Comfort Classic: The Royle Family

Comfort Classic: The Royle Family

Tuesday, 21st November 2023
The cast of The Royle Family sit on and around the sofa in their living room
The Royle Family (credit: BBC)
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Steve Clarke praises a groundbreaking sitcom with no one-liners and no laughter track

In the past quarter of a century, few UK sitcoms have been as influential as The Royle Family, the startlingly original and unusually naturalistic comedy that, over three series from 1998 to 2000, mined the mundanity of northern working-class life for BBC Two.

The Royle Family, made by Granada Television, was the precursor of The Office, Gavin & Stacey, This Country and, yes, Gogglebox.

Downbeat and often poignant, the genesis of this very British show was the late-1990s Manchester alternative comedy scene and the desire of one of its stars, co-creator Caroline Aherne, to make a TV show that didn’t involve performing before an audience.

As its executive producer, Andy Harries, then Granada’s Head of Comedy, recently told The Guardian: “After two series of The Mrs Merton Show… she was desperate to develop something that didn’t have an audience. The compromise we struck was a blind script deal to allow Caroline, Craig [Cash] and Henry [Normal] to work on a project with no interference.”

Aherne’s ambition for the show was simple – to write a sitcom revolving around an ordinary family set in real time. This sounded straightforward but, despite enlisting some serious acting talent in the shape of Sue Johnston and Ricky Tomlinson from Channel 4’s taboo-busting soap, Brookside, the show’s pilot was a disaster.

The problem was that it had been shot like a traditional sitcom, featuring a laughter track, bright furniture and multi-cam video. A new, more res­trained set was built, and a handheld camera was used to give the show its documentary feel. The laugher track was binned, something that worried the suits at the BBC.

The Royle Family’s blue-collar antecedents were in 1950s kitchen sink drama and the Ray Galton and Alan Simpson classic, Steptoe and Son. Are there echoes of Pinter and Beckett here, too?

Aherne, Cash and Normal brought real affection and tenderness to their scripts and were brave enough to keep the pace glacially slow.

Those who wanted quickfire gags or high production values could go elsewhere. This was Slow TV before the term was invented, as the action – if action is the word – unfolded gently as the family were glued to the box as they sat in their living room. In The Royle Family less really was more. This was the television equivalent of JJ Cale, the laid-back composer of After Midnight.

What kept all this domestic mundanity from being boring was the clever characterisation and consummate acting. Tomlinson was utterly compelling as Jim Royle, a shiftless, nose-picking slob. Jim revelled in his indolence. He couldn’t even be bothered to do up his flies.

On one memorable occasion, Jim is seen pointing at his mother-in-law’s catheter bag. “I’d love one of them bags,” he says. “You’d hardly miss any telly.” He loves teasing his family and his putdowns are often punctuated by an immaculately timed: “My arse.”

While Jim is an idler, his wife Babs (Johnson) is the family’s sweet-­natured matriarch. She won’t hear a bad word said about any of her relations, especially her grownup daughter, Denise (Aherne), who has inherited several of her dad’s character traits. Babs dotes on Denise. Both are chain smokers.

Cash is priceless as Dave, Denise’s gormless, doleful boyfriend and, later, husband. When Denise and Dave produce their first child, Denise is a hopeless mother.

One of the recurring jokes is the Royles’ total disregard for nutritious food as Dairylea on toast and Turkey Twizzlers are consumed.

If you’re looking for an antidote to aspirational comedy, seek out The Royle Family. A good place to start is The Queen of Sheba, one of several Christmas specials. I guarantee it will make you laugh and cry. Not for nothing did the programme win two RTS awards in 2007, the Writer: Comedy and Situation Comedy prizes. Tragically, Aherne died in 2016, bringing down the curtain on one of our greatest and most cherished television comedies.

The Royle Family is on BritBox, BBC iPlayer and Gold.