In the first of our tributes to the comedian, writer and actress Caroline Aherne, who died earlier this month, Northern Soul’s Gerry Potter writes about a very special person.
I think more than anything I want to thank Caroline Aherne for bringing to the gogglebox an important piece of truth and social history. The Royle Family is a multi-levelled work of exceptionally well written meta entertainment; Shakespeare as sitcom, comedy as drama.
I love all the characters, so completely well-formed, etched and eked from personal experience, truly brilliantly cast and realised. I love where and why it’s set. The post-Thatcher 90s Royles are a perfect family to focus on. You can actually smell the semi-Marxism of the 50s, 60s and 70s. It’s a pan of Scouse bubbling away on the stove. Then there’s the unforgiving weighty desolation of 80s Britain, a Halloumi ‘n’ leaves with a light balsamic drizzle starter which they haven’t tasted and probably never will. This is a family surviving the unforgiving ravages of Thatcherism, blundering wounded, damaged, but surviving nonetheless, making us howl with laughter.
The writing was often sublime, sometimes genius, but always clear, gregarious, economic and hard, full of affection but never romancing, the characters difficult to like but easy to love, a tricky manoeuvre to get right, and Aherne was spot on.
I want to thank her for bringing that imperfect uber reality to the world, because the Royles were my family. A different familial architecture for sure, but heart ‘n’ soul of the Royle clan was definitely the same heart ‘n’ soul of the Butlers. We were them, they were us, like they were so many other working/underclass families of the time. I was most definitely the youngest member, Anthony, forever making the tea and constantly sent to the shop for everyone’s ciggies.
There’s an arcane ever present entropy revolving around the plot and characters – you kind of knew it used to be a lot better for this beleaguered family. It was never written in but always there because that’s what great writing is, the unseen made palpable. There’s a rage and generosity at play coming from a knowledge of poverty, what it does to the psychology of the characters, again unspoken but vividly present.
And what of Aherne’s character Denise, most damaged by the demise of the working class and the rise of the bourgeois zeitgeist? You can tell she wants in to a ‘somewhere else’ and that ‘somewhere else’ doesn’t want her. She’s simply not equipped for it. She’s keenly intelligent and knows this, simmering with rage in all she is and does. Her relationship with Dave is a case in point. On the surface he’s dense, uninteresting, uninterested, he just lets the world happen. He’s passive and slow, there’s something ‘unable’ about him, there’s a very modern day failing in all he does. If you pit Dave against Tony Booth’s ‘Scouse git’ in Till Death Do Us Part, Booth’ Mike was intellectually socialist, unionised, petulant and fighting back, an angry young firebrand with a definite place in his community and workplace. His was a character forging a better Britain. Denise knows she and her end of the working class drew the short colourless straw. It’s a brilliant piece of sly, manipulative, conniving writing, making Denise so completely real, so completely Denise, and also a superb, subtle piece of intricate acting from Aherne.
Of course no mention of Caroline Aherne can leave out the seminal Mrs Merton, an anarchy aunt of the highest disorder. Mrs Merton was the working class fighting back, a lumpy tights, handbagged Boudicca, quietly shrill and tempestuously knowing. Aherne was a knowing writer and I love knowing, especially from a working class perspective. I imagine it’s being quoted like buggery at the moment but “what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels” is comedy genius for a very sound reason. It’s actually genius and should be quoted, ad nauseam.