This week the UK is mourning the death of Caroline Aherne, the comic genius behind memorable shows and characters such as The Royle Family, The Mrs Merton Show and ‘Checkout Girl,’ who appeared on iconic sketch comedy series The Fast Show.
Many of Aherne’s colleagues and collaborators, expressing their grief at her untimely death, have held her up as a comedy pioneer, which she undoubtedly was. However, she was also part of a great Northern tradition that includes the likes of George Formby, Stan Laurel, Les Dawson, Eric Morecambe, Alan Bennett, Shelagh Delaney, Morrissey, Julie Walters and Victoria Wood, another gifted female comedian who died this year.
Aherne’s humour was built around immaculate comic timing and close observation of the human condition. While rooted in her experience of growing up in the North, her insights were universal and, for the most part, benign. It would have been easy for her work to mock the working-class people it portrayed – but instead it celebrated them for their stoicism, loyalty and optimism. Her characters were people you could turn to with a problem.
This resonates with an interesting study conducted in 2009 by comedy expert Rosemarie Jarski, who set out to explore why the North of England has been such a rich source of relatable comedy. Her conclusion was that the North has developed a unique brand of wit that relies on self-deprecation, the desire to prick pomposity and the ability to find humour in the sadness of everyday life. “Northern humour is above all the humour of recognition,” she said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. “Northern comedians don’t try to be cleverer than us. There are no airs and graces, no upmanship. They are one of us.” It’s notable that, in her interview, Jarski cited both Aherne and Wood for their ability to spin “comic gold out of pain and misery.”
In the wake of Aherne’s death, there has also been a rekindling of the debate about whether the UK television industry does enough to encourage distinctive working-class voices like hers.
At one level, this has never been a better time for working-class voices – if by that we mean on-screen representation. In comedy, we have the colossus that is Peter Kay – whose observations carry the same wit and wisdom as those of Aherne. And Aherne’s collaborator on The Royle Family, Craig Cash, is currently out in the market with his new Sky1 football-themed sitcom Rovers.
But the genre of comedy only scratches the surface in terms of the working-class characters we’re seeing on the small screen. In drama, Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley and Paul Abbott’s Shameless are both brilliant interpretations of working-class life, combining the comedy and struggle Jarski refers to above.
Similarly, a big change since Aherne first came onto the scene is the rise of reality TV. While this form of programme-making often polarises opinion, there’s no question that series like Benefits Street, Educating Essex, The Dealership and 24 Hours In A&E all tackle truths about what it’s like to be working class in 21st century Britain (both north and south of Watford). And then, of course, there is Gogglebox, narrated by Aherne. While not exclusively focused on working-class families, it is a natural successor to Aherne’s work (with Craig Cash) on The Royle Family.
Another element that must be factored into this debate is the rise of celebrity- and talent-show culture. Even a woman of Aherne’s undisputed abilities would have struggled to find a way to comment meaningfully on the circus that surrounds Big Brother, Geordie Shore, Got Talent, Take Me Out, I’m a Celebrity and the like. How do you create character comedy when TV and social media are filled with people you couldn’t begin to make up? This, after all, is the era of Ronnie Pickering, the road-raging cult hero.
On top of all this – and most importantly – is the centrality of soaps on British TV. Just this week, for example, ITV announced that the UK’s most successful and popular soap drama, Coronation Street, will add a sixth weekly episode from late 2017. Commenting on that decision, ITV director of television Kevin Lygo said: “I am a life-long fan of Coronation Street and one of the first things I wanted to explore when I became director of television was taking the production to six episodes a week. The soaps are the cornerstone of the ITV schedule, and Coronation Street continues to produce some of the finest drama and comedy on television. It is a hugely important part of what has defined ITV throughout its history and I want it to continue to be right at the heart of what ITV defines in years to come. As a viewer, I have watched the soap as it has continued to evolve, entertain and grip the nation with fantastic storylines and this move will be the next exciting chapter in Corrie’s story.”
Rooted in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ city of Manchester, Coronation Street has brilliantly encapsulated the changing face of working-class culture in Britain since the 1950s. It is unquestionably cut from the same cloth as Aherne’s comedy. And it is complemented by the BBC’s London-based EastEnders and ITV’s Emmerdale, which has charted the UK’s rural experience.
So, in fairness, the issue in the UK is not about the depiction of the working class on TV, which is there – warts and all – for everyone to see. There is, however, more of an argument about whether working-class people get an opportunity to tell their stories from the privileged position behind the camera.
Tim Hincks, former president of Endemol Shine Group, raised this issue in July 2015 when he called the UK industry “hideously middle class” during a lecture delivered to Bafta members.
Here, the question is whether the business makes enough of an effort to create entry points for working-class people. Breaking into the business is much easier if you know someone who already works in it. Or if you have enough family financial support to spend a couple of years establishing yourself in the business (training courses, low-paid work placements in big cities and so on – the kind of things that working-class people generally don’t know exist, and if they do, they can’t afford to take advantage of).
This isn’t an easy issue to address, especially when it sits alongside the debate about BAME, LGBT and disabled access to the industry – and not forgetting the issue of gender equality. However, it’s important for a couple of reasons. The first is that the industry is in a risky position when it relies on middle-class people to tell working-class stories. The danger is that, without the benefit of working-class insight, it strays into the mocking and judgemental territory that Aherne’s work astutely avoided. The second is that there is a possibility it will miss the next Caroline Aherne, an oversight that would leave the world a much drearier place.