Shy, intelligent, prone to a drink and generous to a fault. The people closest to the star remember a comedy legend hounded by the press and wracked by depression

Ricky Tomlinson will never forget the first time he met Caroline Aherne. “I was at the Royal Television Society awards with my wife, Rita. She asked me to get something from the buffet. I walked across to the table and bumped into a young girl standing in front of me. She turned around to look at me and went, ‘Oh, you’re my dad, aren’t you?’” Did she say anything else? “No. I went back to the table and said to Rita, ‘I think that poor girl’s got mental health problems.’” The next day he was asked to audition for The Royle Family. “And the rest is history,” he tells me. Tomlinson was cast as Jim Royle, the father of Denise, played by Aherne.

It’s 25 years since The Royle Family was first broadcast, 22 since Aherne announced she was walking away from the public glare, and seven since she died of cancer at the age of 52. Now a new BBC film, Queen of Comedy, celebrates her life and legacy. If anything, the title underplays the contribution she made to British and Irish culture in her short life. There were two groundbreaking TV series (The Mrs Merton Show and The Royle Family), comedy that exposed racism (her Mrs Merton interview with Bernard Manning), a question that became a national catchphrase (“So what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”), and in The Royle Family a sitcom that compares to the best of Beckett and Pinter. That’s not to mention her scene-stealing sketches in The Fast Show (“Scorchio!”). Aherne was a working-class girl who became one of the first women in TV comedy to control every element of the production process, with the clout to say no to the big boys. In 2001, she was the sixth highest-paid British TV celebrity, earning an estimated £2m a year. Not that she kept much of it for herself.

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