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.