Obituary: Caroline Aherne

Caroline Aherne Image copyright PA

Caroline Aherne's writing exposed the comedy in the more mundane events of family life.

The dysfunctional Royle family, from the comedy series of the same name she created, drew heavily on her own childhood and the people she met while she was growing up.

Starting her career in stand-up, she quickly developed as both a writer and performer.

All this was while she battled recurring ill health, depression and alcoholism.

Caroline Mary Aherne was born in Ealing, west London, on 24 December 1963, the daughter of Irish immigrants.

By the time she was three, her father Bert, a railway labourer, had moved the family to live in the Wythenshawe district of Manchester.

Her father was an alcoholic and her family struggled to make ends meet.

Image caption Dancer Wayne Sleep with Mrs Merton

Aherne battled ill health from an early age. Both she and her older brother, Patrick, were born with a rare cancer of the retina.

When she was four, the local Catholic church raised money to send the two children to Lourdes.

However, her mother Maureen decided to put her faith in St Bartholomew's Hospital in London and took Aherne and her brother there for regular treatment.

Despite the best efforts of doctors, she spent the rest of her life with partial sight in one eye.

She swiftly developed the role of the family joker and gained an ability to accurately mimic characters on television.

Performance bug

"Nobody else in the family was like that," her brother recalled.

"But she was funny from the time she was really little."

By the time she was 15 she had taken the decision to become a writer, after seeing the Mike Leigh play Abigail's Party on BBC TV.

She was extremely bright, achieving nine Grade A O-Levels at a local convent school before going on to study drama at Liverpool Polytechnic.

Image caption Aherne created the dysfunctional Royle family

One of her first jobs was with the BBC in Manchester, as secretary to Janet Street Porter, but the performance bug was already ingrained in her.

She became a regular on the Manchester comedy circuit in the character of Mitzi Goldberg, a spoof country and western singer.

The nun Sister Mary Immaculate was another early creation.

Aherne's career was boosted when she met Craig Cash, with whom she worked on Manchester's KFM indie radio station.

He encouraged her to further develop the character of an agony aunt called Mrs Merton and sent tapes to the presenter Martin Kelner, who played them on his Radio 2 show.

Quizzed

The Mrs Merton Show launched on BBC TV in 1995 and ran for five seasons.

A series of guest stars were subjected to gentle but often extremely embarrassing questions in front of a live audience of pensioners.

"And what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?" was one of the gems aimed at guest Debbie McGee.

Image caption As Paula Fisch in The Fast Show

Carol Thatcher was asked if she had been breast-fed, while George Best was quizzed as to whether it was playing all that football that made him so thirsty.

Aherne was also appearing regularly on The Fast Show, notably as Paula Fisch, the Chanel 9 weather girl whose forecasts were always "scorchio".

But by the third series of Mrs Merton, Aherne was feeling the pressure of the continual live performances, and her personal life was beginning to unravel.

Her marriage to New Order bassist Peter Hook collapsed and a Mrs Merton series filmed in Las Vegas was not a success.

Retreat

Her dependency on alcohol increased and she began suffering long periods of depression.

It culminated in a well-publicised suicide attempt in 1998 and Aherne took herself off for rehab.

"I actually have no recollection of it," she said later.

"But I'd been down for a while, and my mind was whizzing at night, so I was drinking to sleep."

Image caption Mrs Merton & Malcolm was not a great success

Her retreat from alcohol coincided with the first series of The Royle Family, which first appeared on BBC TV in September 1998.

The series, in which Aherne played Denise Royle, was an immediate hit, although not before Aherne had to fight off attempts by BBC executives to change her original ideas.

She fiercely resisted the pressure to shoot scenes on location and held out for the final format, which barely moved from the Royle sofa in the living room.

Aherne also fought off moves to bring in a studio audience, which she said would completely ruin the show.

Complaints

She incorporated elements of her own father in the character of the feckless Jim Royle, played by Ricky Tomlinson.

"My dad was always going on about the immersion, and about lights being left on."

The Royle Family eventually ran for 25 episodes, attracting audiences of up to 10 million.

However, another series, Mrs Merton and Malcolm, based on a British Gas advert, was less successful, with complaints that the character of Malcolm poked fun at people with learning difficulties.

Image copyright PA
Image caption An astute observer of life

By now Aherne had begun drinking again but insisted she was able to control her craving for alcohol.

Aherne fell out with Cash and moved to Sydney in Australia. It became the setting for her BBC Two sitcom Dossa and Joe, which aired in 2002 to mixed reviews.

She dropped out of the public gaze, re-emerging briefly for Royle Family specials in 2006 and 2010.

More recently she was the voice of hit Channel 4 show Gogglebox, which she had narrated since it began in 2013.

Aherne continued to battle ill health. She suffered a bout of bladder cancer and, in 2014, revealed she had undergone treatment for lung cancer.

Behind her sometimes dopey characters was an astute observer of life, succinctly summed up by her Royle Family co-star Ricky Tomlinson.

"Caroline acts like a dope and a dumb blonde," he once said, "but she's as sharp as a box of razor blades."