Martin Kelner: The day I first met Mrs Merton
THE first time I met Caroline Aherne was the day she walked into the BBC radio studios on Oxford Road in Manchester where I was doing a Saturday evening show. She had brought with her a tape called Mrs Merton’s Choice.
It was basically her being a standard Radio 2 presenter of the time, when the station had a reputation for being rather staid. The first song she played on it was by Eddie Calvert, who was known as The Man with the Golden Trumpet. At the end she said: “That’s Eddie Calvert there, he’s dead at the moment...”
I thought it was absolutely hilarious, but a bit too close to home. So instead we invited her to do the character as an elderly agony aunt answering people’s problems.
This was in the 1980s and at the time I was doing a Radio 2 show as well as presenting a late night show from the Radio Leeds studios which went out across the BBC Night Network in the north. Caroline was a regular guest on that show and we had lots of fun ad libbing together. We ended up doing it for six or seven years.
David Behrens, who was a producer at Yorkshire Television at the time and is now digital editor at The Yorkshire Post, heard the show and thought Mrs Merton could work on television.
Yorkshire Television had a small studio at the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield where we could record a pilot. Dave said: “We can get in there when the shopping centre closes.” It was almost like we were sneaking in.
I got my friend Simon Donald, the editor of Viz magazine, to be one of the guests. Her first question to him was: “What do your parents think of this filthy, dirty magazine.” It was wonderful.
To Andy and Liz Kershaw, who were both on Radio 1 at the time, her opening gambit was: “It’s funny you should both go into radio as neither of you has a very nice voice. How did that happen?”
Dave Behrens said she was an absolute natural, and she was. But when I and a friend of mine, who was a producer in London, hawked it round lots of TV stations they just didn’t get it.
They said it was too much like Dame Edna Everage, but it wasn’t at all. While Dame Edna was this glamorous creation, Mrs Merton was a lovely little old lady who said the most devastatingly terrible things to people and smiled sweetly throughout.
Caroline had a gift for making people laugh and I still have tapes of the shows we did together with me unable to stop cracking up on air. She had a wicked sense of humour and was so sharp.
I remember being at a party years ago where Steve Coogan, with whom she had a friendly rivalry, was telling people he had just had auditions with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
She shot back: “The Royal Shakespeare Company? Oh, nobody listens to them any more.”
It was so sad to hear of her death, it is such a huge loss. I hadn’t seen Caroline for many years but I worked with her long-time co-writer Craig Cash recently and asked how she was because I knew she had been poorly. He said she was doing fine, so the news came as a real shock to me.
Caroline was exactly the same away from the microphone or camera – a genuinely funny, warm person who made everyone laugh.
She wanted to be famous but didn’t really realise what you have to give up when it happens.
She couldn’t really cope with all of that – and who knows, perhaps she would have been happier if she had not become so well-known and had just carried on doing that night time radio show with me from a studio in Leeds.
But of course, that would have meant the public at large wouldn’t have been able to experience the sheer brilliance of this extraordinarily clever and funny woman who will now be missed by so many.