Mrs Merton has a funny shadow

PROFILE Caroline Aherne After years of turbulence, she's back, with five Comedy Awards nominations. Key to her success is Craig Cash, alias put-upon Malcolm.
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The Independent Online

aroline Aherne's star is in the ascendant - again. The comedian, best known for her character Mrs Merton, is set to clean up at this year's British omedy Awards. Her sharply observed BB sitcom cum kitchen-sink drama, The Royle Family, has racked up five nominations, including Best omedy Actress, for Aherne. (That she isn't also up for an award for Best omeback, alongside Robbie Williams, is only because no such category exists.) She owes her present success in very large part to the little- known raig ash, who plays Mrs Merton's brow-beaten son, Malcolm.

ash, who is up for Best Male Newcomer in the series, has always played second fiddle to Aherne. On screen in the lucrative (six figures) British Gas adverts, The Mrs Merton Show and more recently the Mrs Merton and Malcolm series on BB1, he is the idiot man-child strangled by Aherne's apron strings. Off screen he is rarely noticed at all. Yet ash is, and always has been, the secret of her success in the eyes of those who knew Aherne from her earliest days on the comedy circuit in Manchester.

Aherne and ash met in the mid-Eighties when they worked together as disc jockeys on a radio station in Marple, a town between Manchester and the Peak District. She had a talent for mimicry, a skill which as a child won her a prize at Butlin's for her impressions of illa Black and Marti aine. He had a skill for script-writing. Together they conceived the spoof agony aunt Mrs Merton. It was inspired.

Aherne's previous stand-up characters - Mitzi Goldberg, a country singer who claimed some improbable fans ("When Nelson Mandela was released he told me it was mah music that kept him goin' "), and Sister Mary Immaculate, a slack-mouthed nun who advised girls to walk home alone in the dark rather than with their boyfriends ("Sure, it's a bigger sin if you're raped by someone you know") - were one-joke wonders. Mrs Merton, however, had enough depth to go all the way. When she made her television debut on the local Granada ITV show, Up Front, ash was there.

"Mrs Merton at that time was a scripted act and it was quite clear who was the writer," Anthony Wilson, the presenter, recalls. "Although it was his creation raig was very much in the shadows even then." Together with Steve oogan - who performed alongside Aherne on the show - and his long-time script writer, Henry Normal, they helped to clear the decks of "traditional" northern comics. The Grumble Weeds were at the recording of a hristmas special when Mrs Merton as resident agony aunt answered a letter from a Mrs Rogers of Stockport, who said her husband, who was a milkman, wasn't giving her enough. "Well," said Mrs Merton, pursing her lips and staring down the camera, "as long as he leaves a couple of cream tops up your back passage on a Monday morning I wouldn't worry Mrs Rogers." The Grumble Weeds couldn't believe their ears and after scooping their chins off the floor scuttled back into obscurity.

Aherne and the rest, meanwhile, went on to prime-time television - although Mrs Merton was initially rejected by hannel 4 because someone now very high up at the station doubted the potential of the character. At home on the BB Mrs Merton deployed an interview technique she describes as "a warm and gentle kicking", perverting the chat-show norms and inviting celebrity guests on to her sofa to play stooge to her wisecracks. "So, Debbie McGee," she inquired, "what first attracted you to millionaire Paul Daniels?" "Tell me, Germaine," she asked Ms Greer the following week, "what's the difference between being sexually liberated in the Sixties and an old slapper now?"

ash, together with Henry Normal, was still writing the scripts, but Mrs Merton was becoming a fully fledged impromptu act. It was increasingly difficult to see where Aherne started and Mrs Merton finished, not least because Aherne would involve her own mother's friends as active audience members.

For all the sexual innuendo, under the surgical stockings and the rimplene dress there was a touch of the Alan Bennett about Mrs Merton; a northern suburban primness that was informed by Aherne's own childhood. She was born in London to Irish atholic parents in 1963, but the family - she has an older brother - moved to Wythenshawe in Manchester and a huge, low-level council estate when she was two. Her father, Bert, worked on the railways, and her mother, Maureen, was a school dinner lady. As children she and her brother, Patrick, suffered a rare cancer of the retina. When Patrick was only 18 months old his right eye had to be removed. She wore an eye patch as a girl and was not given the all-clear until her 20s. Despite that Aherne did well at convent school and got grade As at O-level and A-level before going to Liverpool Polytechnic to study for a drama degree.

Behind the net curtains, however, all was not well. Tensions between her parents were constant. Aherne says as a child she "naturally" ignored them. They parted a few years before Bert's death five years ago. It caused a family rift which has never healed, although Aherne was still an occasional visitor to her father's flat.

While Mrs Merton was flying high Aherne, the adult, was not. Hers had been the tabloid dream: she was the BB secretary and part-time stuffer of mail-order envelopes who hit the big time with an accessible and funny woman-next-door comedy character. She even married an internationally famed rock star. But then, as is mandatory with tabloid dreams, it all turned sour.

First there was the bitter divorce. Aherne's 1994 marriage to Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order was at odds with her persona, both on stage as Mrs Merton and off. Of drugs, for instance, she had said: "I wouldn't touch drugs of any sort. I think they're terrible. I'm really, really against drugs." Hookey (as he is known to his friends and fans alike), however, was the rock'n'roller who part-owned the infamous Hacienda night-club, as often as not in the headlines for drugs busts and gangland fights. Hookey, whose former wife described him as a "serial womaniser", left Aherne for another woman. "I'll never love anyone like I love my Hookey," Aherne said at the time.

She sought solace in the arms of a 27-year-old television researcher, Matt Bowers. Although he was only six years her junior their eight-month affair, of course, came complete with the standard "toy boy" headlines. That was until Bowers and Hookey very publicly came to blows at the celebrity opening of Bill Wyman's new restaurant in Manchester, Sticky Fingers. During the tussle, which was ostensibly set up by a local reporter, Aherne was accidentally kicked in the stomach.

If Aherne thought she had surely had her day as the tabloid's favourite kick-about she was sorely mistaken. She was winning just about every award going for her character Mrs Merton and Aherne was in celebratory mood - too much so it seems. To the pleasure of the paparazzi, she enjoyed a tipple at celebrity parties. "My only alcohol problem is that I get pissed at the wrong dos," she noted. (And then some.)

Then Bowers, who had been losing weight, discovered he had cancer. Aherne had already decided to end the affair. He promptly tried to sell his story. When he died the following year Aherne did not attend his funeral.

The next love in her life, detailed in minute detail in tabloid newspapers, was the actor Alexis Denisof. She sold up and fled her beloved Manchester to be close to him, making do with a "titchy flat I can hardly get my sofa into" in Kensington, London. The relationship quickly "ran out of steam".

Aherne fell back on her ever-present mother and it was Maureen who dialled 999 in July 1998 when her daughter dropped the phone after taking a cocktail of champagne and pills. Aherne checked into a pounds 329-a-night clinic. In friendlier circles her battle with the booze led to comparisons with the turbulent and often tragic lives of the giants of British comedy Tommy ooper, Eric Morecambe and Tony Hancock - who eventually took his own life in a drunken stupor.

The comeback of comebacks was just around the corner, and who should be standing by but ash. Together with Henry Normal he conceived and wrote The Royle Family (Normal has since decided to throw in his lot permanently with oogan). The youngest of three brothers, ash was brought up on a council estate in Stockport. He left school with no qualifications and worked as a screen-printer, then as a wood machinist. He was sacked from both jobs. He then cleaned cars for a couple of years before landing the job as a disc jockey through which he met Aherne.

Aherne has described 38-year-old ash as "the funniest boy in the world, the wind beneath my wings". When, as is expected, she gets up to accept her award for Best omedy Actress at the ceremony on 18 December, she might want to expand on that a little.