Opinion: How Caroline Aherne Made Northern Comedy Universal

For me, and maybe for many others, Caroline Aherne will always be inextricably linked with the north. The umpteen obituaries and tributes have quite rightly placed her in lineage tying together Victoria Wood, Alan Bennett and a plethora of great often working class northern stand-up comedians. Aherne had a way with language that was both heightened and naturalistic. And, of course, while she had those ties with the north she was universally loved. The Royle Family changed the sitcom landscape. 

I first sensed she was going to be big in 1992 when my girlfriend was working in Leeds and we went to see the filming of Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show at Yorkshire TV’s studios. We went for Frank - who interviewed guests in his shed - but felt he was slightly overshadowed by his eccentric elderly friend Mrs Merton. I recognised Aherne because I’d seen her performing as Sister Mary Immaculate on Paramount City, the Live at the Apollo of its day, but filmed in a tiny club.

Frank Sidebottom’s show was only shown in some regions so never took off, but Aherne started to make a name for herself on The Fast Show doing other characters. And when The Mrs Merton Show started in 1995 we knew this was going to be interesting. And sure enough the second episode featured Debbie McGee, Aherne came out with that classic line about Paul Daniels and a star was born.

I was supposed to interview Aherne just before then on January 9 but it didn’t quite work out. I know the exact date because on my drive to Granada Studios in Manchester that morning it was announced on the radio that Peter Cook had died. I slightly misheard and for a moment thought they had said New Order bassist Peter Hook, who, at the time was Aherne’s husband.*

Anyway, I arrived at the studios, parked outside, walked to reception, explained who I was and was given a message to ring a number from the reception telephone – few people had mobiles in those days. I dialled the number and Peter Hook, alive and well, answered: “Sorry mate, Caroline’s got a problem with her legs, she can’t do the interview today. I owe you dinner mate.”

So I got straight back in my car, drove 200 miles back to London where there was an answerphone message on my landline from Caroline’s agent also telling me the interview was off. I’d left before she phoned and, of course, I didn’t have a mobile phone yet. 

I never did get to interview Caroline Aherne. Instead I just enjoyed her every time she appeared on the screen – and her offscreen voice on Gogglebox – over the next two decades. And thinking back to Frank Sidebottom, Leeds and Granada Studios that’s partly why for me Caroline Aherne will always be linked with the north. Peter Hook still owes me dinner. But I’ve been dining out on this story ever since.  


*There was sometimes a bit of confusion about Aherne at the time because there was also a real-life “Mrs Caroline Merton” in the comedy world  - Paul Merton’s then-wife Caroline Quentin. 

**Apologies to Michael Legge for making this a bit me, me, me. 




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