Set in a Manchester council house, The Royle Family ran for just three seasons plus specials, but had a massive cultural impact.
Consistently named as one of the top UK comedy programmes of all time, it ran from 1998 to 2000, with specials airing between 2006 and 2012.
Reuniting actors Sue Johnston and Ricky Tomlinson – who played married couple Bobby and Sheila Grant in Brookside in the 80s – it was a vehicle for the sparkling comic writing talent of Greater Manchester’s Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, and launched the careers of Sheridan Smith and Ralf Little.
Here, the Manchester Evening News looks back at how life has panned out for the show’s stars after the show first aired.
Ricky Tomlinson – Jim Royle
Opinionated, humorous, musical and lazy – Jim Royle was the family’s cantankerous but loveable patriarch, famed for the catchphrase, ‘my arse’.
The memorable role came after stints in Liverpool soap Brookside, and 90s British crime drama Cracker for actor Ricky Tomlinson.
After The Royle Family’s original run keen banjo and harmonica player Ricky enjoyed cult success with his 2001 starring role in Mike Bassett: England Manager. The same year he appeared in Samuel L Jackson comedy drama the 51st State.
In May 2010, the actor opened his own cabaret club in Liverpool. As well as making periodic appearances in Brit films and comedy dramas, Ricky’s familiar tones have appeared in voiceovers for McCains, British Gas and Farmfoods.
Last year, he toured the north of England with The Royle Family co-star Ralf Little for the Gold show Ricky & Ralf’s Great Northern Road Trip.
The actor is also well-known for political activism. In his 2003 autobiography he described how he joined the National Front in the late sixties, before realising he had been ‘looking for a scapegoat’ for the country’s ills and turning his back on far right politics.
This year, after a campaign lasting decades, Ricky was among union activists who had criminal convictions cleared. In the early 70s he had been jailed for conspiracy to intimidate and affray for his involvement in a construction workers’ strike in Shrewsbury.
The Court of Appeal made the ruling after hearing that original witness statements had been destroyed, and, sensationally, that Mi5 had been involved in getting the men convicted.
In a statement after the ruling, Ricky said: “Whilst it is only right that these convictions are overturned, it is a sorry day for British justice.
“The reality is we should never have been standing in the dock. We were brought to trial at the apparent behest of the building industry bosses, the Conservative government and ably supported by the secret state.
“This was a political trial not just of me and the Shrewsbury pickets, but was a trial of the trade union movement.”
Sue Johnston – Barbara Royle
Chain-smoking Barbara Royle was the loving, caring foil to her grumpy husband Jim.
The character was brought to life by former Brookside actress Sue Johnston, whose career went from strength to strength after The Royle Family.
From 2000 to 2011, she starred in Waking the Dead with the BBC, before featuring in eight episodes of the hugely popular period drama Downton Abbey.
She was awarded an OBE in the 2009 Birthday Honours and an honorary doctorate from the University of Chester in 2010.
In 2012, she joined the cast of Coronation Street as Gloria. It was her second stint in the show – back in 1982 she appeared in a number of episodes as ‘Mrs Chadwick’.
Like two-time screen husband Ricky Tomlinson, she is known for political activism, campaigning for the Labour Party and for gay rights.
Back in 1988, she was among campaigners against Section 28, a series of laws introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government against the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality which left gay communities feeling demonised, hounded and marginalised.
In a 20,000 strong city centre rally, Sue spoke alongside Ian McKellen, Michael Cashman (Eastenders’ Colin) and the-then Manchester council leader Graham Stringer.
This year she starred in harrowing prison drama Time, and described in an interview how it had given her some insight into life behind bars.
“For me, what I got out of it when I read and watched it, was the claustrophobia of it all; being trapped,” she said.
“Who do you go to? Who do you trust? You have to find a way of living life in there. There’s nowhere to hide and nowhere to run. You’re trapped in this cell and this atmosphere and you have to protect yourself.”
Caroline Aherne – Denise Best
Comic genius Caroline Aherne played Jim and Barbara Royle’s only daughter, Denise, after five years of entertaining audiences with her Mrs Merton persona.
The show began shortly after the Wythenshawe-raised comedian split from New Order bassist Peter Hook, following a three-year marriage.
Caroline’s character Denise was the central point of much of The Royle Family’s drama in the first series, breaking off her engagement to the mysterious Stephen before marrying Dave.
Laidback Dave was, of course, played by Caroline’s co-writer on the show, Stockport’s Craig Cash.
After The Royle Family’s original run ended in 2000, Aherne vowed to never appear on TV again and moved to Australia.
Caroline cited issues with depression and alcoholism as her reasons for moving away but continued to write for shows including Dossa and Joe, The Fast Show, and Early Doors.
She later returned to the UK, working with Cash to pen several of The Royle Family one-off shows before appearing on TV for the first time in eight years in the BBC comedy drama Sunshine.
Following several more writing roles, Caroline was appointed as the narrator for Gogglebox in 2016 and made her final screen appearance on the Sky 1 show After Hours, reuniting with Cash who produced and directed the programme.
Aherne died in July, 2016, after battles with bladder, retinal and finally lung cancer. She was 52.
Ralf Little – Antony Royle
Brother to Denise and only son of Jim and Barbara, Antony was the runt of the litter, often pushed to complete all the menial homely tasks like making brews and answering the door.
Antony had a string of relationships throughout the shows courting Emma, Sarah, and Saskia.
The unfortunate Antony was played by Ralf Little, a former semi-professional footballer from Bury.
After the show concluded in 2000, Ralf enjoyed a series of successful theatre roles, including a stint as the lead character in a production of Billy Liar at the Theatre Royal in Windsor.
He later enjoyed several one-off film and TV roles, most notably appearing in Doctor Who, The Waiting Room, and Paradise Heights, before gaining a permanent role on the popular BBC crime show Death in Paradise.
He began playing DI Neville Parker in the highly rated Whodunnit back in October 2019 and is expected to remain in the role for the foreseeable future.
During lockdown, he went viral for his short homemade videos of neighbours competitively clapping the NHS.
Craig Cash – David Best
Depicted by Craig Cash, Denise Royle’s partner good-natured Dave was the show’s cheeky chappy, often finding himself in agreement with father-in-law Jim.
Cash was the show’s co-writer and creator, alongside Caroline Aherne, and his career after The Royle Family followed a similar pattern as his writing partner.
Once the show had concluded, Cash wrote the sit-com Early Doors with Phil Mealey, before penning the drama Sunshine (which featured Aherne).
In 2011, Craig directed all six episodes of The Café, a show written by, and starring, his Royle Family co-star Ralf Little.
Since 2013 he has been heavily involved in narration for Gogglebox and Gogglesprogs. In 2016 he directed and starred in the British comedy Rovers.
Craig paid tribute to his former The Royle Family writing partner Aherne when she died in 2016, saying “she will of course forever be in my life.”
Manchester City fan Craig currently lives in Mellor, South Greater Manchester, with his wife Stephanie Davies.
The couple’s two children, Harry and Billy, actually appeared in an episode of The Royle Family.
Liz Smith – Norma Speakman (Nana)
Nana, the family matriarch, and Barbara’s irritable and demanding elderly mother, was played by Liz Smith.
Born Betty Gleadle before taking a stage name, Liz big break came at the age of 49, in Mike Leigh’s Bleak Moments.
A well established actor by the time she was cast in The Royle Family, Liz went on to enjoy roles in Hollywood blockbusters after the show’s original run, playing alongside Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and featuring in the hugely successful Keeping Mum with Kristen Scott Thomas.
She was also a voice actor for Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and starred in ten episode of Lark Rise to Candleford.
Liz Smith died less than six months after Caroline Aherne, on Christmas Eve 2016, aged 95.
Doreen Keogh – Mary Carroll
Mary was the matriarch of the Carroll family, the Royles next door neighbours.
Talkative and constantly involved in everyone else’s business, Irish Mary was the direct opposite to her stoically quiet husband Joe.
Although Keogh had already enjoyed great TV success with recurring roles in Father Ted, Cold Feet, and (Irish soap) Fair City, she took a step back from acting after The Royle Family came to a close.
Her and her husband went into buying, renovating, and then reselling houses, something that became Doreen’s main focus in place of acting.
In 2017 she died, aged 93.
Peter Martin – Joe Carroll
Mary’s husband Joe Carroll, the shy and reserved one of the two, was played by Peter Martin.
Martin would begin playing the role of Len Reynolds in the ITV soap Emmerdale in 2001, a role he reprised until May 2007, when his character was killed off.
His most recent role was alongside his The Royle Family co-star Sue Johnston in 2018’s Walk like a Panther.
Jessica Hynes – Cheryl Carroll
Joe and Mary’s daughter, and Denise’s best friend, Cheryl Carroll was played by Jessica Hynes.
She was another constant source of comic relief in the series, walking from one diet to the next with Jim and Antony often ridiculing her weight behind her back.
Cheryl was depicted by Jessica Hynes, an actor on the rise during her time with The Royle Family, having won a British Comedy Award for her role in Spaced.
After the show ended in 2000, Hynes enjoyed a string of high profile roles as she featured in Shaun of the Dead, Bridget Jones’ Baby, Son of Rambo, Paddington 2, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
She followed her silver screen success by featuring in several hit BBC comedies, including 2012 and W1A.
Her most recent role was in the BBC and HBO production Years and Years in 2019 after playing the co-lead (alongside David Tennant) in the drama There She Goes.
Throughout 2020 Hynes trained for an open water swim along the Kent coast which she duly completed, covering 4.6 miles in aid of the Folkestone Community Hub, which supported vulnerable families during the pandemic.
Geoffrey Hughes – Twiggy
Longtime family friend of the Royles and societal drop-out Twiggy was a regular visitor on the show, often dropping in on Jim and Barbara to sell-on stolen goods.
Twiggy was depicted by Geoffrey Hughes, known to sitcom fans as slob philosopher Onslow in Keeping Up Appearances, and to Corrie fans as binman Eddie Yeats.
After The Royle Family, Hughes performed as the Angel Gabriel in the BBC production Liverpool Nativity, before playing the role of Uncle Keith in three series of the E4 teen drama Skins.
In 2008, he starred in the British horror film Flick before taking to the stage as Frank, in Tim Firth’s Absolutely Frank.
After a cancer relapse in 2010 he took a step back from acting before his untimely death in 2012, aged 68.
Sheridan Smith – Emma Kavanagh
Antony’s first girlfriend, and eventually father to his child Lewis, Emma first appears in the second season finale, having been mentioned several times in earlier episodes.
Though Emma, who was depicted by Sheridan Smith, got little screen time, she was an integral character on the show.
The Royle Family was Smith’s big break and, after the show concluded, she went on to have roles in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Lark Rise to Candleford, Gavin & Stacey, Benidorm, and The C Word.
Recently she has enjoyed high profile roles in feature films, with a voice over part in The Queen’s Corgi.
She is due to star in The Railway Children Return, which will be released 2022.
The actor told The Guardian in 2020 that she had been suffering with anxiety and panic attacks as well as difficulties with alcoholism.
Smith took to social media earlier this year to reveal that she was in a relationship with actor Jamie Lawler, a man she had previously dated 20 years prior.
What are your favourite memories of The Royle Family? Did you ever see your family or friends in the characters? Let us know