Caroline Aherne: Queen of Comedy review – an unforgettable celebration of comedy brilliance

<span>Photograph: Unknown/BBC/Passion Docs/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Unknown/BBC/Passion Docs/Shutterstock

With its handful of wonderful festive episodes, The Royle Family still means Christmas for many viewers. It is a fitting time of year, then, for Caroline Aherne: Queen of Comedy, an intelligent, joyful and sensitive celebration of its late creator and star, which serves as a reminder that she was responsible for much more than one of the finest British comedies of all time. Using a mix of Aherne’s own words, mostly taken from a frank interview with Michael Parkinson in the late 90s, and contributions from home town friends and collaborators such as Craig Cash, Steve Coogan and John Thomson, it tells the story of her brilliant and too brief life.

According to her friends, Aherne was a lifelong television lover, never happier than when she was in her pyjamas watching the box. This documentary is heaven for television lovers. Understandably, the focus is on her two biggest hits, The Mrs Merton Show and The Royle Family, but it dives into the archives and pulls up some real treats. It is fascinating to see snippets of her early career, not only for the quality of the comedy, but for the way a working-class girl from Wythenshawe could end up with a television career, one carved out, you suspect, precisely on her terms.

There are clips from a local radio show she did in 1990 with Cash, her Royle Family co-creator. There are clips from The Dead Good Show, a 1992 sketch show she filmed with Coogan and Thomson, her mates from the circuit. There is footage of her standup, which meanders wonderfully around the notion of making a point, before coming to an abrupt end. “I wanted to see if you could do standup without any actual jokes,” says Aherne, in voiceover, before proving that she could.

In Manchester, the poet Lemn Sissay was often on the bill with her, Coogan and Thomson, and this paints a portrait of a fresh, thrilling new scene, one that stood in stark contrast to the dying days of the old northern club scene, with its Bernard Manning figureheads. There is the pilot of The Mrs Merton show, from 1993, in which Carol Thatcher is the first in a long line of guests to get the faux-naive Merton treatment, an interviewing technique that was deceptively dangerous and always revealing.

When The Mrs Merton Show was in its prime, Aherne had Manning on as a guest, explaining that she felt his popularity in Britain, particularly in the north, should not be swept under the carpet. Watching clips of old Mrs Merton interviews is still invigorating today, maybe even more so, than it was in the 90s. The “So, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” line that she threw, smiling, at Debbie McGee, has moved into comedy legend, but her other interviews are just as disarming. Chris Eubank, who did not get the joke, forced her to prove she was as verbally deft and light-footed as any of his opponents in the ring. Her decision to interview Manning had its detractors, and there is a fair and balanced analysis offered here, but Sissay’s assessment is that it was “heavyweight” and “a radical thing to do”, and that she had the intellectual might to take it on.

The Royle Family was given to the BBC written and with a full cast list, with Aherne saying that she didn’t want any notes on it. There was doubt about whether it could work (as with her standup routine, Aherne wanted to avoid writing jokes, insisting that real people were naturally funny enough) but, of course, it did.

Cash explains that some of their inspiration came from Three Salons at the Seaside, a short 1994 documentary about hair salons in Blackpool, which makes sense when you see it. Sue Johnston, Ricky Tomlinson and Ralf Little talk about their experiences of working with Aherne, and, as with everyone else who speaks here, the emphasis is on how her work was filled to its core with love and warmth. Watch the scene in which Denise (played by Aherne) goes into labour, and cries in the bathroom with her father by her side, and it becomes impossible to think of any sitcom scene more finely crafted, more exquisitely moving, than this.

It touches on her personal life, and her mental health struggles, as well as her discomfort with fame and her poor treatment at the hands of the tabloids. As is to be expected from a documentary about a woman who died of cancer at 52, it ends in sorrow; Cash can barely speak at times. It reminds us of how much was lost when she died, but also us how much we gained when she was alive. It is a vivid, unforgettable celebration of her comedy brilliance.

• Caroline Aherne: Queen of Comedy was on BBC Two and is available on iPlayer.