Caroline Aherne: A comedy star who had an exceptionally high IQ but tragically struggled in her personal life

Richard Bevan
Richard Bevan
5 Min Read

Within British comedy, Caroline Aherne carved a prominent and lasting niche, her wit, remarkable intelligence, and unarguable skill leaving an unforgettable imprint on the genre. Born on 24 December 1963 in Ealing, London, Aherne’s unique journey took her from the stages of Manchester to the televisions of millions across the UK. Yet, behind her glowing successes was a deeply personal struggle, adding layers of depth to her story.

Aherne’s comedy creations remain legendary, from the ever-sharp Mrs Merton to the relatable Denise in ‘The Royle Family’. Her knack for scripting characters that were loved by the audience, combined with her 176 IQ, positioned her as a genius on the comedy scene. Through characters with big personalities, Aherne demonstrated a remarkable balance of intelligence and comedic timing.

Caroline Aherne as Sister Mary Immaculate in the early 90s

Her comedy career began humbly on the Manchester stand-up circuit, with early characters Mitzi Goldberg, an acrylic wig-wearing guitar player, and Sister Mary Immaculate, a cheeky Irish nun. Soon, Mrs Merton would grace our screens, presenting a mock chat show that entertained and often bemused real-life celebrities with its audacious questions. A BAFTA award for this show solidified Aherne’s place in the comedy elite.

However, perhaps her most celebrated achievement was ‘The Royle Family’, a sitcom she co-wrote and starred in, encapsulating the dynamics of a working-class family. The realism of the characters, coupled with a keen observation of family life, earned Aherne another BAFTA, further acknowledging her exceptional prowess in the comedy domain.

Throughout her illustrious career, Aherne faced numerous personal challenges. The retinoblastoma in her childhood, which led to partial sight in one eye, was but one of them. Personal relationships, too, presented struggles. A turbulent marriage with Peter Hook, the frontman for Joy Division and New Order, left its scars, with Hook later revealing the complexities of their relationship.

Joy Divison and New Order’s Peter hook was married to Caroline between 1994 and 1997

In a heartbreaking chapter before the launch of “The Royle Family”, Caroline faced dark moments that would test anyone’s spirit. Tragically, in July 1998, she attempted suicide, grappling with the devastating loss of her former flame, BBC’s Matt Bowers, to the cruel clutches of stomach cancer the previous year. As if that wasn’t enough, her romantic entanglement with Hollywood’s Alexis Denisof also ended. In her despair, Caroline sought solace at the renowned Priory Clinic. There, she was diagnosed with binge alcoholism, another battle she bravely took on.

Depression, alcoholism, and the tragic loss of a boyfriend added weight to her shoulders, and Aherne faced these challenges with resilience and, at times, with humour that belied her pain. Despite her battles, she continually brought laughter and joy to her audiences.

The diagnosis of bladder cancer and the rare cancer of the retina further tried her spirit, but Aherne remained a beacon of strength even in the face of adversity. Her brave public appearances and advocacy for cancer care showcased her determination and ability to find light amidst the shadows.

The Royale Family was one of Caroline’s finest works and remains incredibly popualr 25 years on from when it first aired

Sadly, the world lost this exceptional comedy talent on 2 July 2016, when Aherne succumbed to lung cancer aged 52. Many mourned her passing, and her legacy as a comedy genius endures. With her unparalleled intelligence and comedic flair, Caroline Aherne will forever be remembered as an example of how one can bring laughter in the face of life’s challenges.

As I grew up in the 90s, Caroline Aherne was a regular fixture on our television screens. Her charm and sparkling wit made her impossible to ignore. She was the face that blended beauty with an incredible sense of humour. For me, “The Royle Family” was pure comedic genius; its characters were finely nuanced, and the intricate portrayal of family dynamics resonated with many British households, making it all the more hilarious. I recall learning that Aherne’s last wish was to keep her terminal diagnosis under wraps, wanting to sidestep any ‘fuss’. Such humility in the face of adversity truly showcased her character. I look forward to Gold’s up-and-coming “The Royle Family” 25th-anniversary documentary and will share my views on UK Observer so keep your eyes peeled!

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