Mrs Merton and The Royle Family put Caroline Aherne among the comedy greats


Caroline Aherne was one of TV's brightest comic talents, whose character Mrs Merton and northern sitcom The Royle Family became instant classics.

The award winning TV writer and actress, who also narrated Channel 4's Gogglebox, was the co-creator of the acclaimed sitcom.

The former star of the Mrs Merton Show, who beautifully mimicked a blue-rinse granny in the chat show which first aired on BBC Two in 1995, was voted best female performer at the British Comedy Awards the following year.

The daughter of a railwayman and a school dinner lady, Aherne split with husband Peter Hook, guitarist with pop group New Order and house musician on the Mrs Merton Show, in April 1996.

She had a relationship with TV colleague Matt Bowers, but they broke up before he died of cancer the following year, aged 28.

The Royle Family was born after she and friend Craig Cash, who played gormless Dave Best in the show, threw themselves into their work after a suicide attempt, which she described as her lowest ebb.

The creator of Cracker, Jimmy McGovern, said he was "gobsmacked" when he first saw a preview tape of his friend Aherne's new sit-com. "I hadn't been that impressed with a comedy since Fawlty Towers," he said.

The Royle Family was the toast of 1999's British Comedy Awards, scooping four trophies including best actress for Aherne.

Denise Royle, mother Barbara (Sue Johnston) and father Jim (Ricky Tomlinson) - catchphrase "my arse!" - quickly entered the British sit-com hall of fame.

Its success quickly began to obscure exactly how daring the format had been at the beginning - 25 minutes of comedy based largely in one working class living room.

The BBC show even had one episode based entirely around the Royles watching rival ITV's big hit, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? It was truly a bold move.

Aherne was born to her Irish immigrant parents in London, and the family moved to Wythenshawe, Manchester, when she was two.

She was diagnosed with a rare cancer of the retina, like her older brother Patrick before her, and the local Catholic church raised funds to send her to Lourdes in search of a miracle cure.

For the rest of her life the actress was left with severely impaired sight in one eye.

Very bright - nine straight As in O-levels from her convent school and an IQ of 176 - she studied drama at Liverpool Polytechnic then took a job as a BBC secretary in Manchester.

She met Cash and fellow Royle Family collaborator Henry Normal in 1990 and they encouraged her to develop her repertoire of comedy characters, including Mrs Merton.

Before long celebrities were queueing up to be insulted in Mrs Merton's unique way on primetime TV.

In the guise of the squeaky-voiced pensioner with an elaborate coiffure, Aherne was able to ask Debbie McGee: "What was it that first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?" and "Were you breast-fed, Carol Thatcher?"