Tributes have been pouring in for comedian and actress Caroline Aherne, who died on Saturday at the age of 52 after a battle with cancer.
Since her death at the weekend, Caroline has been heralded as one of Britain’s greatest comedy performers, and it is easy to see why. Gritty with realism, Aherne’s comedy lacked the sometimes silly plotlines of comrades Harry Enfield and Steve Coogan, and was all the better for it, while her writing style influenced sitcoms such as Shameless and Gavin and Stacey.
Caroline Aherne burst onto our screens as part of the Fast Show ensemble, where she played recurring sketch characters that would define her comedy style. Her comedy acts often affectionately mocked the social stereotypes of the past three decades, and were honest and vulnerable. They were a welcome arrival against the backdrop of the brash, overconfident personas of Alan Partridge, and Bottom’s Ritchie and Eddie, that dominated television screens in the Nineties.
She soon became familiar in her disguises, which varied from a checkout girl to a weather presenter. However, it was as spoof chat show host Mrs Merton that she truly established herself, and set a trend in comedy.
"A comic genius"
Professional to a tee, Caroline was immersive as the bespectacled elderly host – complete with a silver perm. The series won a BAFTA award thanks to Mrs Merton’s delightfully daring and awkward interviews, where she famously quizzed Debbie McGee on her attraction to magician Paul Daniels, and pondered whether George Best would have been less thirsty if he, “hadn’t done all that running round playing football.”
Few personalities could ask such intrusive questions and then feign naivety in the brilliant way that Caroline could. At the 1997 BRIT Awards, Aherne (as Mrs Merton) shuffled to the stage and asked if there was anyone in the audience called Charlie:
“Charlie, love? Can you make yourself known? They’re all asking for you backstage…”
The following year, Caroline’s deadpan delivery was to be showcased in a Manchester-based sitcom she had co-created with Craig Cash. In 1998, The Royle Family was born.
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Before Caroline narrated Gogglebox, she co-wrote and starred as ditzy daughter Denise in a show that was to become an oft-quoted British phenomenon. The Royle Family was a traditional kitchen-sink drama which turned mundane working-class life (complaining about the telephone bill and drinking copious amounts of tea) into raw and beautiful scenes.
One scene of The Royle Family that encapsulates Caroline’s ability to leave an audience stunned with emotion is that of Nana’s funeral. Barbara’s mother was constantly on the receiving end of Jim’s razor-sharp tongue and yet Caroline’s writing was so raw and personal that it humanised the typically stoic Royle. We saw how he told Barbara, “I’d give all the bloody money in the world to have one more bloody row with her,” and even shed a tear for the mother-in-law he loved to hate.
Up against the executives of the BBC, Caroline was not for moving when it was suggested that the sitcom would benefit from either a live studio audience or a laughter track, as well as bigger, more obvious storylines that would take the family away from their ash-strewn living room.
"She was naturally funny, and cross-generational. Her comedy wasn’t intellectual but it was clever, and intuitive"- Steve Coogan.
The Royle Family was unapologetic in its portrayal of working-class families. It was real life, and proudly so. Recent broadcasting efforts such as Downton Abbey have shown privileged aristocrats living in luxury; Aherne’s creation saw its parsimonious patriarch firing insults at Carol Smilie through the television.
Caroline’s friend and co-star Ralf Little articulated that her death is a reminder of the lack of non-middle-class writers and actors in television:
“Caroline was a leading light in showing that working-class people can be on TV, being ourselves. That you can be a working-class kid, living out your life, and that can be interesting and funny and dramatic and entertaining.”
As summarised by long-term friend Steve Coogan, Caroline’s comedy was not high-brow or intellectual, but it was very clever. Since her death, comparisons have been made to the late Victoria Wood as they were both flagrantly cheeky Northerners with razor-sharp wit. We must allow the Wood's and the Aherne's of the country to write and act and entertain without social class boundaries holding them back.
Arguably one of the country’s brightest comedy writers, Caroline Aherne brought some much-needed realism to an increasingly bourgeois BBC – something she will always be commended for.