In an emotional interview Ricky told us that Caroline “never once complained”.
The much-loved star revealed two years ago that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer, having previously had bladder and eye cancer. But Ricky, 76, said: “She never talked about her health, ever. I can never ever remember her complaining. She must have gone through a lot but I never saw her looking unwell. She never flagged in work and the atmosphere when she was writing and acting was brilliant.”
Telly fans across Britain joined the showbiz world in shedding a collective tear as news of Caroline’s death was announced. Her publicist Neil Reading said in a statement yesterday: “Caroline Aherne has sadly passed away, after a brave battle with cancer. The BAFTA award-winning writer and comedy actor died earlier today at her home in Timperley, Greater Manchester. She was 52.”
Caroline became a national treasure in the 1990s when she played the mischievous, twinkly-eyed, blue-rinse chat show host Mrs Merton. She also starred in The Fast Show – and more recently narrated Channel 4’s hit series Gogglebox.
Fiercely-private Caroline had to miss a number of episodes as she fought illness. However Ricky, who is friends with Caroline’s older brother Patrick – who also fought cancer – believed her health had been improving.
He said: “Her death is the biggest shock in the world. It’s knocked me for six. Patrick said she was in good spirits last time we spoke. We were planning to meet in a pub in Manchester where I was doing a little talk two weeks ago, but he didn’t show up. Someone said: ‘Everything’s fine. He’s gone back to Spain.’ And I thought that’s good… she must be on the mend because he wouldn’t have gone away if she was ill.”
Ricky also spoke to Caroline’s fellow Royle Family creator Craig Cash just weeks ago.
He said: “Craig told me ‘She’s not bad, Ricky.’ And I was so pleased. I’m a bit of a bloody weepy and I wouldn’t get in touch with her, see. I’d start crying. So I’ve not seen her properly, other than the odd event, since we worked together. But I spoke to Craig and we were going to get together.”
Ricky wells up as he recalls their days on set in Manchester with him playing telly-watching Jim Royle and she his sofa-hogging daughter Denise.
The Royle Family ran from 1998 to 2000, with specials airing from 2006 to 2012.
Recalling the time they met, Ricky said: “I was with Rita, my wife, and I’d been nominated for something at the Royal Television Society. There was a buffet and I went over and Caroline was in front of me. She turned round and said, ‘oh! You’re my dad aren’t you?’ And I went back to my table and said to Rita: ‘That girl. She’s had too much to bloody drink, Rit. She thinks I’m her dad!’ Next day we got a call – ‘can you go up to Granada to do a read-through?’ So I went and that was it.”
Caroline cast Ricky’s fellow ex-Brookside star Sue Johnston as her mum, Barbara. Ralf Little was her brother, Antony, and Craig Cash was her fella David. Ricky’s fondest memory is the 1999 Christmas Special in which Denise goes into labour and Jim is left to comfort her. Ricky said: “I think it was so special to her because she didn’t have children. And it was so special to me because my own girl, my Kate, was born on Christmas Day. And that’s why the tears were real. The cameraman was the son of Corrie character Stan Ogden and at the end he was crying and said: ‘That’s it. We don’t need another take.’ It just stands out in my mind.”
Caroline, who had been a smoker, fought depression and drink problems over the years. She spent time in the Priory clinic after a suicide attempt. But Ricky’s memories are of a generous, warm-hearted and supremely talented and funny woman. He said: “When you went to work you’d have a beautiful dressing room, with flowers, a card and message from her and a bowl of sweets. She really cared. She used to send out to Sainsbury’s and get me half a dozen cans of mild beer. And if they worked late, there might be 30 on the set and she would send out for 30 takeaways. Whatever you wanted. Every week when you finished filming there would always be a little present. A little bag of goodies and a Lottery ticket for everyone. It was those little things I loved her for.
“She was one of a kind.”