‘She was sharp as a tack but daft as a brush’: friends and colleagues remember the genius of the Royle Family’s Caroline Aherne

<span>Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

Ricky Tomlinson will never forget the first time he met Caroline Aherne. “I was at the Royal Television Society awards with my wife, Rita. She asked me to get something from the buffet. I walked across to the table and bumped into a young girl standing in front of me. She turned around to look at me and went, ‘Oh, you’re my dad, aren’t you?’” Did she say anything else? “No. I went back to the table and said to Rita, ‘I think that poor girl’s got mental health problems.’” The next day he was asked to audition for The Royle Family. “And the rest is history,” he tells me. Tomlinson was cast as Jim Royle, the father of Denise, played by Aherne.

It’s 25 years since The Royle Family was first broadcast, 22 since Aherne announced she was walking away from the public glare, and seven since she died of cancer at the age of 52. Now a new BBC film, Queen of Comedy, celebrates her life and legacy. If anything, the title underplays the contribution she made to British and Irish culture in her short life. There were two groundbreaking TV series (The Mrs Merton Show and The Royle Family), comedy that exposed racism (her Mrs Merton interview with Bernard Manning), a question that became a national catchphrase (“So what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”), and in The Royle Family a sitcom that compares to the best of Beckett and Pinter. That’s not to mention her scene-stealing sketches in The Fast Show (“Scorchio!”). Aherne was a working-class girl who became one of the first women in TV comedy to control every element of the production process, with the clout to say no to the big boys. In 2001, she was the sixth highest-paid British TV celebrity, earning an estimated £2m a year. Not that she kept much of it for herself.

Tomlinson is talking from his home in Liverpool. Did he ever tell her he thought she was a sandwich short of the full picnic? “Yeah. I told her more than once I thought she was bonkers.” He adored playing the fartalicious, arse-fixated, remote control-hogging, job-shy curmudgeon. By rights we should have hated Jim. But we loved him. That was down to the subtlety of Aherne and her fellow writers, Henry Normal and Craig Cash. At first glance Jim might have seemed like a cartoon slob, but he was a slob with a rare capacity for joy and tenderness.

The Royle Family was a love letter to two of the things Aherne most adored in life: regular working-class people and TV. It was unlike any other sitcom at the time: there was no audience, no canned laughter, no traditional studio, barely a plot – just a single camera following the Royles watching the TV in the living room, talking about what they had for tea (“We had toad in the hole, but we didn’t have any sausage left so we just had the hole”) and shooting the breeze.

Tomlinson says The Royle Family has been his favourite job. “I loved going to work. We would laugh from the minute we went on till the minute we left.” The thing he returns to time and again is Aherne’s generosity. “When we finished on a Friday night, Caroline used to put a couple of tables in the hallway. In them days I had a drink, so she’d get me a few cans of Sainsbury’s mild, she’d get a few lagers for the cameramen and grips, a couple of bottles of wine for the makeup lady and the girl who dressed them, and a bottle of champagne for her and Sue Johnston, who played Denise’s mother, Barbara Royle. That was every single Friday. And everyone from the director down got a lottery ticket off Caroline. It was her way of saying thanks.”

Aherne was born in Ealing, west London, on Christmas Eve 1963. Her Irish Catholic parents moved to Wythenshawe, Greater Manchester, when she was two. Bert was a railway worker, Maureen a school dinner lady. Both Aherne and her brother, Patrick, were born with a rare form of cancer, leaving him blind in one eye and her virtually blind in one eye. Her mother told them they were special because they had cancer. “Mum made us so strong,” she said.

Aherne spent much of her early childhood in and out of hospital. She went on to get nine As in her O-levels, study drama at Liverpool Polytechnic (now Liverpool John Moores University) and work at the BBC as a secretary, by which time she was developing characters that she would later perform in standup routines at live venues and on TV.

“Caroline was already working there when I started at the BBC,” says her friend Cal Lavelle. Was she good at her job? “Yeah, she liked typing. We both went to convent school where we had to learn to touch type. As she did more standup, she just did occasional temping.”

Lavelle is at her flat in Didsbury, Manchester, with her friend Di Conlan. Cal, Di and Caroline remained fast friends from their 20s until Aherne died. Back then, the three of them spent much of their time at car boot sales trying to make a few bob flogging all the rubbish they owned. “I think she liked the car boot sales because she met people there,” says Conlan, who is now retired, having worked at British Gas for 30 years. She liked meeting people, or mining them for characters? “A bit of both,” she says.

What was she like? “Very shy,” Lavelle says. “So intelligent.” She pauses. “But a bit gormless. No common sense.” Can they give me examples of her intelligence? She would buy more or less every newspaper, every day. She read all the time. When she was little, her mum took her to the doctor’s and said, ‘I’m really concerned because she just reads all the time’ and the doctor said, ‘Oh, that’s fine.’”

And her gormlessness? “She was the worst driver ever. She’d always go round roundabouts the wrong way,” Lavelle says.

Conlan: “No clothes sense whatsoever.”

Lavelle: “When she was getting awards, she’d be wearing an old top from Primark.”

That’s not really gormless, is it? “OK, one day she was going on a date and we were in a taxi and she was redoing her lippy. She got out of the car and I think it was Craig who said, ‘What have you done to your lips?’ Instead of putting lippy on, she had put eyeliner on.”

Aherne was a strange mix – so shy in front of people she didn’t know, yet entirely uninhibited with friends. “She said the most outrageous things,” Lavelle says. What like? “Oh, nothing you can print.” Try me. “Who’s that gorgeous comedian who passed away a couple of years ago? Sean Lock. I used to fancy him. So she introduced me to him and said, ‘Oh, here’s my friend Cal. She’s a bit shy because she’s got a really smelly discharge.’ She’d say things like that all the time.” How did you react? “I was laughing my head off.”

Did Conlan also get the discharge treatment?

“No, I didn’t, actually,” Conlan says.

“Di’s a bit more refined than I am,” Lavelle says. “Di was frightened of wigs. So whenever she was arriving, Caroline would have us in a room wearing her wigs, and jumping out on her. Aaaaaargh!”

“She was a lot kinder to me, thinking about it,” Conlan says. “She spoiled my children terrible. When she looked after them in the school holidays, the highlight of the day was going to the pound shop. She could walk there from where she lived in Timperley. She’d give them £10 each and say, ‘Right, you’ve got so long to spend it.’ Then she’d say to the shopkeeper, ‘Abi wants to know how much this is?’ Really embarrass them. Then she’d say, ‘Now Elliott wants to know if he buys two of these how much will that be?’ And they’d be going round the shop going, ‘Noooo!’ They’re 23 and 18 now. They both miss her terribly.”

Aherne would try out new characters on her friends when still working as a secretary. One of the first was Mitzi Goldberg, a Jewish country and western singer. The poet, writer and producer Henry Normal first came across Aherne when she was performing as Mitzi. “She had a bloke with her called Dwayne playing guitar. He was like Craig – very dour. She made fun of him and sang mock country and western songs.” Was she good? “Excellent. Laugh out loud. There was an anarchy to it, which was part of the charm.”

Another popular early character was Sister Mary Immaculate. The humour was clever and fabulously filthy. “How many Protestants does it take to change a lightbulb?” she asked “None. They live in eternal darkness.” The next minute she would tell the audience about her flight on Virgin airlines where she got a discount for subliminal advertising. “The captain came up to me and said, ‘Sister Mary, I’d like to show you something’ and he took me into the flight deck and he showed me the control panel. I was very disappointed because I had thought he was going to show me his penis.”

Normal says it was such an exciting time culturally for working-class people like him – there was a burgeoning music and comedy scene in Manchester, and poets like him and Lemn Sissay could get paid for gigs, too. In comedy there was a small community of like-minded people – Steve Coogan, John Thomson, Cash, Aherne. They weren’t part of the dying generation of working-class comics whose comedy was predicated on prejudice; they didn’t belong to the Cambridge set that gave us Monty Python and The Goodies; and they weren’t part of the comfortable, middle-class Terry and June suburban sitcom camp. They knew they wanted to do things differently.

She’d give cash to a homeless person, we’d go for a drink and she’d say, ‘I’ve no money, Cashy, you’ll have to get them in’

Before long, Aherne, Cash and Normal were a writing team working together on The Mrs Merton Show and then The Royle Family. Mrs Merton was a classic postmodern creation – a sweet old lady who interviewed, and often skewered, real celebrities. Never more so than Manning, who admitted he was a racist on her show. “Bernard, who will you vote for now Hitler’s dead?” she asked him. In Queen of Comedy, Sissay says that Aherne as Mrs Merton exposed Manning in a way that experienced journalists had failed to do.

* * *

Craig Cash is at home in south Manchester when we talk. He met Aherne when they were both presenters on KFM Radio in Stockport, Greater Manchester. Was Aherne a good presenter? “Oh no. Bollocks. Presenting wasn’t her thing. She said, ‘Cashy, I don’t know what to say. My links are rubbish. I just said, “Here’s two by REM” and played two songs by REM.’ And I said, ‘Well, what did you say after them?’ She said, ‘That was two by REM!’”

What did he like about her? “It was like I’d known her all my life. It sounds awful to say it, but she was like one of the lads really. She was always up to some mischief.” Such as? “Say we were going to London on a train. She’d disappear for a few minutes and come back with the guard and she’d be behind him giggling, and he’d say, ‘I believe it’s your birthday and you’d like to sit with the driver. Come this way.’” Then if I was checking into a hotel, she’d find out which hotel I was staying in and fax through a list of my requirements: ‘If you can find a nice Thai boy, he likes to be kissed on both cheeks and tucked in. And then, when he stands up, he likes to be kissed on his face as well.’ The guy would be sniggering as I was checking in.”

Now he’s started, he can’t stop. “Once we were going on the train with Henry, and he had the misfortune to fall asleep. Somebody had a copy of Loaded, so she opened it at a picture of a scantily clad woman, got a pair of knickers out of her bag and put them on his head. She then made the guard wake him up and caution him. She’d do anything for a laugh.”

How would Cash describe Aherne to somebody who hadn’t met her? “She was sharp as a tack but daft as a brush. She had a genius-level IQ, didn’t she? Wasn’t it 176?”

Cash and Aherne became inseparable – playing a married couple in The Royle Family; elderly mother and grownup, possibly autistic, son in Mrs Merton and Malcolm; drinking partners and best mates. Like so many people, he talks about her generosity. “The phrase generous to a fault could have been invented for her.” Why? “Well, she gave it all away. She never had any money left. On a larger scale, she would buy houses for family. On a smaller scale, we’d meet in town, she’d stop at the cash machine to get money out, and then she’d put most of it in a homeless person’s sleeping bag without waking them. We’d then go out for a drink and she’d say, ‘I’ve got no money, Cashy, you’ll have to get them in.’ I’d be going home and nudging the homeless person, saying, ‘You couldn’t spare me a few bob, could you?’”

Aherne came up with the idea for The Royle Family. She told Cash there would be strict rules. “She said, ‘We’re not going to leave the living room’ and she was steadfast on that for a long time.” He cites a number of influences – a 1994 documentary called Three Salons at the Seaside, the kitchen-sink dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, and the films of Ken Loach.

But the TV execs weren’t convinced, Normal says. “They said, ‘Can we have a plot in the second episode?’ And we said, ‘Well, there isn’t one in the first episode.’ They also said, ‘Can the characters be more likable?’ and, ‘Can they like each other?’ We said, ‘They love each other. This is the north. If you love people, you take the mick out of them. I don’t think my dad said I love you in his entire life.’ So they didn’t get it.”

Normal says he wasn’t even sure the show’s executive producer, Andy Harries, got it. “We read him the first episode. He never laughed once. We called him Squeak because his voice was very high. And he went, ‘Oooh, is that what you want to do with it?’ We said, ‘Yeah’ and he went and got us the money. I love him for not interfering. Hats off to him.”

Everyone tried to talk us out of The Royle Family. Caroline was like, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m not doing another Mrs Merton’

Did you ever ask him if he found it funny? “No. I’ve never asked Andy Harries if he thought anything was funny, and I’ve known him for many years.”

Aherne effectively blackmailed BBC executives. “Everyone tried to talk us out of it. Caroline was having none of it, though,” Cash says. “She was like, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m not doing another Mrs Merton series.’ So an agreement was made that we would do another Mrs Merton series as long as they would take The Royle Family.”

“Did I find it funny?” Harries seems offended by the question. “I don’t remember that read-through, actually, but I don’t tend to laugh out loud like that anyway. I thought it was immensely funny. Extraordinary.” But, yes, he says, it’s true that people he was trying to sell it to didn’t get it. “I was told in no uncertain terms by the head of comedy at the BBC that it would never work because it didn’t have a live audience.”

A disastrous pilot was made with a live audience. Aherne hated it, and eventually got her way. The show soon became a huge success. And the more successful it became, the more determined the tabloids were to hound Aherne. In the first series of Mrs Merton, the studio band was led by her then husband, Peter Hook, of Joy Division and New Order fame. They divorced acrimoniously in 1997, and the tabloids had a field day. When Aherne tried to stop a scrap between Hook and her new boyfriend, TV researcher Matt Bowers, the tabloids had another one. And again when Bowers and Aherne split up after four months. The following year, Bowers died of stomach cancer at the age of 28, and again she was headline news. Then there was the drinking. It seemed that every time she went out, the tabloids pictured her pie-eyed or falling over.

“We all had press intrusion, but Caroline had it far worse,” Johnston says. “Especially because she enjoyed a drink, as we all know. They loved those moments when she was a bit pissed. She was good fodder for the tabloids, and she found that hard.”

Cash says it was old-fashioned double standards. He could be legless and the newspapers didn’t care. It was all about Aherne. “Award dos, that’s where the reputation started. We’d written something that we were proud of and it was doing well, and we were going to these places we’d never been to. We were giddy with life. For the award dos, we’d get on the train at Manchester and we’d be pissed by Macclesfield … It was like, ‘Come on! We’re going to London!’ and it was a great celebratory thing!” They sound like wonderful days, I say. “They were. Full of fun.”

The greatest episodes of The Royle Family were the most soulful. One of the most memorable was when Denise’s waters broke on Christmas Day and Jim sat with her in the bathroom comforting her, as they both cried tears of fear and hope. It was funny, of course (“Denise? You definitely sure it wasn’t just a great big  piss, love?”), but it was also desperately moving. “All those tears were real,” Tomlinson says. “What stood out about that scene to me was everyone was crying, everyone. When they shouted, ‘Cut!’ it’s the first time I’ve heard the cameraman shout, ‘That’s it, we’re not going again, we will never get it better than that.’ And when we turned around, the cameraman was crying.”

Did Aherne feel like a daughter to him? “Yes. We were all protective of her because she could be very vulnerable.” In what way? “When we were doing that scene, she was really sobbing. I think she missed having a baby of her own. She was gone. She wasn’t acting. That was her. Whatever she was reliving was there.”

Johnston says, “I’d have loved to have seen her married and with kids. She seemed a natural person to have a lot of kids around her. We met some of her blokes, and Ricky and I would be summing them up. We automatically took on the parental role. We were thinking, ‘Ooh, is this going to be the one? Is she going to be happy? Will he hurt her?’ But, sadly, they didn’t work out.”

However much Aherne wanted children, she was terrified that the cancer gene would be passed on. She had been told there was a 50% chance of a baby being born with cancer. “Caroline considered adopting,” Lavelle tells me. “She wouldn’t have had a baby because at the time they couldn’t identify the cancer gene. They can now. Even quite late on she thought about adopting as a single mum.”

Meanwhile, the press continued to devour her. She found it unbearable. For all her antics, she was a private person. “She couldn’t cope with the intrusion,” Cash says. “Being recognised in public wasn’t a problem. The public were always lovely. But if you’re in the papers for all the wrong reasons, it gets to you, I’m sure. I’d say, ‘Well, don’t buy the newspapers then’ but she did.”

Harries says it was terrible seeing her life spinning out of control. “She was almost as popular as Diana for the press to attack. And it really got to her. It was horrendous. There was a fragility to her that was frightening at times.”

* * *

Aherne had struggled with depression for a long time. She tried all sorts, from antidepressants to ECT, to no avail. “I just couldn’t rid myself of this thing inside me that made me want to cry all the time. I was so low. Everyone knew it. God love all my friends and my family trying to help me out, but it just wouldn’t go,” she told Michael Parkinson in the late 90s.

Her friend Sean Winterton says she used to tell him: “I’ve lost my life.” Winterton, a bricklayer turned lorry driver, inspired the lovable rogue Twiggy in The Royle Family, played by Geoffrey Hughes. He tells me he loved Aherne but he didn’t like TV and didn’t understand all the fuss about the show. Like the TV execs, he didn’t get it. Aherne asked him to audition for the part of Twiggy. “We all got our piece of paper. I said straight out, ‘Thanks for the lines, but, sorry, I’m not into this’.” Would she have given him the part? “Oh yeah, she would have given me the part all right, if I’d had the balls to do it.” Had he ever acted before? “Have I heck! Acted the goat at work!” She was always offering to do things for him, he says. “She wanted to pay my mortgage off for me.” He wasn’t interested. “I always sat myself beside her at functions. Because she didn’t eat much, she’d always slip the chicken or steak on to my plate. One day she slid an envelope on to my plate and there was a lot of money in that. I gave it her back and she went ballistic. She didn’t speak to me for three, four days. She said I was ungrateful. I said I’m not ungrateful, but if you’d had bought me a pack of baccy I’d have been happier.”

Perhaps one of the reasons she liked you is that you didn’t want anything from her and you weren’t trying to blow smoke up her arse. “You’ve hit the nail on the head. She used to have a party every Christmas, and she’d say, ‘Make sure you’re there’, and I’d say, ‘Caroline, I ain’t doing it, I went last year and they all sat round like you’re a god’. And she started laughing. She said, ‘I hate that’.”

In 1998, she attempted suicide. After taking an overdose, she phoned Cash. In Queen of Comedy, he breaks down when he relates the conversation. “She was saying goodbye, really. But she just said, ‘I love you and I’m sorry but I’m going. I’ve taken an overdose’ and I said, ‘Make yourself sick. Make yourself sick, MAKE YOURSELF SICK!’ I had to ring her mum and tell her. Her mum rang an ambulance and, luckily, they came and they broke her door down and got her in time.”

I ask Lavelle and Conlan whether they noticed the depression getting worse. “Yes,” Conlan says. “She started to cancel arrangements last minute.”

Do they think she really intended to kill herself?

“No,” they both say instantly.

“Afterwards, she was mortified,” Lavelle says. “She couldn’t believe she would have done that, especially to her mum. She’d got really drunk and that started it all off. I think she was watching a sad film, and got so low and thought everybody would be better off without her.”

Aherne talked publicly about her suicide attempt, and her subsequent stay in the Priory where she was treated for alcoholism. As usual she managed to turn it into a sitcom scene. “I went in for depression,” she told Parkinson. “Then they came in and said, ‘You’re not a depressive, you’re an alcoholic.’ Come over to this other bit with the alkies in.’ I was saying, ‘I’m not an alcoholic’ and they were saying, ‘You are.’ And this went on for about two weeks, and then I said, ‘I am’ and everyone clapped, and I was getting a bit giddy. So I said, ‘I’m a really big alcoholic.’ I got overtaken by it all!”

Her friends thought that it was nonsense. Her depression had affected her work, but her drinking never had. You were a drinker back in the day, weren’t you, I say to Cash. He sounds hurt. “What d’you mean was? I still am. I’ve not stopped drinking! I was pissed as arseholes last night. I was very surprised they talked about an alcohol problem at the Priory because I thought, bloody hell, I must have one then.” And did he really think he had a problem? “No, I didn’t. And I didn’t think she had.”

* * *

In 2001, Aherne gave her last proper interview to a newspaper. She said fame had made her unhappy and she was walking away from it and TV. She briefly moved to Australia and then returned to Greater Manchester to live a quiet life in Timperley.

“I think she said goodbye to stardom and came back to her roots,” Lavelle says. She lived in a small bungalow dominated by televisions. “She had such big tellies in her house,” Lavelle says. “She always had the telly on in the background when we were chatting. Always in her pyjamas if we weren’t going out. Pyjama bottoms and a top.”

“With the remote control very close to her,” Conlan adds.

Her social circle became smaller and smaller: family and a tiny group of friends. “It wasn’t because she didn’t love people, I think it was just that she was very happy in her little bubble,” Lavelle says.

In 2006, six years after the third series of The Royle Family ended, Cash convinced her to team up for a Christmas special. He was desperate to support her through her depression, but didn’t know how. Then it struck him that the best thing he could do was help her back into work. “She would say, ‘I’m just not funny any more, I can’t write, I can’t do it.’ But we knew it was just the depression talking because the minute you were in her house she was taking the piss out of you and having a laugh. It got to a stage where she said, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t do it, and I don’t want to hold you back.’ So we went away, restructured it, added bits and dropped bits, and gave her the script back. It was brilliant because she looked at it and was criticising this bit and that, and gradually got into it. It did wonders for her mental health to get back to work. Then we started rowing about it again and it all came full circle.”

Now they were co-directing the show, and they would row in front of the rest of the cast, they would row in the editing suite, sometimes they would lose whole days rowing about the best way to do things – and they loved it. Aherne was a natural director: sensitive to the nuance of every word and camera shot, and tough enough to say just how she wanted it. Both were strongly opinionated. “In the edit suite we had a paper plate and we called it the plate of destiny. We’d write our names on and spin it and put an arrow on the table, and whichever name was closest to the arrow when it stopped spinning, that’s whose decision won. That plate of destiny took a lot of heat out of the edit suite because, boy, we were passionate about it.”

The first Christmas special, The Queen of Sheba, in which Nana died, is regarded by many as the greatest episode of The Royle Family. It is beautifully observed – so poignant and yet joyous when they launch into one of TV’s greatest singsongs to celebrate Nana’s life. They made four more Christmas specials, each one attracting huge audiences.

In 2014, Aherne announced she had lung cancer. She did it in typical style, to raise awareness and funds for charity, while not giving an interview to a newspaper. She also mentioned in passing that she had already survived bladder cancer. Her last regular job was doing the voiceover for Gogglebox, the TV series that shows people watching TV. It seemed so fitting. After all, The Royle Family was one of the first sitcoms to truly replicate real life, and it did it so successfully that it spawned a reality show that replicated the Royles. When she couldn’t do Gogglebox because of hospital appointments, she asked Cash to fill in for her. Now he does it full-time.

In April 2016, Aherne told those closest to her that the lung cancer was terminal and she had been given between three and 12 months to live. She died two months later, on 2 July 2016. “One of the things that comforts us is that Patrick, her brother, had told her he was going to bring her nephew to see her. They were going to spend the day together,” Lavelle says. “Caroline was in her pyjamas on the couch, under a blanket with the remote control and the big telly still on. So she died thinking she was going to see her nephew the next day and she was doing what she loved best in the world.”

Related: Carrot crush for all! An oral history of The Royle Family and its ‘gloriously mundane genius’

Johnston tells me that after Aherne died, Tomlinson had portraits painted of her, and gave one to Johnston. “Ricky and I always talk about her. Always. How much she gave us, and how much we’re indebted to her,” she says.

She heads off and returns with the portrait – a tender headshot showing Aherne in reflective mode. “It’s lovely, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s hanging on the wall at the bottom of the stairs, so I see her every morning as I come down. I go, ‘Hello!’ I suppose if you don’t see people every day, you can imagine they’re still there.”

By the time she died in 2016, most of her money was gone – spent on friends and family. Her estate was valued at just over £500,000 – the equivalent of around three months’ work, at her peak. There was more tragedy for her mother, Maureen, two years later when Patrick, a cabaret singer whose band played on The Mrs Merton Show, died after he fell down the stairs. Maureen now lives in Galway and is unwell. Bert died in 1995.

Cash says he struggled after losing Aherne. “It was an incredibly difficult time. I lost my father the same year and my father-in-law just before that, so within 12 months I lost the three funniest people I knew. My dad was Jim Royle, really. They were all funny. Irreplaceably funny.” Does he think he has got over Aherne’s death? “I’m more used to it. I don’t know that it’s something you ever get used to. It’s a matter of learning to live with it. I saw a film last year and I knew Caroline would have absolutely loved it. I found myself in the cinema in tears, thinking, ‘This is just not right.’ It was the The Banshees of Inisherin, by the way.”

I tell him about Johnston’s portrait of Aherne at the bottom of the stairs. “Aw, I didn’t know that. That’s nice. Well, I’ve got a little photograph of her on my mantelpiece downstairs, alongside my dad and Bill, my father-in-law. It’s not a shelf you ever want to appear on!”

He tells me there’s a poem that has helped him make sense of Aherne’s death. “It’s by Robert Frost. The title is Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It Lacks In Length, and that’s how I look at it with Caroline. She wasn’t here for a long time, but we had a bloody good time when she was.”

• Caroline Aherne: Queen of Comedy is on BBC Two on Christmas Day at 10.25pm.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org