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Caroline Aherne: Thoroughly original talent who revitalised British comedy

She was the groundbreaking comic who made George Best and other stars squirm under the guise of Mrs Merton. Rosie Millard on brilliant career of Caroline Aherne who has died aged 52

Published 04/07/2016

Caroline Aherne
Caroline Aherne
Caroline Aherne with Paul Whitehouse in The Fast Show in 1997
Caroline Aherne with Royle Family cast members (from left) Liz Smith, Ricky Tomlinson, Ralf Little, Sue Johnston and Craig Cash
Caroline Aherne during that famous interview with George Best as chat show host Mrs Merton

It was the poised, disingenuous, faux-innocence of Mrs Merton that was so devastating.

"Tell me, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?" (to the magician's wife Debbie McGee). "Were you breastfed, then?" (to Carol Thatcher). "George Best, was it playing all that football that made you so thirsty?"

And the best one, to Germaine Greer: "Tell me Germaine, what's the difference between being sexually liberated in the Sixties and an old slapper now?"

Celebrities got so anxious about being interviewed by Caroline Aherne in the guise of the elderly Mancunian housewife that apparently they stopped agreeing to be on the show. But, for audiences, it was the radical notion of seeing a household name forced to operate outside television's charmed circle of sycophancy and product placement which made Aherne's show so unmissable.

"With Mrs Merton, you can ask people questions and say things to them that you couldn't ask yourself," was her way of explaining its alchemy.

We're all familiar with comic inventions now, but back in 1995 Aherne's creation was a mouldbreaker. Not for her the familiar terrain of the laddish female stand-up (period gags, boyfriend gags, self-deprecating weight gags). Neither did she come from the weary Oxbridge/Footlights mould of giggles fuelled by entitlement.

Mrs Merton was a sort of latter day Dame Edna, but funnier because Aherne didn't bother with any reassuring gesture towards the pantomime dame. Mrs Merton simply turned up in her rollers and slippers and innocently squinted at the world through a pair of fright glasses.

The world laughed, celebrities squirmed and comedy was revitalised. Aherne paved the way for Steve Coogan, Sasha Baron Cohen and Ricky Gervais - all of whose comic creations owe something in their DNA to Mrs Merton.

On stage Aherne was tiny, formidably intelligent and spectacularly original. I saw her in Edinburgh early in her career as Sister Mary Immaculate, a nun whose only ambition in life was to kiss the Pope's ring. She saw off hecklers with devastating ease, having cut her teeth in the ruthless world of the Mancunian comedy circuit. Her stand-up show of course went onto TV, headed by Mrs Merton in her post-Edna, post-modern chat show.

Not for Aherne the lukewarm bath of quiz shows and chat show appearances under her own name. As her job was giving (she put it) the celebrity world a "warm and gentle kicking" one suspected she had zero interest in being famous herself. She once said "Celebrity… is a fascinating game and loads of people love playing it. But I can't be arsed playing it anymore because I've decided I am no good at it."

A brilliant writer, her talents were thoroughly unleashed in the unsettling and hysterical The Royle Family, a sitcom set in the front room of a Manchester council house which somehow managed to pull off the high-wire trick of mocking while, at the same time, championing the working class.

She was not brash. Her comedy was unsettling, but not over-the-top, nor reliant on lazy celebrity cameos for easy laughs. She inserted the stiletto knife of parody and critique quietly but with precision, as her peerless voiceovers for Gogglebox so beautifully reveal.

Belfast Telegraph

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