collectively on The Mrs Merton Present after which The Royle Household. Mrs Merton was a basic postmodern creation – a candy outdated woman who interviewed, and sometimes skewered, actual celebrities. By no means extra so than Manning, who admitted he was a racist on her present. “Bernard, who will you vote for now Hitler’s lifeless?” she requested him. In Queen of Comedy, Sissay says that Aherne as Mrs Merton uncovered Manning in a manner that skilled journalists had did not do.

Craig Money is at dwelling in south Manchester once we discuss. He met Aherne once they have been each presenters on KFM Radio in Stockport, Larger Manchester. Was Aherne presenter? “Oh no. Bollocks. Presenting wasn’t her factor. She mentioned, ‘Cashy, I don’t know what to say. My hyperlinks are garbage. I simply mentioned, “Right here’s two by REM” and performed two songs by REM.’ And I mentioned, ‘Nicely, what did you say after them?’ She mentioned, ‘That was two by REM!’”

What did he like about her? “It was like I’d recognized her all my life. It sounds terrible to say it, however she was like one of many lads actually. She was at all times as much as some mischief.” Similar to? “Say we have been going to London on a prepare. She’d disappear for a couple of minutes and are available again with the guard and he or she’d be behind him guffawing, and he’d say, ‘I imagine it’s your birthday and also you’d like to take a seat with the driving force. Come this fashion.’” Then if I used to be checking right into a resort, she’d discover out which resort I used to be staying in and fax by means of an inventory of my necessities: ‘If you could find a pleasant Thai boy, he likes to be kissed on each cheeks and tucked in. After which, when he stands up, he likes to be kissed on his face as nicely.’ The man can be sniggering as I used to be checking in.”

Now he’s began, he can’t cease. “As soon as we have been happening the prepare with Henry, and he had the misfortune to go to sleep. Anyone had a duplicate of Loaded, so she opened it at an image of a scantily clad lady, bought a pair of knickers out of her bag and put them on his head. She then made the guard wake him up and warning him. She’d do something for a chuckle.”

How would Money describe Aherne to any person who hadn’t met her? “She was sharp as a tack however daft as a brush. She had a genius-level IQ, didn’t she? Wasn’t it 176?”

Caroline Aherne as Sister Mary Immaculate. Hulme, Manchester, 1991
As Sister Mary Immaculate in Manchester, 1991. {Photograph}: Picasa/Richard Davis

Money and Aherne grew to become inseparable – enjoying a married couple in The Royle Household; aged mom and grownup, presumably autistic, son in Mrs Merton and Malcolm; consuming companions and finest mates. Like so many individuals, he talks about her generosity. “The phrase beneficiant to a fault may have been invented for her.” Why? “Nicely, she gave all of it away. She by no means had any cash left. On a bigger scale, she would purchase homes for household. On a smaller scale, we’d meet on the town, she’d cease on the money machine to get cash out, after which she’d put most of it in a homeless individual’s sleeping bag with out waking them. We’d then exit for a drink and he or she’d say, ‘I’ve bought no cash, Cashy, you’ll must get them in.’ I’d be going dwelling and nudging the homeless individual, saying, ‘You couldn’t spare me just a few bob, may you?’”

Aherne got here up with the thought for The Royle Household. She advised Money there can be strict guidelines. “She mentioned, ‘We’re not going to go away the lounge’ and he or she was steadfast on that for a very long time.” He cites various influences – a 1994 documentary known as Three Salons on the Seaside, the kitchen-sink dramas of the Nineteen Fifties and Nineteen Sixties, and the movies of Ken Loach.

However the TV execs weren’t satisfied, Regular says. “They mentioned, ‘Can now we have a plot within the second episode?’ And we mentioned, ‘Nicely, there isn’t one within the first episode.’ In addition they mentioned, ‘Can the characters be extra likable?’ and, ‘Can they like one another?’ We mentioned, ‘They love one another. That is the north. When you love individuals, you’re taking the mick out of them. I don’t suppose my dad mentioned I really like you in his total life.’ So that they didn’t get it.”

Regular says he wasn’t even positive the present’s government producer, Andy Harries, bought it. “We learn him the primary episode. He by no means laughed as soon as. We known as him Squeak as a result of his voice was very excessive. And he went, ‘Oooh, is that what you need to do with it?’ We mentioned, ‘Yeah’ and he went and bought us the cash. I really like him for not interfering. Hats off to him.”

Did you ever ask him if he discovered it humorous? “No. I’ve by no means requested Andy Harries if he thought something was humorous, and I’ve recognized him for a few years.”

Aherne successfully blackmailed BBC executives. “Everybody tried to speak us out of it. Caroline was having none of it, although,” Money says. “She was like, ‘When you don’t do it, I’m not doing one other Mrs Merton sequence.’ So an settlement was made that we’d do one other Mrs Merton sequence so long as they might take The Royle Household.”

“Did I discover it humorous?” Harries appears offended by the query. “I don’t do not forget that read-through, truly, however I don’t are likely to chuckle out loud like that anyway. I assumed it was immensely humorous. Extraordinary.” However, sure, he says, it’s true that folks he was making an attempt to promote it to didn’t get it. “I used to be advised in no unsure phrases by the pinnacle of comedy on the BBC that it could by no means work as a result of it didn’t have a stay viewers.”

A disastrous pilot was made with a stay viewers. Aherne hated it, and ultimately bought her manner. The present quickly grew to become an enormous success. And the extra profitable it grew to become, the extra decided the tabloids have been to hound Aherne. Within the first sequence of Mrs Merton, the studio band was led by her then husband, Peter Hook, of Pleasure Division and New Order fame. They divorced acrimoniously in 1997, and the tabloids had a area day. When Aherne tried to cease a scrap between Hook and her new boyfriend, TV researcher Matt Bowers, the tabloids had one other one. And once more when Bowers and Aherne break up up after 4 months. The next 12 months, Bowers died of abdomen most cancers on the age of 28, and once more she was headline information. Then there was the consuming. It appeared that each time she went out, the tabloids pictured her pie-eyed or falling over.

A still from the TV comedy Mrs. Merton and Malcolm, starring Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash as Mrs M and her hapless son.
As Mrs Merton, with Money as her son, Malcolm. {Photograph}: BBC

“All of us had press intrusion, however Caroline had it far worse,” Johnston says. “Particularly as a result of she loved a drink, as everyone knows. They liked these moments when she was a bit pissed. She was good fodder for the tabloids, and he or she discovered that arduous.”

Money says it was old school double requirements. He may very well be legless and the newspapers didn’t care. It was all about Aherne. “Award dos, that’s the place the repute began. We’d written one thing that we have been pleased with and it was doing nicely, and we have been going to those locations we’d by no means been to. We have been giddy with life. For the award dos, we’d get on the prepare at Manchester and we’d be pissed by Macclesfield … It was like, ‘Come on! We’re going to London!’ and it was an amazing celebratory factor!” They sound like fantastic days, I say. “They have been. Stuffed with enjoyable.”

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The greatest episodes of The Royle Family were the most soulful. One of the most memorable was when Denise’s waters broke on Christmas Day and Jim sat with her in the bathroom comforting her, as they both cried tears of fear and hope. It was funny, of course (“Denise? You definitely sure it wasn’t just a great big  piss, love?”), but it was also desperately moving. “All those tears were real,” Tomlinson says. “What stood out about that scene to me was everyone was crying, everyone. When they shouted, ‘Cut!’ it’s the first time I’ve heard the cameraman shout, ‘That’s it, we’re not going again, we will never get it better than that.’ And when we turned around, the cameraman was crying.”

Did Aherne feel like a daughter to him? “Yes. We were all protective of her because she could be very vulnerable.” In what way? “When we were doing that scene, she was really sobbing. I think she missed having a baby of her own. She was gone. She wasn’t acting. That was her. Whatever she was reliving was there.”

Johnston says, “I’d have loved to have seen her married and with kids. She seemed a natural person to have a lot of kids around her. We met some of her blokes, and Ricky and I would be summing them up. We automatically took on the parental role. We were thinking, ‘Ooh, is this going to be the one? Is she going to be happy? Will he hurt her?’ But, sadly, they didn’t work out.”

However much Aherne wanted children, she was terrified that the cancer gene would be passed on. She had been told there was a 50% chance of a baby being born with cancer. “Caroline considered adopting,” Lavelle tells me. “She wouldn’t have had a baby because at the time they couldn’t identify the cancer gene. They can now. Even quite late on she thought about adopting as a single mum.”

Meanwhile, the press continued to devour her. She found it unbearable. For all her antics, she was a private person. “She couldn’t cope with the intrusion,” Cash says. “Being recognised in public wasn’t a problem. The public were always lovely. But if you’re in the papers for all the wrong reasons, it gets to you, I’m sure. I’d say, ‘Well, don’t buy the newspapers then’ but she did.”

Harries says it was terrible seeing her life spinning out of control. “She was almost as popular as Diana for the press to attack. And it really got to her. It was horrendous. There was a fragility to her that was frightening at times.”

Aherne had struggled with depression for a long time. She tried all sorts, from antidepressants to ECT, to no avail. “I just couldn’t rid myself of this thing inside me that made me want to cry all the time. I was so low. Everyone knew it. God love all my friends and my family trying to help me out, but it just wouldn’t go,” she told Michael Parkinson in the late 90s.

Her friend Sean Winterton says she used to tell him: “I’ve lost my life.” Winterton, a bricklayer turned lorry driver, inspired the lovable rogue Twiggy in The Royle Family, played by Geoffrey Hughes. He tells me he loved Aherne but he didn’t like TV and didn’t understand all the fuss about the show. Like the TV execs, he didn’t get it. Aherne asked him to audition for the part of Twiggy. “We all got our piece of paper. I said straight out, ‘Thanks for the lines, but, sorry, I’m not into this’.” Would she have given him the part? “Oh yeah, she would have given me the part all right, if I’d had the balls to do it.” Had he ever acted before? “Have I heck! Acted the goat at work!” She was always offering to do things for him, he says. “She wanted to pay my mortgage off for me.” He wasn’t interested. “I always sat myself beside her at functions. Because she didn’t eat much, she’d always slip the chicken or steak on to my plate. One day she slid an envelope on to my plate and there was a lot of money in that. I gave it her back and she went ballistic. She didn’t speak to me for three, four days. She said I was ungrateful. I said I’m not ungrateful, but if you’d had bought me a pack of baccy I’d have been happier.”

Sean Winterton, a friend of Caroline Aherne who was the inspiration for the character Twiggy in TV series The Royle Family
Aherne’s friend Sean Winterton, who was the inspiration for Twiggy. Photograph: Gus Palmer/BBC/Passion Docs

Perhaps one of the reasons she liked you is that you didn’t want anything from her and you weren’t trying to blow smoke up her arse. “You’ve hit the nail on the head. She used to have a party every Christmas, and she’d say, ‘Make sure you’re there’, and I’d say, ‘Caroline, I ain’t doing it, I went last year and they all sat round like you’re a god’. And she started laughing. She said, ‘I hate that’.”

In 1998, she attempted suicide. After taking an overdose, she phoned Cash. In Queen of Comedy, he breaks down when he relates the conversation. “She was saying goodbye, really. But she just said, ‘I love you and I’m sorry but I’m going. I’ve taken an overdose’ and I said, ‘Make yourself sick. Make yourself sick, MAKE YOURSELF SICK!’ I had to ring her mum and tell her. Her mum rang an ambulance and, luckily, they came and they broke her door down and got her in time.”

I ask Lavelle and Conlan whether they noticed the depression getting worse. “Yes,” Conlan says. “She started to cancel arrangements last minute.”

Do they think she really intended to kill herself?

“No,” they both say instantly.

“Afterwards, she was mortified,” Lavelle says. “She couldn’t believe she would have done that, especially to her mum. She’d got really drunk and that started it all off. I think she was watching a sad film, and got so low and thought everybody would be better off without her.”

Aherne talked publicly about her suicide attempt, and her subsequent stay in the Priory where she was treated for alcoholism. As usual she managed to turn it into a sitcom scene. “I went in for depression,” she told Parkinson. “Then they came in and said, ‘You’re not a depressive, you’re an alcoholic.’ Come over to this other bit with the alkies in.’ I was saying, ‘I’m not an alcoholic’ and they were saying, ‘You are.’ And this went on for about two weeks, and then I said, ‘I am’ and everyone clapped, and I was getting a bit giddy. So I said, ‘I’m a really big alcoholic.’ I got overtaken by it all!”

Her friends thought that it was nonsense. Her depression had affected her work, but her drinking never had. You were a drinker back in the day, weren’t you, I say to Cash. He sounds hurt. “What d’you mean was? I still am. I’ve not stopped drinking! I was pissed as arseholes last night. I was very surprised they talked about an alcohol problem at the Priory because I thought, bloody hell, I must have one then.” And did he really think he had a problem? “No, I didn’t. And I didn’t think she had.”

In 2001, Aherne gave her last proper interview to a newspaper. She said fame had made her unhappy and she was walking away from it and TV. She briefly moved to Australia and then returned to Greater Manchester to live a quiet life in Timperley.

“I think she said goodbye to stardom and came back to her roots,” Lavelle says. She lived in a small bungalow dominated by televisions. “She had such big tellies in her house,” Lavelle says. “She always had the telly on in the background when we were chatting. Always in her pyjamas if we weren’t going out. Pyjama bottoms and a top.”

“With the remote control very close to her,” Conlan adds.

Her social circle became smaller and smaller: family and a tiny group of friends. “It wasn’t because she didn’t love people, I think it was just that she was very happy in her little bubble,” Lavelle says.

In 2006, six years after the third series of The Royle Family ended, Cash convinced her to team up for a Christmas special. He was desperate to support her through her depression, but didn’t know how. Then it struck him that the best thing he could do was help her back into work. “She would say, ‘I’m just not funny any more, I can’t write, I can’t do it.’ But we knew it was just the depression talking because the minute you were in her house she was taking the piss out of you and having a laugh. It got to a stage where she said, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t do it, and I don’t want to hold you back.’ So we went away, restructured it, added bits and dropped bits, and gave her the script back. It was brilliant because she looked at it and was criticising this bit and that, and gradually got into it. It did wonders for her mental health to get back to work. Then we started rowing about it again and it all came full circle.”

Caroline Aherne sat at her desk at the BBC
At her desk at the BBC. Photograph: family photograph

Now they were co-directing the show, and they would row in front of the rest of the cast, they would row in the editing suite, sometimes they would lose whole days rowing about the best way to do things – and they loved it. Aherne was a natural director: sensitive to the nuance of every word and camera shot, and tough enough to say just how she wanted it. Both were strongly opinionated. “In the edit suite we had a paper plate and we called it the plate of destiny. We’d write our names on and spin it and put an arrow on the table, and whichever name was closest to the arrow when it stopped spinning, that’s whose decision won. That plate of destiny took a lot of heat out of the edit suite because, boy, we were passionate about it.”

The first Christmas special, The Queen of Sheba, in which Nana died, is regarded by many as the greatest episode of The Royle Family. It is beautifully observed – so poignant and yet joyous when they launch into one of TV’s greatest singsongs to celebrate Nana’s life. They made four more Christmas specials, each one attracting huge audiences.

In 2014, Aherne announced she had lung cancer. She did it in typical style, to raise awareness and funds for charity, while not giving an interview to a newspaper. She also mentioned in passing that she had already survived bladder cancer. Her last regular job was doing the voiceover for Gogglebox, the TV series that shows people watching TV. It seemed so fitting. After all, The Royle Family was one of the first sitcoms to truly replicate real life, and it did it so successfully that it spawned a reality show that replicated the Royles. When she couldn’t do Gogglebox because of hospital appointments, she asked Cash to fill in for her. Now he does it full-time.

In April 2016, Aherne told those closest to her that the lung cancer was terminal and she had been given between three and 12 months to live. She died two months later, on 2 July 2016. “One of the things that comforts us is that Patrick, her brother, had told her he was going to bring her nephew to see her. They were going to spend the day together,” Lavelle says. “Caroline was in her pyjamas on the couch, under a blanket with the remote control and the big telly still on. So she died thinking she was going to see her nephew the next day and she was doing what she loved best in the world.”

Johnston tells me that after Aherne died, Tomlinson had portraits painted of her, and gave one to Johnston. “Ricky and I always talk about her. Always. How much she gave us, and how much we’re indebted to her,” she says.

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.”

By the time she died in 2016, most of her money was gone – spent on friends and family. Her estate was valued at just over £500,000 – the equivalent of around three months’ work, at her peak. There was more tragedy for her mother, Maureen, two years later when Patrick, a cabaret singer whose band played on The Mrs Merton Show, died after he fell down the stairs. Maureen now lives in Galway and is unwell. Bert died in 1995.

Cash says he struggled after losing Aherne. “It was an incredibly difficult time. I lost my father the same year and my father-in-law just before that, so within 12 months I lost the three funniest people I knew. My dad was Jim Royle, really. They were all funny. Irreplaceably funny.” Does he think he has got over Aherne’s death? “I’m more used to it. I don’t know that it’s something you ever get used to. It’s a matter of learning to live with it. I saw a film last year and I knew Caroline would have absolutely loved it. I found myself in the cinema in tears, thinking, ‘This is just not right.’ It was the The Banshees of Inisherin, by the way.”

I tell him about Johnston’s portrait of Aherne at the bottom of the stairs. “Aw, I didn’t know that. That’s nice. Well, I’ve got a little photograph of her on my mantelpiece downstairs, alongside my dad and Bill, my father-in-law. It’s not a shelf you ever want to appear on!”

He tells me there’s a poem that has helped him make sense of Aherne’s death. “It’s by Robert Frost. The title is Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It Lacks In Length, and that’s how I look at it with Caroline. She wasn’t here for a long time, but we had a bloody good time when she was.”

Caroline Aherne: Queen of Comedy is on BBC Two on Christmas Day at 10.25pm.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org


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