The Royle Family’s finest hour: how Caroline Aherne poured her pain into The Queen of Sheba

Liz Smith and Sue Johnston in The Queen of Sheba - BBC
Liz Smith and Sue Johnston in The Queen of Sheba - BBC

“We had a sense that we had something great in the can,” says Craig Cash. “But we also assumed it was our last ever episode, so it was bittersweet. And it very nearly never got made in the first place.”

It's now 15 years since The Royle Family's Bafta-winning 2006 special, The Queen of Sheba, which saw the passing of Nana (Liz Smith). It's been hailed as "the funniest, most emotional hour of TV comedy ever made". It becomes all the more affecting when you consider that co-creator Caroline Aherne struggled to write it due to depression – and got the gang back together partly to process her grief for her grandmother.

For Ralf Little, who played “our Antony”, it’s the Royle Family episode of which he’s most proud. “We thought the show was over but then Caroline’s own nana died,” he recalls. “The Queen of Sheba became a tribute and a catharsis.”

According to Aherne's close friend and collaborator Cash, though, it came perilously close to never happening at all. “After the third series in 2000, Caroline moved to Australia for a few years,” he says. “While she was away, me and my pal Phil Mealey made Early Doors [an underrated gem of a sitcom set in a Stockport pub]. When Caroline came back, sadly she was in the grips of depression.

“As it became apparent she was unwell, I suggested to Phil that we should try to help by getting her back into writing, maybe for a Royle Family special. Caroline was receptive to the idea. To his credit, Phil said yes too. He’d never worked with us both before and didn’t know our dynamic but the three of us got on well.”

The episode’s poignant plot drew on Aherne’s recent grief. "So we decided this should be the episode where Nana dies," says Cash. "We were reluctant at first, thinking ‘Bloody hell, we can’t kill Liz off. She’s brilliant.’ But we truly thought at the time this was a one-off comeback. We might as well see it off in style.”

The creative process was by no means plain sailing: “We sat down and started writing scenes but Caroline was clearly still depressed. She’d lost a lot of confidence and just didn’t know if she was funny anymore. She asked if we could leave it because it wasn’t the right time. We reluctantly put it aside.”

Months later, Cash and Mealey took another look. “I knew what we’d written was funny and it was just her depression talking. Me and Phil started to link the scenes together, then took it back to Caroline. Reading what we’d done reignited something in her, which was lovely. We all set about finishing it together. It genuinely helped – both with her depression and the script’s quality. Caroline was renewed. So was our writing.”

As they honed the script and moved into production, work was punctuated by Aherne’s therapy sessions. “Caroline was getting lots of professional help,” says Cash. “[Psychologist] Dr Jennifer Gomborone helped her through her depression and subsequently became a friend. She’s thanked in the closing credits. The episode ended up doing Caroline a lot of good. Its reception and the subsequent Bafta went a long way to making her feel better.”

Arriving six years after the kitchen sink-com’s previous episode, the hour-long special found Denise (Aherne) and husband Dave (Cash) expecting their second baby. Younger brother Antony (Little) was now a successful businessman with a son named Lewis but separated from ex-fiancé Emma.

The Royle Family: Back L-R: Anthony Royle (Ralf Little), Barbara Royle (Sue Johnston) and Dave Best (Craig Cash). Front L-R: Denise Best (Caroline Aherne), Jim Royle (Ricky Tomlinson) and Norma Speakman (Liz Smith) - ITV/REX/Shutterstock
The Royle Family: Back L-R: Anthony Royle (Ralf Little), Barbara Royle (Sue Johnston) and Dave Best (Craig Cash). Front L-R: Denise Best (Caroline Aherne), Jim Royle (Ricky Tomlinson) and Norma Speakman (Liz Smith) - ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Most importantly, Norma Jean Speakman (Smith), affectionately known by all and sundry as “Nana”, had moved in with the Royles due to declining health. She was bedridden at the back of the sitting room. Whenever she stirred, there’d be a chorus of: “Are you awake, Nana?” “Yeah,” she’d reply cheerfully, sitting up in her pink dressing gown and gawping at them through a fish-eye magnifier.

The clan took it in turns to have a one-on-one scene as they cared for the increasingly frail octogenarian. Denise did Nana’s nails. Antony bought her a Discman and CDs of her favourite golden oldies. Dave read aloud to her from a romance novel. “We had such a laugh writing that Mills & Boon spoof,” chuckles Cash. “Making up ludicrous lines like ‘Dr Curtis Sinclair had wanted Luciana ever since he saw her dancing alone in a fountain’”.

Most moving of all was the masterful scene at the episode’s midway mark. Shot in one take, it saw Barbara (Sue Johnston) tenderly doing her mother’s hair while they reminisced about when it was the other way around. Norma grabbed her daughter’s hand and said: “Thank you, Barbara.” “What for?" “Everything. I got my wish that I’d never have to go into a home. I’m not a burden to you, am I?” “Never a burden, Mam.” “I do love you, Barbara.” The pair then swayed together as they sang Que Sera, Sera.

During the devastating final act, Denise gave birth to a daughter and named her Norma. Nana held her great-granddaughter in her arms and whispered: “I’ve been waiting to meet you, sweetheart.” “One of the moments I find most moving is Nana’s face when she finds out we’ve named the baby after her,” says Cash. “It gets me every time. It could’ve been mawkish in anyone else’s hands but Liz underplayed it to perfection. She was phenomenal.”

Nana had been holding on for the new arrival. Now her condition worsened. She passed away in hospital as the family kept vigil at the bedside. "It was upsetting because we knew it was the last scene Liz would ever do with us," says Cash. “But even in the touching moments, we found fun. When Liz was lying in bed with tubes up her nose, it looked like a moustache. She was the absolute spit of Salvador Dali. That’s all I could think about as I was trying to cry for my goodbye scene.”

Even misanthropic patriarch Jim Royle (Ricky Tomlinson), who revelled in mocking his mother-in-law, was visibly choked. He’d dubbed Norma the titular “Queen of Sheba” out of resentment that everyone was waiting on her hand-and-foot. Now Jim told his wife: “Tell you what, Barb. I’d give all the bloody money in the world to have one more row with her.”

Nana wanted her send-off to “put the fun into funeral” – complete with “volly-vents” on the “buffy” – so proceedings climaxed with her wake. Barbara sobbed: “I can still see her warm, loving face and that white head of curls twinkling up at me, right where the sausage rolls are.” Nana’s final words, we learned, had been “Trevor McDonald”. “Oh Barbara, what a fitting tribute to the man,” said Irish neighbour Mary (Doreen Keogh).

“There are loads of touching moments but we always tried to offset them with laughs,” says Cash. “There’s out-and-out stupidity as well as sadness. It’s all about getting the balance right. I remember one of my mates ringing me after a sad episode and saying ‘Don't you know there’s a recession on? I had to blow the fire out and go to bed before you depressed me any further.’”

The unusually morose Royles rallied, cracked open cans and turned it into a party, as per Norma’s last wishes. There were tentative signs of romance between Mary’s daughter Cheryl (Jessica Hynes) and family friend Twiggy (Geoffrey Hughes). He told her, over buffet plates piled high: “I’ve always thought you were a little belter.”

Jim made a speech about how Nana had “taken the stairlift to heaven” and decided, in the ultimate mark of respect, to put her ashes on top of the television.

It's a rousingly musical episode, from the opening scene of Jim crooning Johnny Cash to family singalongs of (Is This the Way To) Amarillo and The Jungle Book’s I Wanna Be Like You. At the wake, Jim plays the banjo in a rackety rendition of I Want a Girl (Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad).

“That’s a reflection of what it was like on-set,” explains Cash. “If we had to wait 10 minutes for a lighting change, we’d just start singing. Liz would belt out wartime songs: ‘Hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line…’ Ricky would fetch his banjo. A lot of that ended up making it into the show.”

Sinead O’Connor also graced the soundtrack, thanks to her being a Royle Family addict. “I’d been listening to her version of Scarlet Ribbons and thought it was very fitting,” recalls Cash. “Then my cousin told me he’d been to see Sinead in concert and she’d said, ‘It’s great to be here here in Manchester, home of the brilliant Royle Family.’ So we knew she was a fan and got permission. It was perfect for the hospital sequence.”

Amid all the music and mirth came quiet passages – slow pans around the room, silent montages or lingering shots of telling details. “That’s something you don’t see much anymore, which saddens me,” says Cash. “Everything is fast-paced and cut-heavy but silence is golden. Let it breathe. There’s comedy gold in there.”

The episode was directed by Mark Mylod, who subsequently went to Hollywood, winning Emmys for his work on Game of Thrones, The Affair, Entourage and Succession. “Caroline directed the last series herself but wasn’t too confident about doing this one, so we asked Mark back. He’d done our debut series before leaving for America and we’d kept in touch. He always said The Royle Family was the most enjoyable job he’d ever had, so came back over when he had a few weeks spare.”

Liz Smith, Caroline Aherne and Sue Johnston in 2001 - PA
Liz Smith, Caroline Aherne and Sue Johnston in 2001 - PA

There was a satisfying circularity to Mylod’s return. “Mark set the photographic tone from day one,” said Cash. “He shot documentary-style, hand-held, with the camera always at a certain height. He was one of the few directors who totally got us and enhanced what we were trying to do. A scene that always wrenches my heart is when Barbara comes down in the morning and thinks Nana’s dead. Mark shot it beautifully through the doorway, so you feel like you’re observing a private moment but not intruding.”

After six years away, cast and crew were delighted to be reunited. “Script read-throughs were always riotous affairs,” Cash smiles. “We’d do them at the Groucho Club in London, and have a few drinks before and after. Getting everyone back together felt like all our birthdays were on the same day.”

Broadcast on an autumnal Sunday night – “Lots of people think it was a Christmas special but there’s nowt Christmassy about it,” laughs Cash – The Queen of Sheba was watched by 7.8 million viewers. It won the Best Sitcom prize at the following year’s Baftas. Liz Smith's pitch-perfect performance bagged her Best Comedy Actress at the National Television Awards and was also Bafta-nominated.

“I wish Liz had won,” reflects Cash. “She deserved it but was in the Comedy category when really she should have been Best Actress. But they’re only gongs. Her performance will be appreciated for many years to come. I remember Peter Kay ringing me after the episode aired – I’m not name-dropping, he’s a mate from before he was famous – to congratulate us. He said it was one of the best bits of telly ever and should be on the film school curriculum."

A Nana's-eye of The Queen of Sheba
A Nana's-eye of The Queen of Sheba

A decade later, BBC One repeated it in tribute after Aherne died of lung cancer, aged just 52. Five months afterwards, she was followed to the great sofa in the sky by Smith, who died on Christmas Eve 2016 at the grand old age of 95.

This double blow made The Queen of Sheba painfully raw for Cash: “I have very fond memories but for a long time after Caroline died, I found it hard to watch. Nowadays if I see an episode on Gold, I might dip in. Because the old grey matter’s going a bit [he’s now 61], I end up laughing at my own jokes. I can’t remember writing them, so it’s like watching it afresh.”

Aherne and Smith aren’t the only cast members who are no longer with us. “Neither are Geoff Hughes or Doreen Keogh,” says Cash. “It’s a nice swansong for them all.”

“It’s so beautiful,” agrees Little. “So much heart and truth and love was poured into it. It meant a lot to Caroline that people loved it back.”

It’s a rare piece of TV that makes viewers cry buckets and laugh themselves silly at the same time. “I’ve done that with Only Fools & Horses,” concludes Cash. “It’s a high benchmark. All good writing comes from the heart. If a TV programme can elicit any emotion, it’s done its job. Hopefully by the end, you’re somehow better for the experience. The fact that The Queen of Sheba is still being shown 15 years later and new viewers are laughing is deeply rewarding.”

The Royle Family: The Queen of Sheba is available on BBC iPlayer, BritBox and Amazon Prime Video