Cast of Royle Family (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)

From slobs to royalty

How the Royle Family mirrored working class life

Artillery Row On Television

In the 1980s, the future comedy star Paul Whitehouse was working for Hackney council when he first discovered that nobody wanted to live on the run-down housing estates in the area.

After one of them had been taken over by squatters, the council decided to offer the flats to anyone on the waiting list who was willing to jump the queue. One of the people who took up the offer was Whitehouse’s friend Harry Enfield.

Filmmakers were beginning to capture the impact of rising inequality

It was, as Enfield later told the Daily Telegraph a “run down 1930s estate, full of rubbish and covered in graffiti”, an eclectic mix of “nutters, ancient skinheads with Rottweilers and old tattoo-covered women wandering the estate in search of a fight”.

Beneath his flat lived a family that would linger long in his memory. There was “a big fat mum of about 30, a tough looking dad of the same age, and five filthy but beautiful children”. In the late 1980s, this was the kind of “problem” family that was fast becoming a moral panic for Britain’s political class.

When Mrs Thatcher won her third term in 1987, she stood on the steps inside Number 10 and warned that the country’s next challenge was to deal with the deprivation in the “inner cities”. Over in America, there had already been much talk about a new “underclass” who had emerged from decades of deindustrialisation.

In 1989, the Sunday Times tasked the political scientist Charles Murray, who had coined the phrase in the US, to evaluate the problems facing the UK. In a special feature for the magazine, Murray highlighted a growing army of the poor that lived “in a different world” from the rest of Britain, “spurning jobs, money and conventional family life”. On the cover ran a photograph of a mother “bringing up five children alone on £87.38 a week”. She lived “in a Britain you wouldn’t recognise”.

Filmmakers were beginning to capture the impact of rising inequality on screen. Jimmy McGovern’s Needle was set in a dystopian future where heroin use in the cities had grown to crisis levels. To wider critical acclaim, Mike Leigh’s Naked starred David Thewlis as a violent drop-out who navigated his way through the ruins of the London streets late at night.

For all the hard-hitting dramas, it was Harry Enfield who best encapsulated the new “underclass”. When coming up with new characters for his much anticipated Television Programme, he thought back to the estate in Hackney and produced one of his most iconic comedy creations.

Wayne and Waynetta Slob lived in the filth and squalor of the “sink estate” and represented Britain’s worst fears about the new underclass. Uneducated and feckless, the humour often rested upon framing the pair against middle class neighbours, social workers or vicars.

At a time of increasing demonisation of single mothers, the show mirrored tabloid stories of welfare cheats and family breakdowns. In one sketch, the pair talk about how everyone on the estate looks down upon them because they are still a couple. Burke’s character also bemoans how she doesn’t have at least one “brown baby just like all the other mums on the estate”.

The “Slobs” became immensely popular, and there was even talk of a Hollywood movie centred around them. Enfield always said that he was “proud” of his creation, because beneath the deprivation was a warmth and love for each other. “It worked because they were nice people,” he told a recent Channel 4 documentary. Others, however, accused him and Burke of “punching down” and taking aim at the poorest in society.

The premise for The Royle Family was a simple but radical one

The 1990s were a hostile time for the new “underclass”. As Britain hurtled towards the millennium, the traditional divide between workers and bosses, of middle and working class people, was being replaced by the divide between the unemployed and the rest.

A much forgotten attempt to revive John Major’s premiership in 1996 was centred around promoting the “hard-working” class. “What typifies this group,” said an advisor, “is they dislike the bone idle, the scroungers, the wasters and those who do not save or provide for themselves and their families.”

Tony Blair, conscious that Labour had always been seen as soft on welfare reform, urged his party to stop romanticising high spending: “A large social security budget is not a sign of socialist success but a necessary consequence of economic failure.” He was eager to draw a distinction between the two groups: “Over the last 18 years we have become two nations — one nation trapped in benefits, the other paying for them.”

In office, the first real fight with his backbenchers was over cuts to benefits to single parents. Harriet Harman was heavily criticised for introducing the reforms, but Blair backed her on the pages of the Daily Mail: “Modernise or decline. That is the choice.” When Brown introduced a new welfare to work scheme in his first budget in 1998, the press praised it as an attempt to “go to war on workshy”.

Just as the debate was boiling over, Caroline Aherne was putting the finishing touches on her new sitcom. The Royle Family was rooted in a very different experience of welfare and unemployment.

Like Enfield and Whitehouse, she had risen through the comedy ranks through the sketch show, becoming the star of The Fast Show in the mid-1990s. Aherne wanted to highlight the funniness of “normal lives”. “Things happen in sitcoms,” her co-writer Craig Cash argued. “Real life is just people sitting around and sometimes saying funny things.”

The premise for The Royle Family — which was broadcast 25 years ago this week — was a simple but radical one. Aherne battled hard with BBC executives to ditch the traditional laughter track and agree to it being shot on film. Later, the TV critic A.A Gill would speculate on how the original proposal found its way past the sceptical comedy executives at the BBC: “We propose to make a programme about the audience watching television where nothing happens, there will be no gags and no plot. It will be funny.”

On first glance, The Royle Family were the sort of people that politicians had spent decades warning society about. The central character, Jim, played by Ricky Tomlinson, had not worked since the Thatcher Years when he had been laid off. Denise, played by Caroline Aherne, was too lazy to find a job. Youngest son Anthony, in his own father’s words, has “absolutely no qualifications, no prospects”.

Initially the critics were confused about why viewers would want to relate to this family. In a highly critical review of the first episode, the Daily Mail’s Peter Paterson wondered whether it was “a right-wing commentary on the vacuous pointlessness of working-class life as a result of welfare dependency”. He wrote that it was “a blur of meaningless dialogue containing an existential message for humanity”.

Paterson proved to be in the minority. Victoria Wood, who was set to launch her own sitcom Dinnerladies a few weeks later, watched the first show and immediately knew that the sitcom rules had changed. She sensed that her show, with its convoluted plots and laughter track, looked like something from the 1950s.

For capturing the simplicity of working class life, people saw The Royle Family as something very different to the conventional sitcom. At the Sunday Times, A.A Gill received letters from readers who were convinced that it was something more important: “It is in fact more like Beckett,” readers told him.

JK Rowling put it down to the realism of the characters

Authenticity lay behind its success. JK Rowling put it down to the realism of the characters, admitting she had been or met all of them at some point in her life. The comedian Johnny Vegas put it best when he argued on the 2006 documentary We Love the Royle Family, that it “brought this mirror on to your life, yet you weren’t ashamed of it”. Had it been handled differently, people could have gone, “Are we really like that?” — as people did with Enfield’s “The Slobs”. Instead, viewers sat at home and went, “That’s fantastic — it is us.”

The popularity of the show took the BBC by surprise. It not only began to change the sitcom format, it took the opportunity to cash in on its success. Just as the Queen and the Royal Family sell plates and tea towels at times of celebration, the BBC launched the Royle range of t-shirts, mugs, diaries and calendars. When the BBC produced its annual reports, the show was highlighted as the best the corporation had to offer the world.

Even political parties who were hostile to the long-term unemployed now wanted to claim Jim Royle as their own. In 2001, when there was much debate about the decline in voter turnout in Labour’s heartlands, advisors talked about developing a strategy that could mobilise them: “It is all about whether or not we can move The Royle Family off their sofa.”

In the years since, the BBC has often struggled to capture working class life in the same manner. The rise of the “chav” bashing in popular culture was, as Owen Jones argued in his 2011 book Chavs, built on the back of exploitation in comedy shows such as Little Britain.

Even The Royle Family deviated from its original premise of projecting the “ordinary”. After the runaway success of three series, the show returned in 2006 to much critical acclaim with the BAFTA winning Queen of Sheba. In the subsequent four Christmas specials, though, the characters became everything that Aherne said they wouldn’t.

Slow burning dialogue was replaced with farce and slapstick as the characters became parodies of themselves. The low points of their stupidity stretched from Dave believing that he could defrost a turkey by bathing with it on Christmas Day to Mary from next door having her ashes hoovered up by a new Dyson hoover.

In the much maligned final episode, a character called “Cadging Karen” is introduced. She is drawn much more from the cartoon world of Wayne and Waynetta than anything you would have seen in the early episodes of the show.

The BBC has also struggled to find authentic working class voices. Whilst comedies such as This Country, Motherland, Car Share and People Just Do Nothing have captured some of the Royle’s ethos, it is set against a rapidly declining working class participation in the arts, which leaves a big hole in the sitcom landscape.

Some believe the BBC is part of the problem. Its own diversity report in 2020 created headlines when it admitted that working class people were being “depicted negatively, fuelled by stereotypes and seen as the object of ridicule”.

25 years on from The Royle Family, in a post-Brexit landscape, it is difficult to imagine a nuanced and multi-layered sitcom about working-class life being commissioned and so warmly received by the nation.

The death of Caroline Aherne, aged just 52, robbed us of seeing what the next stage of her career would have brought us. The bigger question is whether we will ever see her like again.

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