Caroline Aherne: Our Manchester comedy royalty

Caroline Aherne: Our Manchester comedy royalty

By Carole Solazzo,
Tuesday, 6th February 2024
A headshot of Caroline Aherne, a white woman with blonde hair wearing a blue and black patterned shirt
Caroline Aherne (credit: BBC)
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A new film explores the life and work of the multi-talented Caroline Aherne. Carole Solazzo reports

Fittingly for pantomime season, comedian, actor, writer and director Caroline Aherne was something of a fairy godmother.

In Caroline Aherne: Queen of Comedy, previewed in Manchester shortly before its Christmas Day transmission on BBC Two, Passion Pictures celebrates and explores her private life, exceptional work and legacy.

The story of Aherne’s beginnings on a Manchester council estate, through her first forays on the local stand-up scene, to national stardom is told exclusively by the people whose lives she touched and enriched, personally and professionally.

“We wanted to strike a balance between a story that those who loved The Royle Family would come to and the story of the cultural movement of Manchester in the 1990s – an important legacy to her work and an inspiration to the next generation,” explained Passion’s Creative Managing Director, David Moulton.

One of that inspired next generation is RTS award- and Bafta-winning comedian and writer Sophie Willan, the first recipient of the BBC’s Caroline Aherne bursary.

Aherne “created a space where working-class Northern women could be seen as clever and funny at the same time. She changed that narrative,” said Willan.

She revealed that her BBC Two sitcom Alma’s Not Normal owed a huge debt to Aherne: “I explored things about grief and [my grandmother’s] death… and I’d always go back to the beacon of light which is [Royle Family episode] The Queen of Sheba to judge have I gone too far tonally.

“[Aherne] did it first and she did it beautifully. The understanding that the funniest things come from the darkest of places… [is] that Northern humour. She allows you to know that it’s OK…. She taps into humanity.”

Sophie Willan at the RTS event (credit: CJ Fawn)

Caroline Aherne: Queen of Comedy uses never-before-seen photographs. “Caroline was shy, so she never gave many interviews as herself,” said Moulton.

“So, one of the challenges for the film was to be able to see Caroline as herself. And it was through her family and close friends who provided those photographs that we could tell her story.”

Moulton had fallen in love with her work “as a kid growing up in Bolton. But I didn’t realise what a genius she was…. In terms of original writer and showrunner, there was no one else like her.” He said he hoped “the next generation from Burnley, Bolton, wherever, see her work and realise they could do it, too”.

Award-winning poet Lemn Sissay, who hosted the event, suggested that what was also unique about the film was “the portrayal of the spirit of the arts and artists in Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s”, which included Craig Cash and Steve Coogan, as well as Aherne.

“I’ve not seen that on a documentary before, because music was the big noise,” he said. [The film] “shows the true picture of how radical all those artists and comedians were…. It’s great when a documentary can shift the focus and show its beauty through a movement and a beautiful human being like Caroline Aherne.”

According to RTS North West Chair Cameron Roach, founder of Rope Ladder Fiction, the Aherne documentary was “a call to arms about the state of the industry now. I think the opportunities are few and far between.”

Roach told how his indie, alongside others, had been inspired by the film to work with ScreenSkills to create “eight bursaries in the next six months named in Aherne’s memory…. It’s what the RTS, particularly the RTS bursary scheme, is about, too.”

RTS North West and Passion Pictures have announced that this year the RTS North West Best Breakthrough Talent Award will be known as the Caroline Aherne Award. Roach added: “We have to work together to encourage those voices and empower people with that confidence.”

The event was held on 19 Decem­ber at the Vue ­Manchester Printworks and organised by Passion Pictures in association with RTS North West.