This morning as the two people who sit opposite me at work took off their jackets and logged onto their computers they talked about the death of Caroline Aherne. They talked about Mrs Merton and ‘Scorchio’ and the episode of The Royle Family when Nana dies and how sad they were when they heard the news on Saturday evening. I don’t tell them that I was involved in the last show Caroline ever appeared in. They wouldn’t believe me. I’m a data entry guy. A minimum wage temp who doesn’t iron his shirt because what’s the point? So I’ve decided to write this instead. A happy memory from the summer of 2014 when I spent a day with Caroline Aherne.
It was a show called After Hours. My friend Molly and I went to a pub one night and after a few rums we decided to see what happened if we tried to write a sitcom. Both of us are writers, both of us like sitcoms, both of us were in the mood for a new project. We talked about what the sitcom might be like. We agreed it had to be warm and funny and it had to have a cool soundtrack. A sitcom for 6Music listeners, we decided. We didn’t talk about anything else for the next few weeks, which turned into a few years, and it ended up changing our lives. We wrote an episode and started to think about sending it to production companies. I knew from my friend the excellent radio presenter Geoff Lloyd that Craig Cash had his own production company, Jellylegs, and was on the lookout for scripts. I emailed our episode one to Geoff, who was happy to pass it on. Craig emailed us back two days later. ‘Geoff sent me your script. I love it. I promise you I won’t rest until it’s on TV.’ He invited us to meet him in London. We drank wine and talked about sitcoms, writing, life and music. Craig helped shape our script into something special and when Lucy at Sky 1 shared Craig’s enthusiasm it felt like things were happening. There was still a long way to go but it looked like the ideas we talked about that night drinking rum in the pub were going to become a reality.
One night we got an email from Craig. ‘I gave my friend Caroline your script today. I hope you don’t mind. I trust her opinion implicitly and she doesn’t pull any punches. She just phoned to say how much she loved it. We can’t both be wrong.’ He said it felt they’d just discovered a new band and they were the only people to know about them. Molly and I didn’t stop glowing for a year. After commissioning scripts for two more episodes, Sky liked them enough to commission three more, and if they liked those they said they’d greenlight a series. Knowing that Caroline would be reading these new scripts gave us such an extra buzz and incentive. It was the best feeling. When redrafting one episode Craig noticed we’d taken out a line he liked. He emailed us. ‘You need to put that back in. That’s Caroline’s favourite line.’ A script has never been re-edited so quickly.
I like to think Craig saw something of him and Caroline reflected in Molly and me. A boy and a girl who got on well, liked a drink and were determined to achieve things with our lives. I was always delighted to think that maybe I would be Craig to Molly’s Caroline Aherne. Or maybe he just saw us as Molly and John. Maybe that would be just as big a compliment. I don’t think our show would have been made if it wasn’t for Craig. I think he saw things in our writing that other people would have missed. We didn’t go for belly laughs or anything silly. We wanted characters with soul and sadness, with futures and histories. We wanted to make our audience smile and feel something inside. Whatever we had, Caroline saw it too. It probably helped that as soon as we knew Craig was involved we watched The Royle Family and Early Doors back to back. We were being given a masterclass in how to write a sitcom. The main piece of advice was to keep on doing what we were doing. So that’s what we did. Hours and hours of sitting at the kitchen table trying to pinpoint the funniest possible way of phrasing a sentence. All the megabytes of old messages in our Gmails accounts, emailing each other with possible storylines, ‘what about if …’ Soon we had six full episodes and after a lot of anxious waiting it was eventually decided that yeah, let ’em have a go. The series was going to be made.
In-between the series being commissioned and the first day of filming both my mum and Caroline Aherne were diagnosed with cancer. My mum didn’t make it. When he heard the news Craig sent roses to our house. My mum knew I was in safe hands though. I had Molly and Craig and Caroline looking out for me. Good things were going to happen. Caroline had a longer battle. When she spoke publicly about how valuable her McMillan nurse had been every relative of someone who has suffered with the illness nodded along in agreement, with no idea how they would have coped if it wasn’t for these special, robust guardian angels giving advice and somehow turning such a bleak experience into a positive one. We were about to start auditioning for the sitcom we had written. The worst thing that had ever happened to me was happening at the same time as the best. One of the things my mum’s nurse said to me was how important it was to write things down rather than bottle them up. It feels good sometimes. Words appear on your piece of paper and you think thank God they’re not inside me anymore.
Caroline asked to appear on our show. She had been very ill but was on the mend. In a very odd twist of fate, possibly arranged by a McMillan nurse, there was one role we hadn’t cast yet. Sheila. It was a very unrewarding role for an actor – there were no lines, she just had to look proudly at her husband Geoff, played by John Thomson. (I promise the other female roles are much more fully formed than this). The day before filming those scenes Molly and I were sitting with Craig when John Thomson came over.
‘Any idea who will be playing my wife?’ he asked. Craig nodded.
John Thomson is one of the funniest people I have ever met. A relentless storyteller who treated everyone on set like his best friend whether he’d known them for twenty years or they were the work experience catering assistant. I loved being in his company but this is the one time I ever saw him unable to say anything.
John’s stunned expression turned into a beautiful smile. He was going to be able to be with his old friend again. Word got around set quickly. Lynne, the costume designer came over to me and Molly. ‘Is it true about Caroline?’ She told us about working with those guys on The Royle Family. She had worked with Craig ever since. So many people on our set were part of the Craig and Caroline family. Practically every crew member was a funny, self-deprecating, talented, adorable human being, cherry-picked for this project. Dickheads didn’t stand a chance. For a lot of people like me and Molly, as well as the cast of young actors – James, Laura, Georgina and Fergus – this world was very new to us but because of the culture Craig had nurtured over the past 25 years we felt as comfortable as people who had been there since the ‘oh Anthony’ days. The next morning things were different as Molly and I drove onto set. We were slightly more nervous than usual. And then we saw her. Caroline, sitting in a community centre in Marple where we were filming that day’s scenes. Craig waved us over. ‘Come and meet Caroline.’ Those words were as overpowering as the day he phoned Molly and me to say ‘Sky have commissioned a series. After Hours is going to be on TV. It’s happening.’
The final scene of the day was an ensemble piece. At the end of episode six there’s a gig in the community centre and afterwards the characters have to clean the place up. In the script it says something like ‘Geoff and Sheila walk around with bin bags.’ When we wrote that scene we can’t have expected its significance. As far as I know it was the last scene Caroline filmed for television. Her and John Thomson, who had been good friends since the nineties, long before fame and success had appeared, side by side once again. John said to her ‘So this is where our careers have ended up’ and Caroline laughed and gave him a cuddle and they walked around arm in arm with bin bags as the scene unfolded around them.
It ended up being a deleted scene. Maybe that’s appropriate. The episode was too long and like many scenes we loved and had poured our hearts into, in the end there just wasn’t enough time and now they only exist on the hard drives of our laptops. I hope one day I’ll be able to make more things for TV but even if I am lucky enough for one of my ideas to be taken further, After Hours will be a hard thing to live up to. Not because it’s been particularly successful, our mantelpieces are untroubled by awards, we have not had to get a special scrap book to keep all the clippings. But those who have seen it really like it. It was special and I have to keep trying to produce something else just as good again because that’s what my mum and Caroline would be telling me to do, and I don’t know what else I’d do with my evenings if I wasn’t writing stories and scribbling things in notebooks. But it’s hard. TV is a hard world and it’s hard to get people to read the things you write. But maybe one day I’ll overhear two people talking about Caroline Aherne and I’ll be able to say I met her once. I worked with her for a day. She was sensitive and kind and her smile made everyone’s cheeks glow.
Life is short and opportunities are rare. Make the most of them and look after the people around you. That’s a horrible cliched way to end an article but sometimes that’s okay. I used up all my good writing. I poured it all into After Hours. Too often it feels like we don’t really have anything left.
After Hours was written and created by Molly Naylor and John Osborne. It was on Sky One in November 2015 and directed by Craig Cash.
Caroline’s final scene: (clip courtesy of Sky 1 / Jellylegs)
More After Hours photos can be found here.