It seems amiss that despite having written about the Manchester stand-up scene for 17 years, I neither met nor interviewed Caroline Aherne.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Aherne spent considerable time performing on the circuit, but she had largely left the live scene before I began stalking its auditoriums. Nevertheless, her legacy here lived on way beyond those years. I’d constantly hear anecdotes and fond memories from my friends and colleagues on the Manchester circuit, so much so that it started to feel like I knew her personally too.
I found myself writing about her every year when the annual CityLife Comedian of the Year competition came around. It struck gold in its first year, 1990, crowning Aherne as winner. Though I only took over the comedy pages at CityLife magazine in 1999 and was involved with the competition from then on, each October I wrote proudly boasting of our inaugural winner. Many would recount the tale of her winning with the sharp, funny and cheeky character, Sister Mary Immaculate. In the early days one of the gigs she played was at The Buzz in Chorlton, as the club’s promoter, Agraman, recalls.
“I seem to remember that she was always incredibly nervous before a gig and used to throw up in the ladies toilets. She started out as Mitzi Goldberg and the Country and Western Experience with a ramshackle backing band. The Buzz was an ideal gig as we had a top sound engineer on duty. Then came the brilliantly naughty nun Sister Mary Immaculate who used to delight in ‘kissing the Pope’s ring’. I usually used to go for a curry with comedians after the show, but Caroline preferred to go for a bop with her mates at a venue called The International and I joined them a couple of times and treated them to a display of my wild dancing.”
In fact, the then manager of The International was Aherne’s close friend, Ric Michael, now a noted blogger, writer and producer.
“First and above all else Caroline was a lovely person, someone with whom you looked forward to sharing your time. Very generous, clever beyond all around her and great fun. I have lots of happy memories from KFM to Las Vegas [the Mrs Merton project in 1997]. Some of my favourites were taking her fly-posting with me on my regular Tuesday route when I was at The International. She got me on telly, I taught her how to use Solvite and a brush. My others were just going round to the flat on Lansdowne Road drinking, laughing and talking Mitzi Goldberg and Sister Mary Immaculate.”
Even when ‘off duty’, Aherne still dished out the funnies.
“I used to be a guest on Craig Cash‘s radio show, sort of a round-table, where I would pass comment on new releases,” says journalist Penny Anderson. “Caroline Aherne used to phone up while we were on air and take the piss brilliantly – what instruments can you play? What bands have you been in? So funny. Complex and damaged. But funny.”
Further into the 90s, Aherne became a regular punter on the scene especially at the Frog and Bucket‘s amateur night, then the Red Raw night. She would playfully heckle an act who was to become one of my favourite characters on the circuit: Alan Wilde. Aherne would request his trademark gag, shouting, “tell us the beans joke!”
She also offered help to new comedians. When comic Smug Roberts first started out she even lent her acting skills to one of his projects, as Frog and Bucket owner David Perkin remembers: “When Smug did The Wizard of Oz in 49 minutes she played Dorothy and New Order were the backing band. She was a great supporter of new comics.”
Of course, Aherne became better known for both her creation of the acid-tongued agony aunt and chat show host Mrs Merton and the wonderful The Royle Family,where she placed the family living room of a council estate house – just like the one she up grew in – at the centre.
No surprise then that the North West Comedy Awards saw fit to award her the Les Dawson Award for services to comedy in 2006. Though famously shy, wary of fame and not massively keen on award ceremonies, Aherne returned to the scene to receive her award.
John Locke, a comedy promoter, venue manager and one of the organisers of the North West Comedy Awards, says: “I saw her perform live as a stand-up many times and had the pleasure to spend a little time with her, most memorably when she won the Les Dawson award. She explained to me she didn’t really like awards events but had to collect the Les as she was such a massive fan and especially as it was given to her in Manchester. She was beautiful, funny, fragile and sweet whenever I met her.
“Caroline Aherne was a giant of British comedy and acting, a superb observational comedian and writer and a complex and beautiful human being. I am so very sad to hear about her leaving us too early.”
I’d found myself thinking about Aherne a lot lately, particularly since Victoria Wood died in April; wondering how she was getting on having gone public with her latest bout of cancer. In recent weeks I’d noticed she was no longer narrating Gogglebox. I couldn’t help but worry that her good friend Craig Cash was filling in so she could quietly live out her final days. Sadly that turned out to be true. Fifty-two is too soon to go, but how many of us can look back on such a fine body of work even if we live in to our 80s? She was here for a short time but boy did she make an impact.
By Marissa Burgess, Comedy Editor