CAROLINE Aherne, the comedienne and writer who died from lung cancer on Saturday, aged 52, had become a “virtual recluse” in her later years, her former co-star John Thomson said today.
Thomson, who appeared with Aherne in The Fast Show on BBC Two, said his friend had “raw talent” and “no agenda”.
Aherne made her name on the show by repeating the word “scorchio” in the character of a Mediterranean weather presenter, and went on to create the sitcom The Royle Family and the ageing agony aunt, Mrs Merton.
Thomson said: “We’ve lost a great comedienne, actress and writer and sadly I’ve lost a very dear, very old friend.
“When I say lost, sadly a lot of us lost Caroline years ago. Thanks to the cumulative effect of the regular intrusion into her private life and particularly her personal relationships, Caroline opted out and became a virtual recluse, only to bless our screens at Christmas in the latest rendition of the Royle Family.”
Aherne, who had been a smoker, struggled with health problems for years.
Born to Irish immigrant parents in London before being raised in Manchester, she was diagnosed with a rare cancer of the retina as a child.
She was sent to Lourdes in search of a miracle cure but was left with severely impaired sight in one eye.
She later fought depression and drink problems, giving a rambling and slurred acceptance speech at the British Comedy Awards in 1996 after being named best female performer.
She spent time in the Priory clinic following a suicide attempt, before moving to Australia to avoid the glare of publicity.
There was also a string of failed relationships, with her marriage to guitarist Peter Hook giving way to a romance with a TV researcher, Matt Bowers. They parted, but she was devastated when he died of cancer at 28.
She became a household name as the straight-talking, blue-rinsed star of The Mrs Merton Show, which first aired in 1995. The character had begun life as next-door neighbour to another northern comedy character, Frank Sidebottom, and appeared on several of his LP records.
Mrs Merton became known in her own right after a series of radio appearances led to a television pilot shot by Yorkshire TV in 1991, in a small studio at the newly-built Meadowhall shopping mall in Sheffield. The company later declined a series, but it became a huge hit on BBC Two and won a Bafta in 1997.
David Behrens, digital editor of The Yorkshire Post, who produced the pilot, said: “She was a natural in front of the cameras and assumed the mantle of an old lady as effortlessly as putting on a hat.
“But before the character caught on, it polarised opinion. At least one TV executive thought the idea of a young woman playing an old lady was fundamentally unfunny.”