fondue no! I will not tolerate dissing of Caroline Aherne! But that's another node ....

The Royle family are:

There is also a small collection of minor characters (next-door neighbours etc) who come and go as required.

Now, far from the cast list being simply a bunch of "Northern character actors" who all "play themselves", they're all among the most respected and talented British actors of their respective generations. They may not have had the instant "star quality" of the soap stars whose lives are followed in intimate detail in the tabloids, but they've made a career out of being able to act, as opposed to simply having a pretty face.

But anyway, onto the TV show itself. The most amazing thing about the programme is that it ever got made in the first place. To clarify for those who might not be familiar with it, The Royle Family is simply the extremely everyday story of a perfectly ordinary working class family who do nothing more exciting than squabble over which TV programme to watch next.

Over 90% of the "action" takes place in the Royle's sitting room which they chat to each other about what they've done that day. Using only two or three static camera positions, no studio audience or canned laughter and a script that could genuinely have come from any of millions of households anywhere in the UK, most TV producers would have run screaming from the idea saying it would never work. Fortunately the BBC isn't (yet) completely dominated by the quest for ratings and took a chance on the programme, which became an instant cult hit.

By the end of the first series the audience had doubled, despite it being on the "minority" BBC2 channel. The critics wrote pages and pages of analysis but more importantly, people who watched it talked about the programme to their friends. Word-of-mouth viral marketing ... for a TV show ... almost unheard of! Even those shows which did gain large cult followings in a similar manner had tended to be deliberately made to be a bit "odd" (Twin Peaks, X-Files etc).

Future seasons of the show (now just beginning a run of its third series) were shown on the more mainstream BBC1 channel. Fortunately the basic idea hasn't changed, it's still really a tap into a stream of consciousness from a perfectly ordinary British family. Even Roseanne -- which is probably the closest US television has come to showing supposedly normal people doing normal things in a "big name" TV show -- tended to veer towards sentimentality and moralism at times. The Royle Family hasn't done that, and I'm still not 100% sure exactly why it's so watchable. I suspect it wouldn't travel well outside of Britain as many of the themes are so tied in to contemporary British life that much of the beauty of the programme would be lost on a foreign audience. I'd love to be proved wrong though.

One day Caroline Aherne was wandering through the North of England looking for some kind of location for a TV show she was doing. She felt dizzy all of the sudden, then collapsed. 

When she came to, she was in the living room of a lower-middle class family, having been literally rescued from unconsciousness off the street and placed in their midst. Once they ascertained she was alright, she was ignored completely as they kept on with their lives, which consisted of chain smoking, watching television, and heckling and commenting on the personalities thereon.

She spent a few hours there, apparently, simply taking it all in. Who they were, what they said, the sheer surreality of their entire existence. As she wasn't interrupting them in any way and wasn't in any danger, they carried on talking, laughing, being themselves. And she made mental notes the whole time.

Eventually excusing herself, she called Craig Cash, a co-worker famous for playing stupid Northern characters (a sort of UK version of "Blue Collar Comedy") and told him whatever plans he had or she had or whoever had for a show, they could be put on hold because she had a fantastic new idea.

Hiring Ricky Tomlinson as Jim Royle, and Sue Tomlinson as his wife Barbara - who had on-screen chemistry from having played husband and wife previously - she took the role as their daughter, rouding out the cast with Cash as her boyfriend, a relative newcomer as the youngest son, and giving bit parts to other comic actors of renown.

The premise of the show is exactly the family she witnessed. A down on their luck Northern family, with a laid-off paterfamilias and part-time employed wife with little to do except watch the television, gathering around it chain smoking and making observations about the television and their lives. Using a technique not seen in many, many years - using for the most part ONE camera that never moves or tracks (taking a shot of the living room from the perspective of the television) it watches them get on with their lives.

Sure, there are plot points: as the seasons progress the young couple marries, and they have a baby, and the elderly grandmother dies. These events counterbalance the comedy with some drama and show the real acting range of all the characters involved. It's heartbreaking when Jim, who's spent seasons making snide remarks about his mother in law- breaks down and bursts into tears and says he'd give anything to fight with her again, even if it was one more time. And there's a heartwarming moment of triumph when they decide the best place for her ashes is an urn above the television. 

But what makes the show is how perfectly the actors have captured the characters, and found comedy in the foibles of their personalities. There's a certain type of humor that is particularly Northern, a certain way of seeing the world that once seen, is memorable when seen again.


(On hearing how much their daughter's wedding wedding cake will cost)

Jim: HOW much??????

Barbara: (Trying to change the subject and keep things romantic) How many tiers?

Jim: There'll be plenty of bloody tears if it's that much.

In fact, Tomlinson was so damn good at portraying Jim Royle that he actually had to stop a TV interviewer later on halfway through an interview to remind her that his name is actually Ricky, not Jim - as she'd been referring to him as "Jim" the whole time.

Like many British shows, they pursued it for a two-to-three year story arc plus a special or two and then left the property as it was, and the audience wanting more. It was a daring, novel, and fascinating concept that truly worked - a great team effort that led to some fantastic ensemble work.

Ensmble work... My arse.

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