Royle Family creator Caroline Aherne dies aged 52

Aherne as Denise Royle in her award-winning sitcom, The Royle Family. Picture: BBC

Aherne as Denise Royle in her award-winning sitcom, The Royle Family. Picture: BBC

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Caroline Aherne, one of TV’s brightest comic talents whose character Mrs Merton and sitcom The Royle Family became instant classics, has died at the age of 52.

Neil Reading, her publicist, said yesterday: “Caroline Aherne has sadly passed away, after a brave battle with cancer. The Bafta award-winning writer and comedy actor died earlier today at her home in Timperley, Greater Manchester. The family ask for privacy at this very sad time.”

Aherne had been battling lung cancer and had previously been treated for bladder and eye cancer. Aherne, who had been a smoker, had struggled with health problems for years.

Last night, friends, colleagues and fans paid tribute to the star. Actress Sue Johnston, who played Aherne’s character Denise’s mother Barbara in The Royle Family, said in a statement: “I am devastated at her passing and I am numb with grief.”

Ralf Little, who starred as brother Antony in the hit sitcom, wrote on Twitter: “Sorry for silence – I just... don’t know what to say. What a sad, sad day. We’ve lost another one of our best. A character. A legend. A boss. A sister, real and (for me) fake. A boss. A writer. An actor. A genius. A friend. Big, big heart. Goodbye. X”

This Morning host Phillip Schofield added: “So desperately sad to hear of the death of Caroline Aherne. Such a unique and gifted lady. Lots of love to all her family & friends X.”

The writer and actress, who also narrated Channel 4’s Gogglebox, was co-creator of the The Royle Family.

Aherne, who played an acid-tongued blue-rinse granny in The Mrs Merton Show, which first aired on BBC2 in 1995, was named best female performer at the British Comedy Awards the following year.

Aherne was born to her Irish parents, a railwayman and a dinner lady, in London, and the family moved to Wythenshawe, Manchester, when she was two.

She was later diagnosed with a rare cancer of the retina, like her older brother Patrick before her, and the local Catholic church raised funds to send her to Lourdes in the hope of a miracle cure.

For the rest of her life the actress was left with severely impaired sight in one eye.

After gaining nine grade A O-levels at convent school – Aherne had an IQ of 176 – she studied drama at Liverpool Polytechnic, then took a job as a BBC secretary in Manchester.

She met Royle Family collaborators Craig Cash and Henry Normal in 1990 and they encouraged her to develop her repertoire of comic characters, including unlikely chat show host Mrs Merton.

Before long, celebrities were queueing up to be insulted in Mrs Merton’s unique way. She famously asked Debbie McGee: “What was it that first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”

The Royle Family was born after she and Cash, who played gormless Dave Best in the show as well as Mrs Merton’s son Malcolm, threw themselves into their work after a suicide attempt, which she called her lowest ebb.

The Royle Family was the toast of 1999’s British Comedy Awards, scooping four trophies, including best actress for Aherne. She split from husband Peter Hook, bassist with pop group New Order, in 1996.

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