Anniversary My Arse: 20 Years of The Royle Family

By Alan Parry
Thu 18 October, 2018

Using personal recollections, Alan Parry celebrates two decades of the landmark BBC sitcom. 

Break out the pomagne! Its twenty years since The Royle Family hit our screens.

For reasons I am still not convinced by, it was a show that divided opinion and somehow only managed to reach number 31 in a top 100 sitcoms poll. I know right? Shocking!

I was personally hooked from episode one by everything about it. It sang to me in a way that television, certainly sitcoms had never before managed. The debut episode was 28 minutes or so of comedy gold which centred around an argument over an excessive telephone bill, it genuinely felt like somebody had been recording my Mum and Dad. Not that either of them knew anybody in Aberdeen.

Thinking retrospectively, due to it’s slow burn nature and the almost indiscernible incline in terms of drama, I do wonder how this examination of northern, working-class life became one of the most loved sitcoms of the last generation. Indeed, it could be said that the original series closely resembled Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. So much screen time was given to the banal, to nothingness, that hosts of critics asked regularly why we were watching, and was anything ever going to happen?

The lengthy, beautifully crafted pauses in dialogue, when the only audible sounds were the rustle of crisp packets and the distant drone of the television playing continuously, is now known to have made the show a hard sell to producers. But thank goodness Craig Cash, Henry Normal and the late Caroline Aherne stuck to their guns.

It’s possible that the writing team had been inspired by such texts as Godot, but I think it’s most likely the similarities were unintended. However, it should be noted this served as a precursor to reality television and was aired before The Office, both of which work to blur the line between the real and the fantastic. However, the version of realism offered here is so much more authentic. At no point did anybody question if they were watching a real family, there is no pretence to this. But, this was in no way a spoof. Instead it was ground-breaking and genre-defining.

As aforementioned, this was something northern and working-class, unashamedly so. Consequently, I can recall my Dad telling my Mum, who hated the show incidentally, that he grew up in that house and that his friends had grown up there too.

For many, this was their world and its captured expertly through character, dialogue, costume, set and story (however minimal the latter may seem). Perhaps it was this lack of action which divided opinion, or the fact that it was pioneering in terms of the sitcom. Whatever the reason, here was a show where traditional rules simply didn’t apply. Those prolonged silences and the lack of a laughter track possibly contributed to making it appear inaccessible for some. When were you supposed to laugh?

?Forgotten TV: Roger and Val Have Just Got In ?

However, for those of it who got it, who understood, who grew up in that house, the warmth and familiarity, and side-splitting humour resonated.

As we mark the 20th anniversary of the first episode airing, it’s important to note how the landscape has changed considerably in terms of the sitcom, and how this was in no small part a reaction to this fabulous show.

There have been myriad efforts to recreate everything that was great about it in the years since, and although there have been some successes there have been some major misses too. I look back on Early Doors, and Roger and Val Have Just Got In and think neither would have been possible without the Royles, and these represent the hits. While the less said about Rovers, and The Cafe the better.

Regrettably, some of the latter specials never hit the heights in the way that those early series did, partly down to new writers, and deviations from what made it so special to begin with. The exception to the rule here is of course The Queen of Sheba, which is without doubt a momentous piece of storytelling, which pulls at all your emotions in equal measure.

I know that I have already touched on The Office, but I think it is worth considering how The Royle Family bridged the gap between something like Only Fools and Horses, and Gervais’ and Merchant’s fly-on-the-wall mockumentary. And there is possibly even a case to be made for the Royle Family to be recognised as a bridge between things like The Day Today and The Office, given how it explored ‘real’ everyday lives, rather than merely satirising the real world.

Using the sitcom as the vehicle, the real world as the writers knew it, was paid homage to, right down to the finest detail. Aherne herself had experienced great success as Mrs Merton, but saw the potential of this new form. It’s true that all the other shows mentioned here can be read as representations of real life, each presented in a very different way. And just maybe, without Only Fools Cash, Normal and Aherne don’t dare to write The Royle Family. And subsequently without their masterpiece who dares to explore the mockumentary-style pieces that followed?

But for all that can be written about style, and influence, The Royle Family is nothing if not an incredibly funny script performed by a number of excellent actors working at the peak of their powers.

I have tried to write comedy myself, it’s not easy. During this time I read the scripts for The Smoking Room, The Office, Porridge, and The Royle Family, and only the one I am celebrating here today made me laugh out loud (about four times per page). Each of the others lost something without the performance element.

And so, to those critics who say the laughs don’t occur regularly enough, you’re just wrong. To those of you who dismiss it as being dated or of its time, maybe you should get in the bin,you lanky streaks of piss.