Mme Merton and the naughty nun: Caroline Aherne’s first comedy concerts | Step
In the early 1990s, Manchester’s Cultural Revolution was in full swing. “Everything was booming,” remembers actor, writer and comedian John Thomson, who grew up in Preston before studying drama at Manchester Polytechnic. Beyond the Haçienda, a comedy scene was developing in the pubs of the city where Thomson befriended Wythenshawe local Caroline Aherne. “In Manchester at that time there were a lot of funny people,” says Thomson. “Caroline was naturally funny.”
Aherne’s comedic creation Ms Merton, the old talk show host who distinguishes between innocence and insult, had started making appearances in the late ’80s alongside Frank Sidebottom. Aherne also performed under the name Mitzi Goldberg Experience. “She used to wear that horrible curly acrylic wig and she put on a southern sleigh. It was sort of Dolly Parton, ”recalls Thomson. “I think she had a guitar, but she couldn’t play. There were probably no strings.
Mitzi was soon usurped by the brazen nun Sister Mary Immaculate. Aherne adopted an Irish accent (studied from her parents), a complete habit and a Bible. Instead of verses, it was filled with jokes (“People tell me, ‘Where does the Bible stand on homosexuality?’ Three times in the Bible, Jesus said, ‘Get behind me Satan.’ “)
After meeting Craig Cash, with whom she created the hit sitcom The Royle Family, Aherne and Thomson got to know each other by performing at the Buzz Club in Chorlton. People were lining up around the block for the club, which was founded by John Marshall, known as Agraman the human anagram. As the host, Marshall came up with a “moan-worthy stand-up,” smashing pun after pun. “It was a great place to brush your teeth if you wanted to do something a little different,” says Thomson.
Thanks to the encouragement of local talent from Manchester-based Granada, Thomson and Aherne quickly made it to television with the regional variety show What’s New? and sketch pilot The Dead Good Show. Then, later, the Remote Control game show and sketch show The Full Monty and The Fast Show. The couple also performed at universities. There would be “horrible, queer-stinking lodges, a bog seat on the floor,” says Thomson. But they allowed Aherne to indulge in a surprising habit: “Caroline always used to carry a huge handbag. We were talking about the show, then she would say “Check this out”, and she had stolen something! She would take things like a hammer or a sign for the ladies: ‘I’ll have this to put on my bathroom door.’ “
Aherne often had “an entourage of close friends” to avoid the loneliness of occurring on her own. She didn’t always enjoy live performances. The new hardware gigs at the Band on the Wall Hall were tough – sometimes she professed her desire to become a hairdresser instead.
From time to time, she did stand-up where “she was just talking about life”. Thomson remembers an anecdote about himself. The punchline? That he, a boy from the North, was steaming vegetables for his tea. For Aherne, it was hilarious. “Sometimes she would do gags that didn’t work – she would give a big break. Because it was Caroline, it worked. The Fast Show cashier and the teenage girl in the bedroom, they grew up from that stand-up.
In 1992, Thomson and Steve Coogan won the Perrier Prize in Edinburgh. The following year, Thomson returned, this time with Aherne and Simon Day. It didn’t go well. Thomson had envisioned a variety show, with the trio’s established characters, music and skits, but Aherne “couldn’t be obsessed” and they came up with a less than polished show. Some nights she was crying and begging to cancel, Thomson said, “The show was called Do You Like Us?” A simple criticism in a nutshell: no!
Nevertheless, there were quality sketches. In Have a Dance, Thomson was a Peter Dickson-style announcer. “Caroline remained motionless in the middle of the room. I said, ‘It’s Julie. Julie is 52 years old, lives alone, has a cat called Dave and another called Smokey. She loves nothing more than stepping into a box of Dairy Milk while looking at Shirley Valentine. Julie! Don’t hesitate to dance! ‘ The music started and Aherne suddenly started dancing. Bob Mortimer described it as “the absolute class”.
There was also an early version of The Fast Show’s pretentious dance group Thrusk. The trio appeared as The Zeitgeist Theater Company, wearing moon-shaped masks, dressed in black, attempting contemporary dance moves. “It made a lot of laughs,” says Thomson.
In 1994, Dave Perkin opened the Frog and Bucket comedy club in Manchester. It started out as a comfortable 80-seater, which became Aherne’s ‘social club’, says Perkin: “She enjoyed comedy and mentored comedians like Dave Gorman and Lucy Porter. Caroline has always been a great support. The Mrs Merton Show had become a television show in Granada and Aherne’s fame was growing. At Frog, she would “network with actors, who were then part of the show”.
She still performed on stage, too. Andy Wilkinson, aka Smug Roberts (famous for Phoenix Nights), put on a comedic version of The Wizard of Oz in the mid-90s, “a midsummer pantomime,” Perkin says: “She played Dorothy and New Order were the accompanying group.
Aherne’s stage characters led to her success on television. Thomson recently hosted a BBC special chronicling Aherne’s career almost five years after her untimely death: “It wasn’t until after this documentary that I really understood how much I missed her.”
While Caroline “sometimes had an absolute hatred for live work” and found fame difficult, she loved to turn real life into laughter. “A lot of Caroline’s comedy was based on things that happened to her and people she had met along the way. This is why it has been so successful.