Caroline Aherne: New unseen photos of ‘a light that didn’t shine long enough’

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By Lucy Wallis

BBC News

Personal and family photographs of the comedy performer, Caroline Aherne – best known for her character Mrs Merton and for playing Denise in sitcom The Royle Family – help to tell the story of her complex life in a new documentary.

The film – to be shown on BBC Two on Christmas Day evening – will feature friends and co-stars’ memories of the actress and writer, and her unique talent.

‘Bright light’

“We had some laughs though, didn’t we Cashy.”

These were the words TV star Craig Cash remembers his close friend Caroline Aherne saying to him when she found out she only had two months left to live.

“I was in denial,” says Cash. “I just kept repeating ‘no’, but there’s a lot to be said for denial.”

Aherne, diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014, passed away in 2016 at the age of 52.

“She was a very bright light that didn’t shine long enough,” says Cash.After meeting Craig Cash for the first time, Caroline Aherne wrote in her diary, “I’ve just met the funniest man in the world” BBC Two is set to air an evening of programmes about the comedy performer on Christmas Day. Aherne rose to fame on the channel with her acerbic chat show character, Mrs Merton. Her grey rinse and sharp tongue meant she could get away with questions like, “What first, Debbie [McGee], attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”

She made everyone laugh as Poula Fisch – the weather presenter on The Fast Show, where the temperature was always “scorchio”. But it was sitcom The Royle Family, that she co-wrote with Cash, which saw her genius played out on a sofa. The life of a northern family watching telly made the mundane magic.

She was a Manchester girl with “a passion to hold a mirror up to real people”, says Cash.Aherne poses for a photo in the sun. It was always “scorchio” for her weather forecaster character, Poula Fisch, in The Fast Show Her working class background gave her a “superpower”, says comedian and friend Steve Coogan, that you don’t have if you come from a more privileged background.

Playing the character of Dave in the sitcom was Cash’s first television acting role and he was nervous.

“She’d be like, ‘telly’s full of people with more confidence than talent, and you’ve got talent’.

“She gave me confidence,” he says.

‘The Queen of Sheba’

Aherne was very close to her mum, Maureen, seen here with Cash Aherne inherited her funny bones.

“Her mum would always be up to some sort of mischief,” says Cash.

He recalls his first meeting with Aherne’s parents, Maureen and Bert.

“Maureen was like the Queen of Sheba and she had a wraparound thing on and I had to kiss her hand,” says Cash. “Bert had a tea-towel round his head.”

When Cash was invited to sit down, he failed to realise they had placed a towel between two chairs, and he fell to the floor.

“Caroline would come running in, ‘he’s fallen for the Queen of Sheba routine’.

“The mischief was in her blood,” says Cash.Aherne, pictured here with Maureen, used to do impressions of her mother’s friends as a child Despite the humour, cancer had cast an unwelcome shadow over the family. Her older brother, Patrick, had cancer of the retina as a child and had his eye removed when he was 18 months old.

Caroline was born with the same retinoblastoma, which left her partially sighted in one eye.Patrick Aherne was 18 months older than his sister – he died in 2018

‘On the comedy circuit’

Having finished her drama course with a big overdraft, Aherne started working as a secretary at the BBC in the late 1980s and also began doing stand-up.

“The industry was very male,” says poet Lemn Sissay, who often appeared before her on the bill.

“She was the only woman… but she knew what she was doing and she shone.”,

Aherne loved watching television so much, she decided to study drama at Liverpool PolytechnicOn the comedy circuit she made friends with comedians Coogan and John Thomson and the writer Henry Normal – who went on to co-write the first series of The Royle Family with her and Cash.

“She liked me, but I annoyed her as well,” says Coogan. “She sort of saw me as a working class boy with intellectual pretensions and didn’t let me off the hook.”

He remembers wearing shorts one hot day and she looked at him and said: “Oh that reminds me, I must get some chicken drumsticks on the way home.”

Coogan says Cash and Aherne were always a pair.

“Craig was funny and Caroline was funny, but Caroline was a bit funnier than Craig,” he says.

When Normal worked at the BBC with Aherne, the “bigwigs”, he says, would come to see how they were getting on in their office. When they left, Aherne would open the window and shout out to them to “do a funny walk” across the road – and they did.

“She’d kill herself laughing,” he says. “That’s how cheeky she was, because you’re supposed to treat the producer with respect, but I think Caroline was more the boss.”,

Aherne showed that “clever, intelligent comedy can appeal to everyone”, says Coogan

‘Dark times’

As her fame grew in the 1990s, so did the press intrusion.

“She suffered terribly at the hands of the tabloids,” says comedian John Thomson, “because they were always waiting for the next fall. Romantically, it never worked out for her and [for the press] that’s a good story.”

She would have loved to have had children, remembers Aherne’s close friend, Cal Lavelle, but she chose not to because of the risk the child might have been born with retinoblastoma.

She struggled with depression, says Cash. One night, in 1998, he received a shocking call.

“I was in bed and the phone rang and she was saying goodbye really. She just said, ‘I love you and I’m sorry and I’m going. I’ve taken an overdose.'”

Paramedics reached her in time and Aherne was later diagnosed with alcohol addiction and bipolar disorder.

“She definitely did drink and get drunk because of the stresses and the challenges in her life,” says Lavelle.

‘Free spirit’

A one-off special of The Royle Family – The Queen of Sheba – won the Bafta for best situation comedy in 2007. The episode saw the family’s beloved Nana, played by Liz Smith, pass away.

Aherne shunned the limelight of the award ceremony, and instead stayed comfortably at home in her pyjamas, watching television.

“The show ended up being more than just the show that won the Bafta,” says Cash.

“It was a show that helped her step towards happiness again. So what happened next felt very cruel.”Aherne paid homage to Molly, her own Nana, in the episode, The Queen of Sheba She had been recovering from bladder cancer, when like a “sledgehammer”, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, says Cash.

Sue Johnston, who played character Denise’s on-screen mum Barbara Royle, says despite the devastating diagnosis, Aherne retained her sharp wit.

“If she texted at all, it was always hysterical,” says Johnston – remembering Aherne telling her that she didn’t realise her ears would stick out when she lost her hair during chemotherapy.

“I mean just self-deprecating jokes to make us feel better about her demise. That’s her generosity, that’s what she gave back.”

Her funeral was testament to her, says co-star Ricky Tomlinson, who played her on-screen dad Jim Royle, because so many people attended. As a tribute, her coffin was brought in to the sitcom’s theme tune, Half the World Away by Oasis.

Aherne’s fascination with the ordinary meant that “the stuff of life was the stuff of comedy for her”, says Andy Harries, who worked alongside her as executive producer on The Royle Family.

She would be bemused and amused, says Cash, that we are all “yapping about her” now.

“She’d say, ‘Cashy, you’d never say anything nice about me when I was alive, did ya.'”

Caroline Aherne: Queen of Comedy will be broadcast on Monday 25 December at 22:25 GMT on BBC Two

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