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Hits and Mrs

She was one of the cleverest and most original comedians in the history of British television. Now Caroline Aherne has gone too soon, dying of cancer at the age of only fifty-two after a highly successful but often troubled career at the top of her chosen profession.

She was born in London on Christmas Eve in 1963 to Bert and Maureen Aherne, who had emigrated from Ireland in the hope of finding a better life. Her comic talent was evident from an early age, as she absorbed the speech and mannerisms of TV characters and reproduced them for the entertainment of her parents and older brother. By then the Ahernes had moved to Wythenshawe in Manchester, allowing Caroline to begin making the observations of northern life that would bear fruit years later in her most famous TV shows.

Unlike that other great northern talent Victoria Wood, she did well at school, but like Wood she didn’t have the advantage of attending Oxford or Cambridge, where so many British actors and comedians have launched their careers. Instead, she studied at Liverpool Polytechnic before beginning work at the BBC in Manchester. She had to polish her comedic skills in her spare time, appearing in clubs in Manchester and further afield, before receiving her big break with the help of the comedy singer Frank Sidebottom, famous for his giant papier-mâché head.

When she first appeared on Sidebottom’s television show, he was much more famous and popular than she was. That would soon change: the audience reactions to her performance were so good that she was able to begin an independent career. Her first big solo success came on the BBC with The Mrs Merton Show, in which she played a sweetly smiling but acid-tongued northern housewife. Celebrity guests had to be good sports as Aherne ran verbal rings around them before a gleeful audience of old-age pensioners.

Next she wrote and performed in the Royle Family, a sit-com about a working-class Manchester family who sat watching television on a sofa. The format might have seemed limited, but Aherne’s clever scripts and performance as Denise Royle, daughter of the family, ensured that it became one of the best-loved shows on the medium it both mocked and paid tribute to. Her third big hit was Channel 4’s Gogglebox, in which she provided narration for footage of ordinary viewers watching television. It was quirky, questioning and another example of the way in which she could find humour in unlikely settings.

Despite the originality of her comedy, however, she didn’t escape one cliché: she was an unhappy comic whose personal life was often difficult and troubled. She attempted suicide in 1998, the year in which The Mrs Merton Show came to an end and The Royle Family began. She was treated for alcoholism and depression at the Priory Clinic, then announced her retirement from show business in 2001. She said she no longer wished to be famous and moved to Australia. But she returned in 2002 to resume her career in a less driven way, writing plays and sit-coms and taking small roles in television comedies alongside stars like Steve Coogan, a longstanding admirer of her work.

In the end, however, she was unable to continue enjoying the quieter life she had sought by returning to Manchester. Like her brother Patrick, she had been born with a rare form of cancer that was never completely cured. When she suffered a relapse this year, the doctors were unable to prevent the cancer from spreading. She passed away on 2nd July 2016 aged only fifty-two, mourned by her family and her many fans. She will long be honoured by her comedy peers, who paid tribute to her as one of the best and most original writers and performers ever to have reduced an audience to helpless tears of laughter.