• Michael Randall

The Royle Family - The Queen of Sheba Episode

When the Strathclyde Non-Law Review was first set up, initially, the aim/emphasis was to highlight some new programmes, music and films to discover. However, over time, there has been a shift to revisiting old favourites, and hopefully introducing them to the current students, who may not have seen them first time.

For me, this tend to lend itself to me recommending comedies, and I normally wax lyrical about Peep Show and Father Ted, in particular. However, over the last few weeks, over the weekend of watching telly, The Royle Family has been repeated on the TV. As with many things I like, the setup sounds terrible – you spend each episode watching a family sat on the sofa and watching the TV, but through this learn all about their lives. It isn’t a canned laughter and jokes every 20 seconds kind of programme, but is so well observed, and is absolute genius. It’s a weird show – not wacky, but unlike almost anything else (I mean Gogglebox is a knowing rip of off it), which cropped up in the early-mid 00s with Noel Gallagher singing the theme tune (the best thing he's ever done, and yes, this is a hill I'm willing to die on).

Nothing happens, but it can make me laugh out loud in a way that not many other comedies do. Peep Show makes me chuckle, but The Royle Family when it’s on song will make me guffaw. It does take time to get it, but once you do, it is well worth the effort. It really is superb – it’s not that I forgot about it, as such – my mum and I still quote the standard “what did you have for your tea?” line that Dave and Denise are asked in each episode, and I’ll occasionally be called Anthony if I am heading out to make them a cup of tea. It is more that it’s the one I think is less quotable, apart from Jim’s “my arse” catchphrase.

By no means am I saying that my own family are the same as the Royles are, but we all had our own spots on the sofa, with our preferred cushions. We’ve sat through TV programmes which were a bit rubbish and commented on them, but couldn’t be bothered to change the channel. And the tea making situation is always a carefully planned activity. I am saying that it is incredibly well-observed.

Each episode has its own moments – from Nana claiming that she doesn’t drink alcohol, apart from her evening stout…and her sherry at Christmas…and a whisky at new year…and champagne at the wedding, to a played entirely straight conversation about how unfair it is for someone not to be hired for a job because they were a smoker (the job it at the petrol station). I can’t really do it justice.

The Queen of Sheba Christmas Episode

However, there is one episode which, for me, at least, is beautifully put together and is unlike any other episode of a programme that I’ve seen – one of the Christmas episodes, called ‘The Queen of Sheba’, which first aired in 2006. It has me properly belly laughing at one moment, and then crying moments later, before bringing me back laughing again. I can’t really discuss it without spoilers, so you haven’t seen it and that is a problem, stop reading/skip ahead to the next sub-heading.

The episode sees the family coping with Nana’s declining health, as well as a new arrival in the family. Not wanting Nana to be in hospital, and wanting to look after her, the family move her into a bed in the dining room, where her presence alone causes disruption to the day to day routine. Jim’s rant about Nana taking the batteries from his remote control whilst the neighbour, Cheryl, has brought a date around to watch the telly with the family is the peak of this.

And then, the inevitable happens – you know what is coming, but when it does materialise, it hits hard. There’s not many things that are pretty much dead-certs to make me cry, but that’s it. At the wake for the funeral, Jim says he’d give anything to have one more row with Nana. And then minutes later, the family have cracked the banjo out, and have placed Nana’s ashes in a place where she’ll always be remembered – on top of the TV.

I really can’t do it justice when writing about the show, but I really do empathise. As a family, we went through the same worries with my nan – seeing this absolute force from my childhood get worse, and trying to take care of her. There were some times in school when I slept on a camp bed in our dining room, whilst nan took my bed whilst she was recovering. And in the later years, we kept her going – she managed to still be with us when my first niece was born, and my second niece has her name as a middle name (in the episode, the new baby is called Norma). She declined in her physical health, but was still sharp and wickedly funny – sometimes intentional, sometimes unintentional.

What could have been handled in a particularly clunky manner in the show is handled with such sensitivity and nuance, and I have no idea how they managed to pull it off. It’s a bit like listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ – I have no idea how you go from having no content/material to something crafted with that level of precision and execution.

The Legacy

A lot of the show’s success is in the writing, and the writing partnership of Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash (I know other writers were involved too) is particularly noteworthy. I don’t want to diminish Cash’s work (there’s another series that I watched off the back of this which Craig Cash wrote called ‘Early Doors’, which is decent), but my mum and I, in our recent texts that the show was being repeated on our screens, are in full agreement that Caroline Aherne is the genius/heart of the show.

I know that Aherne was a complex person, suffering from depression, alcoholism and a range of health issues too. Conversely, I’m also aware of the interviews with her ex-husband, Peter Hook, about their relationship. However, her talent and comedic prowess were exceptional. I’m too young for her Mrs Merton character, but even I know the “what first attracted you to the multi-millionaire Paul Daniels?” question to Debbie McGee.

The really sad thing for me with the show is there won’t be any more – Aherne passed away in 2016 after yet another bout with cancer at the far too young age of 52. There’s a lot of what might have been if circumstances were different.

I think I am/we are all hoping that everyone has a safe festive period, but equally we all realise that Christmas this year won’t be the same – some of us will be able to be with our families. Others won’t, and may have a very quiet Christmas. I won’t know what the plan is until a few weeks’ time. Over this time though, as a show to sit down and watch with a nice drink in hand, I don’t think you can beat it.

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