Liz Smith: My anguish playing dying Nana in The Royle Family

Updated: 

Liz Smith's heartbreaking final performance as Royle Family matriarch Nana was the most emotionally draining of her career, the veteran performer said.

The show was aired days before she died, offering fans a fresh chance to watch the award-winning actress at the peak of her powers.

The Queen Of Sheba episode was first broadcast in October 2006 and was never intended as a Christmas special, although it was the first time the cast had performed together for six years.

Liz Smith
Liz Smith (Michael Crabtree PA Archive/PA Images)

It was rerun on December 22 this year, two days before the actress's death aged 95 - a fitting, but inadvertent final tribute.

Her poignant portrayal of Nana's last hours touched the millions who watched - the laughter sparked by The Royle Family's subtle skewering of everyday life giving way to tears of sadness as her mortality was realised.

The rerun had been unofficially billed as an opportunity to pay tribute to another of the show's stars, Caroline Aherne, who died of lung cancer at 52 on July 2.

Speaking in 2006, Smith described her delight at being given an opportunity to reprise the much-loved character, at the age of 86.

The Royle Family
The Royle Family (BBC/PA Images)

She said: "The rumours started that it was going to come back, and then it was in the newspaper so you felt someone must have said something and it must be happening."

She praised Aherne for writing an episode which touched on the sanctity of family life.

She said: "She (Nana) is in the centre of the household ... it's carrying on doing their own thing and she's part of it. It's about elderly relatives and not dismissing them and love within the family.

"It's written about love within the family."

But she also described the emotional toll which came with playing the role for the last time.

She said: "I don't think anything has disturbed me (as much) to play until this one. I was so upset because I think really the base of it was that I was going to be left out of any future Royle Familys.

"I felt it was an ending of a whole thing. It was not just one lift, it was the whole concert of the story. They each say goodbye in a way that it's almost, 'Goodbye, it's being lovely knowing you'.

"In the end it was absolutely wonderful to do."

Smith enjoyed the role so much she joked to casting directors that she could return to the comedy as Nana's sister.