Comedy: A Royle tribute

After a six-year break, the last ever episode of The Royle Family comes to a sitting room near you tomorrow night. Brian Viner talks to some of its cast and celebrity fans - from Noel Gallagher to J K Rowling - about what makes it such a comedy great

An event, my arse. That's what Jim Royle would say. But he'd be wrong. Tomorrow evening, The Royle Family returns to BBC1 with its first new episode in more than six years. It is an hour-long special and will unequivocally, even in the equivocal world of television, be the last time the Royles ever gather in their front room, except for the repeats that will carry on for as long as Jim has a hole in his you-know-what, and possibly beyond. This makes it truly an event, because The Royle Family is one of those rare comedies - it would be wrong to call it a sitcom, so devoid is it of sit - that had a lasting impact not only on viewers, but also on other people in the TV comedy business. Ricky Gervais might or might not acknowledge that the naturalism of The Royle Family paved the way for The Office (and of course the characters in The Office are aware of the camera) but it surely did - having itself been inspired partly by Caroline Aherne's affection for the films of Mike Leigh and, especially, Ken Loach.

From the start, Aherne knew with absolute clarity how she wanted The Royle Family to look, and with the success of Mrs Merton behind her, was able to force through her ideas against the considered judgement of certain BBC executives who thought they knew better. She insisted that there must be no laughter-track, and said that if the Royles were ever to leave their front room, it would only be to go to the kitchen. She cited Till Death Us Do Part; so sure of itself when the Garnetts were arguing in the parlour, but awkward and forced whenever they left their four walls.

She was proved triumphantly right, and The Royle Family was duly festooned with awards. But after the third series, Aherne and her long-term writing partner Craig Cash decided to quit while they were ahead. They felt they'd taken the Royles - including their own characters, idle Denise and dopey Dave - as far as they could go. Moreover, Aherne had tired of having her personal life chronicled in the tabloid press, and wanted to withdraw from the spotlight. She moved to Australia. Cash teamed up with an old school friend, Phil Mealey, and wrote the well-received Early Doors. But last year Aherne, having quietly returned from Australia, decided that there was one more hour's mileage in the Royles, that there was one theme she and Cash had not yet explored. Hence tomorrow night's valedictory episode, "The Queen of Sheba", which features all the main original cast members doing what they do so well, and in particular a spellbinding performance from Liz Smith, who plays nana.

The episode is to be followed by a documentary in which members of the cast, and well-known fans of the series, including JK Rowling, Noel Gallagher, Ken Loach, Peter Kay, Johnny Vegas, Shaun Ryder of The Happy Mondays, Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South, Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan, explain what they admire about it, and in some cases, how life in the Royle household reminds them of their own childhoods. I was privileged to do these interviews myself, visiting JK Rowling in her Edinburgh office, Loach on the set of his latest film, and Gallagher in his Buckinghamshire recording studio. I even got to sit on Richard and Judy's sofa, which is almost as famous as, though decidedly less shabby than, the one in the Royle's front room.

Richard and Judy on what they like about The Royle Family

Judy: I know those people. That family reminds me a lot of my own uncles and aunts - the kind of conversations they have, and the way they group around the telly, it's just so typical of what went on in my childhood. I think Caroline and Craig are geniuses, the way they catch that northern inflection.

Richard: I come from a typically soft southern family [but] I originally got to like it because Judy told me this was her past, this was her background. We got together in the early-to mid-1980s and I can remember Christmas parties [with Judy's family] that are just like the occasional parties you see on the series. So I had an authentic whiff of that as well.

Judy: Yet my mum, who is very working-class, always hated Coronation Street because she thought she was going to rise above all that. My mum's very old now. I've never watched The Royle Family with her.

Richard: I suspect your mother watched it secretly, because it was around the time of the first series that she used to come in and say to friends at our house on Sundays, "Does your nan live with you?"

JK Rowling on whether she relates to any of the Royles

Barbara [played by Sue Johnston], frequently, when I'm sweating over the pots. But there isn't a single character on The Royle Family that I haven't met. I've known Jim, I've been out with Jim. I've never been out with Dave. I would have done better with Dave. I knew Beverly Macker; I was at school with Darren; I knew Denise, although Denise wouldn't have been my friend. She would have scared the living daylights out of me. When Anthony brings his new girlfriend Emma home, the look Denise gives Emma is just spot on. It's the look that a certain kind of woman gives other women. She looks at her from her hair all the way down. She's taking in every detail and she's probably pricing it. Terrifying. You can also tell Denise would be a right handful when drunk. You wouldn't want to come across Denise drunk. Oh my God.

Noel Gallagher on how an Oasis song, "Half The World Away", came to be used as the theme tune

We were kind of busy all over the world and we got a garbled message from somebody in an office somewhere. You're on the phone in Mogadishu or somewhere and you're going, "What, the Royal Family want to use one of our songs?" Some clown has got the wrong end of the stick and they're going, "The Royal Family want to use one of your tunes for the theme tune to some documentary they're doing", and you're going, "You must be fucking taking the piss", do you know what I mean? Anyway, it transpires that there's a sitcom called The Royle Family and I thought for some reason that the song was going to be "Married With Children", that's the one I would have picked, but it turns out it was "Half The World Away". I still haven't got to the bottom of why they wanted that tune. But I hear it on the radio occasionally and I don't think of it as an Oasis tune now, I think of it as the theme tune to The Royle Family.

Ken Loach, asked whether he knows that he inspired Caroline Aherne

I haven't heard that but it's very nice of her. I can see some similarity in the performances. I mean, she's worked with Ricky [Tomlinson] and so have I. In other hands the father could just be a slob and then you would despise him, but Ricky brings such a sense of humanity to it. Yes, he's lazy, but there's such warmth about him that he transcends that, because I think that, if there is a danger in the idea and those characters, it's that The Royle Family would give support to those who think the working-classes are full of lazy good-for-nothings, without realising that in fact you find characters like that in every class. My fear is that they won't see the comedy in what's really underneath it, in the same way that they used to say about Alf Garnett, "He's our champion racist and we'll all follow him."

Rob Brydon, asked when he first saw The Royle Family

Er, I can't remember watching it for the first time, no. I remember where I was when Elvis died, if that's any use? I was in a caravan in west Wales listening to Radio Luxembourg.

JK Rowling, asked whether she finds refuge in the naturalism of The Royle Family while she is engaged in writing the fantasy of Harry Potter. And whether she thinks it's a pretentious question?

I think it's a valid question. What they do fascinates me because you can't liven things up by having a dragon enter stage-left. It's a televised play, really, and there's this thrill when you get to see Jim and Barbara's bedroom. You've been in the sitting-room, you've branched out to the kitchen, and suddenly there is Barbara taking her make-up off with the loo roll, upstairs in the bedroom. It's so clever, keeping it so confined, but my favourite was the wedding episode, and when they left to go the wedding I just ached to go with them, but I couldn't. To leave you with that kind of frustration, that's genius.

Johnny Vegas, asked whether his dad was like Jim Royle

My dad was the opposite in that he saw the TV as a bit of an evil that he could bend to his will and use for good - so he would put a documentary on and then there'd be 19 African tribeswomen topless, and it would just create the biggest amount of tension in the room. But my dad does look very much like Ricky. And we did have this idea that it was OK to take the piss out of someone on the first time of meeting them, not realising that it was possibly bad etiquette.

Noel Gallagher, asked whether his dad was like Jim Royle

Well, Jim Royle looks like my old fella. If my old fella had long hair and a beard he'd look the same. And my mam was always the exasperated housewife - "How have I ended up with all these kids and this idiot?" That sort of thing. It's like, the most heroic figure in The Royle Family is Barbara because she just kind of gets on with it like most northern mams. She's the Keeper of the Biscuits, which is a very noble job to have in a family. And of course me and Liam and my other brother were just products of the old fella, just effing and blinding at the telly. And the old fella was always saying that whatever you were up to was shit. I haven't seen him for 20 years, but he's probably now sitting somewhere listening to an Oasis song on the radio going, "That's rubbish, how did that ever get to Number 1!"

Rob Brydon, asked whether he has been influenced by The Royle Family

Well, I remember getting really cheesed off once at some BBC event when an executive came up to me just after Marion and Geoff had gone out. He said, "You must be very grateful to The Royle Family, you must feel that's really opened the door for you." It kind of got my heckles or shekels or shackles, or whatever it is, up. People had been doing naturalism for ages. For me and my generation it all goes back to Spinal Tap, really. I think when people talk about influences on artists they're quite often wide of the mark. When we did Human Remains, everyone's like "Mike Leigh, Mike Leigh". Well, I've only watched in their entirety two, maybe three Mike Leigh films. With me it would be more Woody Allen, that would be where the influence is. And it pains me to admit it but I'm very influenced by Steve Coogan.

Peter Kay, asked whether his family all had their own places in the front room, like the Royles

Oh yeah, everybody has their own seats. My dad had the armchair. All dads did, really. We used to sit on the couch, me and my sister. But we couldn't touch each other. My sister had this freaky thing that if your foot touched hers she'd just lose her mind. So you basically had to stay within your cushion. Otherwise it'd be "Mum, he's on my cushion," and "Get over there on your own cushion," and that was that. Really bizarre. No one liked going in the middle of the couch. That was a bit of a bad spot. You liked an arm.

Johnny Vegas, asked whether he ever dated someone middle-class, like Anthony did in The Royle Family

My brother did, and her family took him for a meal. We'd never eaten out. It wasn't the done thing, financially or socially or for whatever reasons. I remember when my brother came back and were all "What was it like?" as if he'd been to Mars. He said: "It's brilliant. The best value's the cheeseboard. It's only £3.50 and you get a massive block of cheddar." They'd come round with the cheeseboard and he'd taken the whole block. The family must have been going "Jesus, what has she done..."

Peter Kay, asked whether there was anything he didn't like about The Royle Family

No, and I'm not saying it because I'm being filmed. I don't even think I'm being paid. I think the only thing I don't like is that there's not more of them. That's why everyone is so excited about it coming back even if it's just for an hour, because you get to see where they all are. It doesn't matter so much about plot; in fact the plot's sometimes so flimsy it's literally going upstairs or going to make a brew. That's it. That's your beginning, middle and end. When I did Phoenix Nights I always used to do the arc of the story first, then put in all the character lines afterwards, but we'd already have the shell of the story. This is different in that there's no shell.

Ricky Tomlinson, asked whether the new episode in any good

If Liz Smith doesn't get a Bafta for this then I'll show my arse on the town hall steps.

Liz Smith, asked what she first felt when she read The Royle Family script?

Sometimes when you read a script you think "Mmm, mmm, aww" and suddenly "I've got to say this!" You can feel it coming out of your mouth, you know? It happened to me once before with Alan Bennett, when I read A Private Function. With this I got the same feeling: I've got to say this.

Jimmy McGovern, asked about the similarities between Ricky Tomlinson, for whom he wrote in Brookside and Cracker, and Jim Royle

You ought to talk to his missus. That's him. I was so pleased that they got the fact that he's tight. I mean, I know the actor, the actor is a generous man, he'll give you all the time in the world. But he objects to spending money. He goes around with his cans of mild and he's always talking about his piles. This is Ricky in real life, y'know what I mean? Preparing for a night out, he gets the haemorrhoid ointment and puts it on, then he has a wash and a shave, and he's set for a night on the ale. That's not Jim Royle, that's Ricky.

Liz Smith, asked whether she is worried by the vulgarity in The Royle Family

Oh no, I'm a totally vulgar person. I was in the navy for five years during the war. I learnt to swear there. I could turn the air blue.

Jimmy McGovern, asked if he's worried that The Royles are reuniting one more time

Well, I've just been through the same thing with Cracker. It's interesting. I think this (latest) Cracker is well-constructed, and I know it's a good story, and the performances are very, very good, but it doesn't hit me in the guts, and I think it's because I'm not the same person that I was then. I've moved on. The thing is, you're not supposed to go back.

Liz Smith, asked whether she still turns the air blue

Oh yes, it's a great release when things irritate me. I'm a very jealous person. I can get quite pissed off when I think people are more successful than me.

Jimmy McGovern, asked if he has a favourite line from The Royle Family

Yeah, there's one that sticks in my mind and it got me into trouble with the Writers' Guild. It's when Jim is at the sink washing up and they get to the roasting dish and he goes, "Oh, leave that for your mother." Now, I grew up in that kind of family. I remember that roasting dish and no man ever tackled it, and I thought that tiny exchange spoke volumes about us as human beings. I thought it was a wonderful piece of writing, a spark of genius, and I said so somewhere and the president of the Writers' Guild attacked me for it. I dare say he didn't get the joke.

Shaun Ryder, asked what he made of The Royle Family when he first watched it

I thought, "Fucking hell, that's dead real, that is", and I was even sat watching it with my hand down my kecks messing with my bollocks, which is probably what your bollocks are there for, just to mess with while you're watching telly. I used to get told off for it off my mam but so did my dad and our kid.

Paul Abbott, the writer of Shameless, asked if he owes anything to The Royle Family

Yeah, I think if The Royle Family hadn't been out and tested the audience in the first place we would never have got Shameless through, not with the broadcasters and not with the audience.

JK Rowling, asked whether The Royle Family could have been set in the West Country, where she grew up

It could have been. Where I grew up, the steel works had closed, there was a lot of unemployment, and it's the same kind of culture. I was going down the pub at 15. There's a smallness about that kind of community that really resonates with me.

Paul Abbott, asked if anyone in his family was allowed to be as lazy as Jim and Denise

Yeah, my dad did everything from one corner and he still does. He talks about the world, he knows the shape of the world, he has more advice than Yoda and he's never moved out of the chair. Even though somehow he downloads a fairly credible version of the world, he doesn't actually engage with it.

JK Rowling, asked whether anyone in her family was as put-upon as Anthony

Well, my sister, who also adores The Royle Family, swears blind she was Anthony, but I'm not having any of that because that makes me Denise, and no way, because she never cooks and I always cook, so there you are.

Noel Gallagher, asked who the Anthony figure was in his family

If I say our Paul he'll freak out when he sees this. It wasn't Liam. Liam was just too mad. I don't know if we had an Anthony figure. Probably me, but Anthony is kind of submissive about it all and I wasn't like that. I wouldn't be brewing up for everybody in the room, that's for sure.

Paul Heaton, asked if he has a favourite character in the show

It's probably [Anthony's friend] Darren. We always had kids coming round to our house like that, who would only sit on the arm of the chair because they didn't feel as though they were properly invited, or they were going to be told to go or whatever. And he really, really laughs at everything Jim says and I find that really endearing. I think he feels that if he's OK with Jim he's all right to stay for another 20 minutes.

Noel Gallagher, asked what the communal viewing experiences were in his house when he was growing up

Well, I always remember being put to bed before The Sweeney because Jack Regan might say the word "bastard". I mean, what is television like now? Fucking hell. Look North West in the 1970s had stories about cats getting stuck up trees. Now it's like, four people get beheaded at a post office queuing for their giros and nobody bats an eyelid.

The final episode of 'The Royle Family' is on BBC1, tomorrow at 9pm

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