How The Royle Family changed comedy forever and in the process gave us the most authentic British family ever captured on screen.

by | Mar 18, 2022 | All, Opinions

Inclusivity is a good thing. A lot is made of the importance of people seeing themselves represented on screen. As a disabled person, I’m seeing more disabled people on television and whilst that’s a positive thing I don’t think it’s entirely the only way you can see yourself represented on television. The first time I remember seeing myself, or rather my family and friends depicted on screen wasn’t when I first saw someone in a wheelchair but when I first sat down with Jim, Barbara, Denise, Dave and Anthony – The Royle Family.

This was comedy like I’d never seen it before. It arrived in an era when studio sitcoms were the only form of comedy. Only Fools & Horses, arguably the biggest British sitcom, had finished two years earlier and One Foot in the Grave was close to its end. When we talk about shifts in comedy on television the first series that jumps to mind is The Office. Created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the series expertly lampooned the trend of ‘docuseries’ to excruciating effect. It spawned a chain of copycat series that have gone on to be just as massive as the original series, but I’d argue The Office couldn’t have existed had The Royle Family not laid the groundwork for what was possible outside the confines of the studio audience.

The Royle Family first aired Monday 14th September 1998 on BBC Two.

I didn’t see The Royle Family when it first started. I was less TV-obsessed in 1998, but oddly I don’t think I would have taken to it easily. I knew what comedy was. I had seen all of Blackadder, Father Ted, Absolutely Fabulous, and The Royle Family wasn’t a comedy in that sense. It was closer to an Alan Bennet play. It ripped up the rules and paved its own way. It must’ve been jarring for those who caught it when it first aired on BBC Two, but once you understood what it was, it was absolutely hypnotic.

The Royle Family were long retired (due to laziness) Jim (Ricky Tomlinson), his happy-go-lucky wife Barbara (Sue Johnston) and their grown-up daughter Denise (Caroline Aherne) and the ever put upon Anthony (Ralf Little). The conceit of the show initially penned by series stars Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash was a simple but completely revolutionary one. Each episode would transplant you into the Royles’ livingroom as they chatted about their day and watched their favourite programmes. The first series, which is perfect from start to finish, focuses on the marriage of Denise and her dopey but well-meaning boyfriend Dave (Craig Cash). We hear about the wedding plans, see Denise try her dress on one Sunday afternoon and even see the events of the morning in question, but key, to the genius of the show, is that we never leave their house.

Comedy has transformed now to the point where studio sitcoms feel immediately old hat, but shows like Him & Her, Mum, Green Wing, Gavin & Stacey none of them would exist without Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash and co-creator Henry Normal taking the jump away from the norm and trusting the audience would go with them. It’s a show that excels even when nobody in the house is speaking. Big long panning shots across the living room whilst the family indulges in a club biscuit are common. and give it an authentic and documentary tone.

The comedy is conversational and observational. One of my favourite lines comes from Barbara. “Did anyone see that programme last night about the Kennedy assassination?”  The family stares at her bemused. “Oh that Jackie Kennedy…. She had some lovely clothes!” It’s a line we quote as a family regularly because it’s so daft and yet something you can hear yourself saying. The Royle Family captured the British family better than almost any sitcom before it and possibly any since. The dynamics didn’t need explaining. Jim, the funny, but bone idle husband who is happy to moan about the state of the world but not interested in doing anything to fix things. Barbara is the doting mother who just wants a happy family life. Denise, the older daughter who has clearly inherited her father’s lazy streak and Anthony is the put upon younger son who is still seen as the young boy and only good for making teas and bacon sandwhiches. “Where’s the red sauce for Dave?!”

It captured something instantly relatable. You could see yourself in these people. These weren’t comedy characters like Victor Meldrew or Father Ted Crilly, these felt like real people. We can all relate to watching television with the family and moaning about the state of the programmes, finally settling on something and talking all the way through it anyway. When you watch it, you’re amazed someone hadn’t thought to do it sooner.

In the second episode of the series, The Royles are having tea at the dining table in the living room. That’s the premise for the entire episode. Nothing happens. Denise talks about doing Pasta for her tea when she’s married (much to Barbara’s amazement and excitement) Jim covers his apple pie in squirty cream to ‘take the taste of the bloody fruit away’ and bemoans the fact that Dave’s Dad, ‘Peg Leg Pete’ isn’t contributing to the wedding. The genius is in the rhythm of the dialogue and true to life it seems. Denise talks about how her hairdresser has ‘gone’ mobile’ “She’s calling herself Sandy Scissors but I’m still calling her Sandra!” The jokes in The Royle Family are subtle and quick and while you’re laughing at one you’ve missed the next. “I paid a quid for these underpants and I’ve got 50 pence worth stuck up my arse!” As beloved as Del Boy and Edmund Blackadder are they are clearly comedic archetypes. Derek ‘Delboy’ Trotter matured in the later series when series creator John Sullivan introduced families for both Trotter brothers but The Royles felt more lived in, more organic, more indicative of British family life.

The first series ends with the family preparing for Denise and Dave’s wedding. Nana, the ever-brilliant and much missed Liz Smith is fretting about having the wrong shoes on for the night doo, Jim is suffering from a dicky tummy and next-door neighbour Cheryl is wearing her dusky pink bridesmaid dress. It’s perhaps the most chaotic the series had been at the point and it’s impossible not to get swept up in the excitement and nerves as the nuptials draw closer. It’s also the first time the series showed its softer side. The show, like the best comedies on television, could reduce me to tears as much as it could make me laugh. These moments were often between father and daughter as Jim dropped all of his bravado and showed himself to be the caring father that the family could rely on. One such moment comes, just as the taxi arrives to drop them off at the wedding venue. It’s a properly tender moment when Denise realises she’ll no longer be Denise Royle and that she’s leaving the family home. Caroline Aherne and Ricky Tomlinson have such incredibly tender chemistry you forget you are watching actors. That’s the power of their performances. Denise’s voice breaks as she says, “Dad, you know how I never say anything nice to you and I’m always going on at you for picking your nose and farting, well, you know, you and your mum (she breaks into tears) you and my mam more than anything“. It’s a moment played completely straight. It’s a scene that broke me the first time I saw it. As they head for the taxi and the front door bangs shut as a viewer you long to go with them but somehow it would spoil the magic if we were invited to the wedding.

The world outside the Royle household was vividly painted. From their local pub the Feathers which Jim and Dave would sneak off to or take Barbara to for her Birthday. To Beverly Macca, a woman who Dave had a brief dalliance with and who Denise is both jealous of and derogatory about to Nanna’s housebound neighbour Elise, the characters we never meet feel as fully-formed as those we do. I find the series endlessly rewatchable. I can recite most of the script by heart, but to be with The Royles is comforting and warm.

There’s a moment in the 1999 Christmas Special that I hold as one of the best scenes in British television history. Again it’s between father and daughter, when a reluctant Jim is called into the bathroom when Denise’s waters break. There aren’t any gags here outside of, “Are you sure it wasn’t a great big pi”s love? ” The scene is a beautifully tender moment between the pair that reduces me to tears no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Denise, consumed with emotion, tells her dad that she’s worried she won’t be a good mother and that the baby won’t like her. Again, Aherne and Tomlinson are mesmerising. Their voices break and they struggle to hold back the tears as he reassures her, “You’ll be a wonderful mother”. It’s a scene that holds even more resonance now that Caroline is no longer with us. It’s the scene I most admire across the series, it’s the one I think of whenever I think of the series and it’s the one that proves how special the show is and what its capable of at its very best.

*The second series was co-written by Carmel Morgan.*

Another moment like this comes between Barbara and her mother Norma. The Royle Family finished its initial run in 2003 when Caroline Aherne moved to Australia and Craig Cash went on to create a similar comedy Early Doors with Phil Mealey. Then, in 2006, somewhat out of the blue, it was announced the show would be returning for a special. It saw Caroline and Craig team with Craig’s Early Doors co-writer Phil Mealey for a one-off special. The Queen of Sheba, is, without doubt, one of the best standalone episodes of a television comedy ever made. It sees Norma (Liz Smith) who had long wanted to be under the family roof, living in her bed in the family’s dining room being waited on and entertained by every member of the family including Dave and Denise’s son ‘Little David’. The scene between Sue Johnston and Liz Smith is a short but incredibly moving one. Barbara is combing her mother’s hair when Norma says in her frail voice, “I’m not a burden to you am I, Barbara?” Sue Johnston’s eyes fill with tears as she realises her mother hasn’t got long. We’ve never told quite what Nana is suffering from. Possibly just old age, but the scene that follows where Barbara goes to wake her sleeping mother to find her unresponsive has stuck with me since the day I first saw it. It’s here the series breaks its own rule. We see the family by Norma’s bedside in the hospital and their grief when the inevitable finally happens. It’s raw, almost too much to bear and feels a privilege to be allowed to experience this with them when normally we’d be left in the empty house. There are laugh out loud moments across the hour, but The Queen of Sheba works as a tribute to the wonderful talents of Liz Smith and also the importance of family pulling together to look after each other.

The success of The Queen of Sheba inevitably led to the BBC ordering more Royle specials. Aherne and Cash spoke about how they felt their next special ‘The New Sofa’ should be more of a jovial affair. The end result was a mixed bag that proved that going outside the constraints of the series doesn’t really work. The episode sees Jim and Barbara go round to Dave and Denise’s for Christmas Dinner with Dave’s parents Jocelyn and David Senior. A surprisingly organised Denise has the day planned. Prioritising time for mingling and offering cup of soup with a twist, “It’s in a bowl.” The episode didn’t work for me. It was the most overtly comic the series had ever been with scenes that bordered on the cartoonish. Dave, bathing with the massive Christmas turkey in the hopes it would defrost quicker didn’t sit right and felt like something the original series would make a conscious effort to steer away from. The next special, “The Golden Eggcup” saw The Royle’s embark on a caravan holiday. Again, the jokes feel broader, brasher and louder than the observational comedy I’d admired so much from the series. It’s fair to say that the next two specials, “Joe’s Crakers” and ‘Barbara’s new Ring’ failed to recapture the magic of what made the original run so special. Dave in particular seemed to get dafter with each special and had gone from a loveable, but daft wedding DJ and furniture remover to a bit of a clown who didn’t know eggy bread existed.

It’s hard to be too harsh on the series. When I watch it now it still hits me as hard as it did the first time. It’s tinged with sadness when the realisation that Caroline Aherne is no longer with us dawns on me throughout an episode, but it still feels as fresh and funny as it ever did. I don’t think the series will ever date. It will always be relatable. The family at the heart of things will always feel like yours.

One thing I admired about the later specials is how Ralf Little’s Anthony was allowed to grow and flourish in his life and his career. There were times in the original run of the series where Jim’s teasing of his youngest son could come across as cruel. Anthony’s dreams were always mocked. Jim would tell him he’d end up working in MacDonalds. When he first mentions he’s seeing Emma (a new actress by the name of Sheridan Smith) he tells him, “you must have stimulating conversations, I hope she likes The Simpsons!” but in the specials, we see that Anthony has made a success of his life. He has a family of his own, he has a career and although he’ll forever be the young boy whose job it is to make a brew he’s also deeply respected by his family who don’t hide their pride in his achievements.

Original ‘Goggleboxers’ Leon and June.

It’s a testament to the success of the show, that its spiritual sequel, Channel 4’s  Gogglebox shows no signs of waning in popularity. When that show first launched in 2013, it was narrated by Caroline Aherne. Craig Cash took over when Caroline passed away in 2016. There are still those that sneer at the concept of Gogglebox. Why would we watch something where we’re watching people watch TV on TV but, like The Royle Family before it, the series proves that there is magic when we all watch television together. Like The Royle Family before it, there are moments in Gogglebox that have reduced me to tears. It’s about connecting with those who are watching and it’s something that Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne realised the power of years before anyone else.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles

18/03/2022

Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!

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