Michael McDonagh on the acute embarrassment and sheer joy of working with Caroline Aherne
Comedy writer and actress Caroline Aherne – known for The Royle Family, Mrs Merton and more recently the voice of Gogglebox – died of cancer last weekend, aged just 52. After the loss of Victoria Wood in April she was the second precious comedy legend to leave us prematurely this year.
Like her older brother Patrick, Caroline was diagnosed with a rare cancer of the retina so her mother told her that people with cancer were special and their local parish even raised funds to send them to Lourdes in search of a miracle cure. Recently paying tribute to Macmillan Nurses, she said with characteristic humour ‘I must be very special because I have had it in my lungs and my bladder as well. But the brilliant thing was the Macmillan nurse was like an angel’
The daughter of Irish parents, Bert (a railway worker) and Maureen (a dinner lady), Caroline was born in Ealing but grew up in Wythenshawe, Manchester from the age of two, as part of the large Irish diaspora on that huge post war council estate. Her very high IQ took her on to be educated at the Hollies Convent in Didsbury and she then studied Drama at Liverpool Polytechnic.
In the comedy clubs of Manchester she developed her first characters including Sister Mary Immaculate and from there, with fellow Timperley resident Frank Sidebottom, her character Mrs Merton emerged for some short sketches leading, from 1994 to 1997, to appearances in The BBC comedy series The Fast Show, for which she wrote scripts.
The public really came to know Caroline when in 1994 the first series of The Mrs Merton Show was screened. With her soft beguiling reassuring Manchester accent she gently asked her celebrity guests the most outrageous and hysterically funny embarrassing questions. A clever Venus flytrap that was comedy genius. Perhaps her most popular and innovative creation was the situation comedy The Royle Family, which she co-created and wrote with Craig Cash, directing its third season.
Starring in it with Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston, as their daughter ‘Denise Royle’ the show was like a fly on the wall documentary of a typical Northern family living room. It was a commercial and critical success, and ran for three series of six episodes as well as three one-offs. Aherne received BAFTAs for Best Sitcom in 2000 and 2007, and she won the BAFTA for Best Comedy in 2000 and she was also nominated for directing in 2001.
Daniel O’Donnell had risked his own reputation by appearing on The Mrs Merton Show but acquitted himself well by joining in the fun and they both got on well. In 1999 when I was producing and directing the video of Daniel’s hit single A Christmas Kiss we asked Caroline to make a guest appearance as a battle-axe office manager, where a young Daniel worked as the post boy, to make it a fun comedy pro-fan so we hoped she would agree.
Good as gold, at very short notice, Caroline got the plane to Dublin to join us for the filming at the Ierne Ballroom near Parnell Square, where Daniel used to dance in 1980 when he worked in a hotel kitchen. I had never met Caroline before that November day and I was nervous about the idea of me ‘directing’ her in a comedy video when she had won awards for directing comedy TV.
When she arrived on set she was no diva just kind, wonderful and helpful. As I outlined the script to her she put Daniel and me at ease and got into the spirit of it all. Caroline was just that funny all the time and, as Ricky Tomlinson has said, she was as ‘sharp as box of razors’, never missing a chance to get a laugh. On the day we had a very big set up with loads of lights and equipment, a big crew, lots of extras as dancers in the ballroom and a band on stage with Daniel performing like a young 1950s rock singer in leather.
One tracking shot was complicated as it involved the camera dolly rushing through the crowd arriving to pick up Caroline as she came out of the ladies loo, astonished to see her office boy Daniel now on stage transformed into a rock idol. The first take did not work so the First Assistant called ‘Cut, silence on the floor’ and turned to me to give directions to about 100 people including the stars Caroline and Daniel.
Without thinking of the consequences I laid myself wide open and said ‘sorry every- body we will have to go again as Caroline you came too quick’. In a flash her laser like wit zoned in on me, her target, and in slow measured tones, to milk my acute embarrassment she retorted: “Oh I know, I am so sorry but it was just the sound of your Timperley (where I grew up) accent and your silver grey hair that got me all excited.” The entire crew, Daniel and all the extras collapsed with laughter as I turned luminous pink. Steve Coogan recently said that being the target of her humour was an honour.
This incredibly talented kind-hearted woman died at her home near Timperely Village on Saturday. She will surely be missed and the Irish community in Manchester can be proud of her.
Community and showbiz pay respects
By Adam Shaw
Stars from the world of showbusiness have paid tribute to the award-winning writer and actress Caroline Aherne after she died from lung cancer aged 52. Born in Ealing to Irish immigrant parents, Aherne grew up on a council estate in Wythenshawe, Manchester. She maintained a strong relationship with the Irish community in Manchester, and was described as a “great friend” to the Manchester Irish Festival.
She was best known for her work on the sitcom The Royle Family, which she co- wrote and starred in as Denise. The comic was also noted for her performances as the chat show host Mrs Merton, which saw her interview the likes of Steve Coogan, George Best and Barry McGuigan.
Her most famous line, however, came when she spoke to the wife of magician Paul Daniels, Debbie McGee, and asked her: “So, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” as the narrator for Channel 4’s reality TV show Gogglebox.
Aherne was diagnosed with a rare cancer of the retina shortly after birth, as was her brother, Patrick. The local Catholic community in Wythenshawe collected enough funds to send the pair to Lourdes. She suffered from severely impaired sight in one eye as a result of this cancer and was also affected by bladder cancer, the same illness that led to the death of her boyfriend, Matt Bower, in 1997. A host of co-stars, friends and celebrities took the opportunity to honour Aherne after she lost her battle with a third type of cancer.
Noel Gallagher, a close friend of the actress, played an emotional version of Oasis’ Half the World Away – the theme tune for The Royle Family – at his Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds gig in Nashville. He told the 2,400 crowd at the Ryman Auditorium: “I want to dedicate the next song to a friend of mine who died this afternoon. Her name was Caroline and she was a very, very, very funny woman. She used this next song on a very, very, very, very brilliant sit-com in England called The Royle Family.”
Ralf Little, who starred as her brother Anthony Royle, tweeted: “I’m sorry for the silence – I just…don’t know what to say. What a sad, sad day. We’ve lost an- other one of our best. “A character. A legend. A boss. A sister, real and (for me) fake. A boss. A writer. An actor. A genius. A friend. Big, big heart. Good- bye. X”
Sue Johnston, who played her on-screen mother, said: “I am devastated at her passing and I am numb with grief.” Fellow comedians were also quick to pay tribute, with Miranda Hart tweeting: “Yet another inspirational female comedian lost. Thank you for everything Caroline Aherne. RIP. X”
David Baddiel admitted her death had “done me in”, while Coogan added: “I loved her. She used to make me cry with laughter. This is the first time she’s made me cry without laughing.”
Caroline Aherne, Born 24 December 1963 in Ealing, died 2 July 2016 in Timperley