Make us a cup of tea, love

The nation's favourite slobs are back. Put your feet up, get the biscuits out and switch on the telly.
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The Independent Online

'I don't know about you, Barb, but that stuff's rubbish. Nuthin' but a load of lazy arses sat around on a settee. It's an insult to my intelligence and it's goin' off." Devotees of Britain's laziest family (they don't just sit, they sit for England) had better brace themselves for a shock. The new series of The Royle Family, BBC1's gritty, anthropological, fly-on-the-wall docusoap hit, starting tomorrow night, features a couple of moments in which - we kid you not - the Royles actually get up from the sofa and turn the telly off. Next they'll be telling us that Jim, the sweating paterfamilias, who appears surgically welded to his armchair, has got a job.

'I don't know about you, Barb, but that stuff's rubbish. Nuthin' but a load of lazy arses sat around on a settee. It's an insult to my intelligence and it's goin' off." Devotees of Britain's laziest family (they don't just sit, they sit for England) had better brace themselves for a shock. The new series of The Royle Family, BBC1's gritty, anthropological, fly-on-the-wall docusoap hit, starting tomorrow night, features a couple of moments in which - we kid you not - the Royles actually get up from the sofa and turn the telly off. Next they'll be telling us that Jim, the sweating paterfamilias, who appears surgically welded to his armchair, has got a job.

No, but seriously, the real big news about the Royles is that Denise, Jim's daughter - you know, married to that big girl's blouse, Dave - has had a baby son: Little Dave - more formally, David Keanu Ronan Best. Space is a little tighter now on the sofa. But not that much. Motherhood, it turns out, is not uppermost in Denise's thoughts. She is more concerned with finding a babysitter so she can have a night out, and poor old Dave is having to become a dab hand at changing nappies.

And that's about it. You'll be relieved to hear that nothing much else has altered in the Manchester front room the nation has come to know so well. It's very much lack of business as usual.

Paradoxically, for a clan who live their lives under the unblinking gaze of the camera, the Royles fight shy of giving interviews to the press. It has been left to those closest to the family to come up with insider information, and Caroline Aherne, a close friend of Denise's, offers these soothing words: "Don't worry, it's still the same old bollocks - they're just standing up." Phew. How reassuring to discover that everything chez Royle is as it should be.

It will still take an earthquake to get Jim into the kitchen; his endlessly tolerant wife, Barbara, will still say "aaah" at any mention of her family; their put-upon son, Antony (Ant'ny), will be made to do all the chores the others are too bone-idle to do; the sluglike Denise will endlessly exploit her mother's goodwill; and Dave will continue to act like he was born with less gorm than his Uncle Benny, from Crossroads. In short, the Royle family is fated to remain the most dysfunctional brood this side of the Royal Family.

The news that the Royles vacate their comfy chairs for the first time comes as such a surprise because it is their very sloth that has endeared them to narcoleptic Britain. We get a peculiar frisson from goggling at them goggling. We can all identify with their preternatural inability to unpeel themselves from the sofa for anything apart from what Jim so decorously calls a "Tom tit". We, too, spend our lives vegging on the sofa in our allotted places, super-glued to the idiot-box. Like them, we've all sat there, masochistically unable to tear ourselves away from the sheer awfulness of the Noël Edmonds Christmas special.

Ricky Tomlinson, a confidant of Jim's, marvels at the public's capacity to fixate on a family slobbing their way through an entirely event-free half-hour. "The amazing thing is that absolutely nothing happens. They never move out of that sitting-room."

But that hasn't stopped the family turning into cult figures. Indeed, the Royles' belching, boozing and bickering in front of the household god in the corner of the room has created a television phenomenon. Their catchphrases, "Have you had your tea?" and "Would anyone like a Club biscuit?", reverberate in saloon bars and schoolyards across Britain. Antony is approached on the street by complete strangers telling him to "make us a cup of tea'' or "go down the offie and get us some fags". And on the very rare occasions when he ventures out of his front door - for births, marriages and deaths, basically - Jim is mobbed by autograph-hunters.

The BBC's account of the Royles' inactivities (in fact, made for them by Granada, one of whose delivery men used to go out with Denise) has won audiences of up to 9 million and numerous awards, including two Baftas. But why does this particular family strike such a chord?

According to Liz Smith, who has formed a warm friendship with Nana, Barbara's sponging, bowel-obsessed mother, the family has a universal resonance.

"Everybody sees their own family somewhere in the Royles," she reckons. "It reminds them of some aspect of their own brood. The Royles spend Christmas like lots of other people. They all sit and watch the telly and have a drink or two. Nana has her Christmas drink - a couple of sherries ... and then a couple more."

Sue Johnston, bosom buddies with Barbara, takes up the theme. "The Royle family appeal right across the board. I had to call out a mechanic to fix my car the other day. He turned up and said, 'My name is Royle and I get no end of stick about that.' People write to tell me that their dad is just like Jim, or that they've started calling their sons Antony and ordering them to get the tea. It's quite horrifying."

But, ironically, that is also one of the major reasons the family is so well loved. The Royles may be appalling, but then so are most families. The programme is merely holding a mirror up to nature. Every family has a Jim, a Barbara, a Denise or an Antony. Everyone can relate to the minutiae of the Royles' lives: their Dairylea on toast and their boxes of Eat Me dates. And we have all uttered the sort of petty self-justifications that the Royles spin to each other. When, for instance, the pregnant Denise greedily demanded another chocolate biscuit, she excused it by pleading: "Baby wants a Wagon Wheel."

"It's brilliantly observed," Johnston continues. "People say to me that they have to video it and watch it twice because while they are laughing at one thing they miss something else."

People are drawn to the Royles' obvious, all-too-human flaws. Johnston is typical in expressing her enduring affection for the terminally scruffy Barbara. "I love her," she sighs. "Her happiness revolves around her family. You think, 'how simple life is for Barbara'. She keeps a terrible, dirty home and has an incredibly lazy family, but she's still wrapped up in this idealistic world of loving them all."

Viewers even warm to the work-shy curmudgeon Jim, whose response to Denise's plans for fancy Italian cooking is a terse "pasta, my arse".

"I think everyone can see a bit of themselves in Jim," Tomlinson explains. "I know I can. I go home of an evening and I don't budge from my chair. I have the remote in my hand and I'm glued to the telly."

Tomlinson goes on to admit that he even shares Jim's spectacular miserliness. "I go bonkers whenever the phone bill comes in. I go around the house switching all the lights off. And I don't like the price of southern beer."

The Royles represent all that is best about British family life: their household may be crude, rude, bitchy, mocking, prejudiced, slothful and generally ghastly, but in spite of all that it is still underpinned by a deep sense of love. The Royles can slag each other off till the daft cows come home, but woe betide any outsider who tries it.

The worry now must be, won't all this attention - fuelled by articles such as this - go to the Royles' heads and change them irrevocably? Might they, like those dreadful show-offs on Big Brother, start employing agents to find them gigs on The Big Breakfast? Won't they begin playing up to the cameras, swearing less, speaking with RP accents, eating with their mouths closed, holding in their farts and washing? Might they even - heaven forfend - get out of the house?

Craig Cash, who has a hotline to Dave, thinks we needn't worry on that score. He reveals that the Royles did once contemplate a holiday, "where they go to a caravan in Rhyl and watch telly there".

So will such an adventurous trip ever happen? My arse.

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