Profile: Caroline Ahern: The queen of comedy

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The Independent Culture
One fine May evening in 1998, the gentility of the White House Hotel in central London was shattered by the unfamiliar sound, emanating from the bar area, of a champagne-fuelled, stand-up barney. Caroline Aherne and her writing partner and fellow Mancunian, Craig Cash, were yelling at Jimmy McGovern, the one-time Brookside writer who went on to create Cracker and The Lakes. McGovern was yelling back. Aherne had engineered the encounter because she so wanted to meet McGovern, and here she was, loudly abusing him.

They were arguing about the respective merits of Manchester and Liverpool. The second runway at Manchester Airport should have gone to his native Liverpool, claimed McGovern. Bollocks, countered Aherne. When tempers finally cooled, McGovern thanked his two sparring partners for the best night out he'd had in years. "Nobody ever stands up to me like that any more," he told them.

After inauspicious beginnings, a mutual admiration society was formed, and a few weeks later Aherne sent McGovern a tape of her new comedy, The Royle Family, due to be transmitted later that year on BBC2. "I was gobsmacked," McGovern recalls. "I hadn't been that impressed with a comedy since Fawlty Towers. I know as a writer how brave it is to take the story out and have faith in character. But what I also love about The Royle Family are the small things, like the bit about the roasting tin. `Leave it for your mother,' says the dad, and we've all been there. There is great love in that family, but it is never stated. That's so true to life."

True to life. For Aherne, there is no greater praise. When she was a teenager on a council estate in Wythenshawe, Manchester, she watched Mike Leigh's television play, Abigail's Party, and resolved there and then that she would try to become a writer in the same vein as Leigh. Later, Ken Loach became a hero, too. So as funny and successful as it was, The Mrs Merton Show - which established her as a star - was a diversion from her principal ambition; to write about an ordinary family, with the ordinariness providing the comedy.

When she finally realised this ambition with The Royle Family, she clung stubbornly to the notion of nothing much happening. BBC executives were not so sure. They wanted a studio audience. She argued, to the point of tears, that this would ruin everything. They wanted locations. She told them she had loved Till Death Us Do Part, but remembered a dud episode set in a restaurant. Characters like that needed to stay in their own world, she said. She loved Only Fools and Horses, too, but stopped believing in it one Christmas special when Del and Rodney went to Miami. And she had once made the same mistake with Mrs Merton, taking her out of the studio and putting her on a coach with a load of pensioners. "It was crap," she told them.

Eventually, through a combination of threats and tears, she got her own way. "Caroline is unusual in that most stars use their clout to improve the deal they're on," says Mark Gorton, a former producer of The Mrs Merton Show. "She doesn't. She uses it on creative issues." Indeed, as evidence that she puts her art before her bank balance, Aherne seriously considered buying back from the BBC the first episode of the first series of The Royle Family, which she thought flawed. "I actually hated it," she said. "But when they told me how much it cost (around pounds 200,000), I went, `Oh, it's not bad, actually'. I'd have bought it from them if it had been any less, though."

Aherne believes the second series of The Royle Family to be the finest thing she has ever done. And many people, inside the television industry as well as out, concur. For David Liddiment, director of programmes at ITV (who must bear the frustration of watching her enhance the BBC's reputation, even though her programmes are made by Granada), she has "fantastic, extraordinary talent". So this evening, when the 10th annual British Comedy Awards are dished out, her single-mindedness - and, in the opinion of McGovern, Liddiment and many others, her comic genius - will surely be rewarded. She might get drunk, too.

Aherne was born to Irish immigrants, Bert and Maureen, on Christmas Eve 1963. Money was scarce, and there were health problems besides. Caroline was born with a rare cancer of the retina, just as her brother Patrick had been two years earlier. When she was four, the local Catholic church held a fund-raising dance to send the Ahernes to Lourdes. But Maureen had faith in the NHS as well as God, and took the children to St Bartholomew's Hospital in London every four months for a check-up. "She always made it a real event," recalls Aherne, "and bought us new socks and underwear for the journey." Stories of Maureen's resourcefulness are touching. Patrick lost an eye to the affliction and was left with only 30 per cent vision in the other. So Maureen would encourage him to look after his little sister by holding her hand, in fact ensuring that Caroline was providing him with the sight he lacked.

Bert Aherne, who died in 1995, was a labourer on the railways. "None of us really knew what he did and I don't think anyone ever told him, either," says his daughter. She refuses to talk much about him, disclosing only that he was an alcoholic, but like other close relatives of hers, a little of Bert Aherne has been immortalised in The Royle Family. "My dad was always going on about the immersion, and about lights being left on. `It's like feckin' Blackpool illuminations,' he used to say."

Despite, or perhaps partly to compensate for, her eye problems (she is still practically unsighted in one eye), Aherne became the family joker, with an uncanny ability to mimic television characters, such as Barbara and Margot from The Good Life. Patrick Aherne has no idea where his sister's talent came from. "Nobody else in the family was like that," he says. "But she was funny from the time she was really little."

She was also formidably bright - indeed, her IQ was measured at 176, Mensa material - and at convent school she got nine As in her O-levels. After school, Aherne studied drama at Liverpool Polytechnic, and then took a job at BBC Manchester as secretary to Janet Street-Porter. Her only ambition was to become a programme researcher, "but the bosses kept telling me I was too giddy in the interviews". Without knowing it, however, she had already had her big break, for in 1990 she met both Henry Normal, a performance poet well-known on Manchester's comedy circuit, and Craig Cash, with whom she presented a show on an obscure radio station, KFM.

By this time she had developed a comedy act, featuring a Country & Western singer called Mitzi Goldberg and a nun called Sister Mary Immaculate, whose ambition was to kiss the Pope's ring. She asked Cash if he would manage her. He said he would do so only if she refined another character, Mrs Merton, originally conceived, in her bedroom, as an agony aunt.

Aherne had sent her home-made tapes of Mrs Merton to Martin Kelner, who hosted a programme on Radio 2. Kelner liked them and played them on air. But with Cash and Normal as co-writers, Mrs Merton evolved into a talk- show host and the rest is history, or at any rate the history of comedy, for her uniquely sweet way of asking a loaded question - "Were you breast- fed, Carol Thatcher?" "Does your wife like Supermarket Sweep, Dale Winton?" "George Best, was it playing all that football that made you so thirsty?" - will remain one of the indelible television images of the Nineties. By series three and four of The Mrs Merton Show, however, Aherne, Cash and Normal were struggling to sustain its sharpness. "By the end," recalls Cash, "we'd be sitting there with a blank piece of paper the day before the show, saying `who are the guests?' But Caroline still had to go out there and carry it."

The stress of performing almost-live did nothing to relieve Aherne's growing alcohol dependency. Indeed, her dressing-room bottle of Asti Spumante was famously included in the show's budget. And as her star rose, her private life - the divorce from New Order guitarist Peter Hook, his punch- up with her then-boyfriend Matt Bowers, Bowers' subsequent death, various drunken public appearances, her split from actor Alexis Denisof - had tabloid news editors salivating. On 6 July last year they were presented with the biggest story of all when, at her mews home in Notting Hill, she tried to commit suicide by washing down a bottle of sleeping pills with several glasses of champagne.

"I actually have no recollection of it," she said later. "Finding out what I'd done was like finding out I'd stabbed 15 people. I would never knowingly hurt people in that way. But I'd been down for a while, and my mind was whizzing at night, so I was drinking to sleep. I was on anti- depressants, I'd seen a faith-healer, but I couldn't shake it. I knew something was wrong."

So did Craig Cash. "She was crying a lot, and I talked to her for hours about why she was unhappy and how she could be happier, but she'd still be depressed again the following day. I thought it was the depression that was causing her to drink, but according to the experts it was the drink causing her depression. She did get drunk a lot. But then so did I. We'd come out of places like bloody Laurel and Hardy."

Aherne checked into the Priory Clinic in Roehampton, south-west London, and was diagnosed as a binge alcoholic. After discharging herself, she climbed aboard the wagon and resolved to stay there. She went twice a week to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, not that there was much hope of anonymity. One man greeted her warmly. "You're Mrs Merton, aren't you?" he said. "I've been following your career with interest. I've been saving a seat for you."

The Royle Family, series one, could easily have been her epitaph. As it was, she watched a year ago as it was showered in plaudits, and toasted her success with cranberry juice. Her character, Denise Royle, was less virtuous. "I'm not pissed, I only 'ad nine," she protested in one episode. And earlier this year Aherne decided that she, too, could no longer bear staying teetotal. To her mother's horror, she started drinking again, a potentially dangerous development given her emotional vulnerability and the fact that it more or less coincided with the BBC1 sitcom Mrs Merton and Malcolm, a spin-off from a series of British Gas commercials which, while funny and original, was, relatively speaking, her first critical flop.

However, Aherne has changed in the past 18 months. She is wiser and, creatively, more fulfilled than ever. She has just returned from India, where she made a documentary about a remote eye hospital, to be shown around Easter. Next up is another series of The Royle Family, then a film version. The format has also been sold to America and she, Cash, and executive producer Andy Harries have been retained as associate producers. Aherne has even submitted a wish-list of actors, with John Goodman of Roseanne fame her choice to play Jim Royle, and Joan Cusack as Denise. But British comedy writers very rarely see their work adapted in America exactly as they would wish. John Cleese was told that they had decided to take "the Basil character" out of Fawlty Towers, while The Royle Family was snapped up largely on the basis that it sounded like "the new Beverly Hillbillies". The mind boggles.

On the other hand, if anyone can impose their will over the Americans, she can. There are other writer-performers with similar talent, such as her old friend Steve Coogan, but perhaps none so willing to keep taking creative risks, or so resolute in avoiding artistic compromises. She missed the ultimate prize this year, when the comedy Bafta went to Father Ted, but it will surely be hers next time round. In the meantime, it seems hard to believe that one of tonight's Comedy Awards does not already have her name on it.

Life Story

Born: 24 December 1963, in London. Moved with her family to Wythenshawe, Manchester, at the age of two.

Family: Father, Bert Aherne (railwayman; died 1995). Mother, Maureen (school dinner lady). Brother, Patrick (karaoke specialist).

Marriage: To Peter Hook in 1994 (allegedly in the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel in Las Vegas). Divorced in 1997.

Boyfriends: Matt Bowers, Alexis Denisof.

Education: Hollies Convent School (achieved nine straight As at O-level).

IQ measured at 176.

Studied drama at Liverpool Polytechnic.

Medical history: Cured of childhood cancer of the retina in one eye. Attempted suicide on 6 July 1998; subsequently treated at The Priory for alcoholism.

Career: Secretary on `A Question of Sport' (BBC). Cabaret around Manchester, followed by a stint as a radio DJ in Manchester on KFM. Television: `The Dead Good Show' (Granada); `The Mrs Merton Show' (BBC); `The Fast Show' (BBC); `The Royle Family' (BBC); and `Mrs Merton and Malcolm' (BBC). Adverts: British Gas TV commercials.

She says: `My only alcohol problem is that I get pissed at the wrong dos.'

Mrs Merton asks: `Tell me, Germaine [Greer], what is the difference between being sexually liberated in the Sixties and an old slapper now?'

They say: `Caroline acts like a dope and a dumb blonde, but she's as sharp as a box of razor blades.' (Ricky Tomlinson, actor)

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