Royle Family behind the set secrets - Caroline Aherne pranks and naughty corner
It's been 25 years since The Royle Family was first broadcast from their living room into ours.
Featuring the humdrum world of a TV-loving family from Stockport sitting on their sofa, it seemed like a non-starter. But inspired cast performances and a crafted script turned it into a classic. To celebrate the Royles’ silver jubilee, Gold is airing a documentary, The Royle Family: Down the Back of the Sofa. Get yourself comfy and take a look at the inside story...
The hilarious programme was of course the brainchild of the writers and stars Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash. The pair met in the late eighties while working on a Stockport radio show, and they hit it off immediately. “When I first met Craig when I got home on the very first day I’d met him I wrote in my diary, ‘I have just met the funniest man in the world’ and that’s because I’d run into someone on the way back…” Caroline joked.
But on a serious note they clearly found in each other an unparalleled comedy partnership, working together on The Mrs Merton Show - Caroline’s iconic elderly chat show host. Although this show which began in 1995 was only increasing in popularity by 1998, it was Caroline who decided she wanted them to create another series, based on their working class roots.
“She said ‘If you don’t do this, I’m not going to do another Mrs Merton show. Strong arm tactics but fortunately it worked,” explains Craig. ”What we wanted to do was not the typical gags, so the comedy comes more out of the personality, the character. I had it in my head that it was a half hour slice of that family,” adds Caroline. “I wanted to make it sound real, like they were real people.”
Ricky’s Jim Royle was both grouchy and endearing, with his lazy nature constantly causing arguments in the Royle household. Jim became renowned for his famous “my a**e” catchphrase, which tended to come out when he was particularly frustrated. “Anne Robinson, my a**e. Watchdog? I am watching a bloody dog”.
Denise: “Dad, stop fiddling with yourself.” Jim: “I’m not fiddling with meself. I paid a quid for these underpants and I’ve got 50 pence worth stuck up me arse.” One of the series’ most memorable moments occurs in the final episode of its second season. Caroline Alherne’s Denise, whose pregnancy has been an ongoing plot point, finally goes into labour.
However, the only person around is her prickly father, Jim. The two share a heartfelt moment together, as Jim reminisces when he held a baby Denise in his own arms: “When your mum put you in my arms and I looked at you…oh God, you were beautiful and I knew… I knew then…I’d do anything for you, anything for you.” The heartwarming scene is soon disrupted by the arrival of Denise’s husband Dave. Denise angrily berates him: “Trust you not to be here when me waters broke. You right useless lump of s***e.”
Containing all that humour that played out on camera sometimes made it hard for the cast to do their jobs. Ever the prankster, Caroline Aherne would play tricks on her co-stars to make them laugh - and even filled up their cups of tea with booze, Sue revealed. “We’d get to about Thursday and we’d been constantly filming and on that sofa and she’d suddenly call the producer over and she’d go, ‘John, I think we’ve all gone a bit flat, I think we need champagne!’ And it would come! We’d be drinking champagne in those mugs.”
Another time, Ricky got a call from Caroline asking him to come to the studio on his day off. When he arrived, she told him he’d cost the BBC a lot of money. “She said, ‘when we were watching the rushes, one of your testicles was hanging out. One of your testicles was hanging out the side of your underpants!’” he recalled. “‘It’s cost the BBC a fortune to get it edited out, what do you say about that?’”
Another time, two days worth of footage was wrecked when it was discovered a camera fault had accidentally cut everyone’s heads off. The 2009 Christmas special had to be re-shot when a tiny object dropped into the camera lens and ruined the rushes - and the entire cast had to refilm it to the tune of £100,000.
And Sue also let slip the actors were sent to the ‘naughty corner’ by frustrated crew whenever the hysteria overcame them. “We used to have to go and stand in the naughty corner if we cried or laughed,” she explained. “Then it got so big, this naughty corner, that when we went back for the final series, the props guys had built a prison in the corner of the studio with bars and blue flashing lights.”
Ricky fondly recounted what life was like on set with Caroline before her death. “There’s a million stories but you can’t tell them on the air because Caroline was one for playing pranks, but they were always a little bit rude,” he said. “But she was wonderful and so, so missed.”
The Royle Family may not have resided in Buckingham Palace, but apparently the residents there did enjoy watching the show. Ralf Little,43, who played Antony in the sitcom, previously explained that the late Queen and Prince Harry were fans of the show. “Years ago, I happened to be at a party where Prince Harry was.
"I got talking to a lot of Harry’s mates and one of them was like, ‘All of us love The Royle Family.’ I went, ‘Even the big man?’ He went, ‘Loves it. Him and his gran watch it all the time.’ Maybe it’s not true but I like to believe it is. It went from being this maybe being a Northern thing, to maybe it’s a working class thing, to apparently the Queen watching it.”
The show is also a favourite among UK comedy royalty including After Life’s Diane Morgan who says in The Royle Family: Down the Back of the Sofa: “I know loads of families that were exactly like the Royle family. Exactly, every member. It was so true to life it was unbelievable and those people watching it, I wonder whether they were like ‘Oh my god its us!’” Comedian Rosie Jones also gushes, “It is one family sitting on the sofa watching telly, but there is so much more happening under the surface.”
Cast - what they did next:
Ricky Tomlinson, who played patriarch Jim, went on to star in films Mike Bassett: England Manager, Raining Stones, and Hillsborough, in which he played one of the victim’s fathers. His on-screen wife Sue Johnston (Barbara Royle) has since appeared as Grace Foley in Waking the Dead, Gloria Price in Coronation Street and Miss Denker in Downton Abbey.
Sue, who is currently filming in Wales for an upcoming series with Ricky, says: “I’m thrilled they’re showing the documentary and I can’t believe it has been 25 years. It was the happiest of jobs.” As well as starring as Jim and Barbara’s daughter Denise, Caroline Aherne also co-wrote and co-directed the episodes. She became the voiceover artist of Channel 4 show Gogglebox, but tragically was diagnosed with lung cancer and died at the age of 52.
Having given up his place in medical school to concentrate on acting, Ralf Little got his first big break when he was cast as Jim and Barbara’s son Antony in the show. Ralf appeared in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, then became the narrator of Channel 5 documentary series Our Yorkshire Farm. Since 2020 he’s starred as new main character DI Neville Parker in Death in Paradise.
Craig Cash, 63, found his funny bone early on in his career, having worked as a script editor on That Peter Kay Thing in 1999. After the Royles, he went on to direct The Cafe, which starred Ralf Little, and took over Caroline’s Gogglebox voiceover duties when she fell ill. The late Liz Smith didn’t get into acting until the age of 49, when she was spotted selling Christmas toys at Hamleys.
She took on the role of matriarch Norma (“Nana”) in The Royle Family and her final performance, in which she played Nana’s dying moments, came with a heavy emotional toll. “I don’t think anything has disturbed me (as much) to play until this one,” she said in 2006. Liz died at the age of 95 in 2016.
Jessica Hynes, 50, played Denise’s best friend Cheryl Carroll and has since forged a career in film, appearing in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Bridget Jones’s Baby and Paddington 2, as well as TV shows like W1A. The Royles’ neighbour Joseph Carroll was played by Peter Martin, who died in April this year. He also appeared in Last of the Summer Wine, All Creatures Great and Small, Coronation Street and Victoria Wood, as well as landing the recurring part of Len Reynolds in Emmerdale from 2001 until 2007.
Doreen Keogh (Mary Carroll) died aged 93 in 2017, having taken up recurring roles in Father Ted and Cold Feet, while Geoffrey Hughes (Twiggy) went on to play conman Vernon Scripps in Heartbeat before his death from prostate cancer in 2012, aged 68. And Sheridan Smith has had huge success since playing Emma, going on to star in Gavin & Stacey, Cilla, The Moorside and The Teacher.