The Royle Family: Originally broadcast from September 14, 1998 to December 25, 2000
Let's face it: The Royle Family is a bit of an odd show. When you turn it on, you're basically watching people watching television. But that is really its charm - it's quiet and gentle, but also very, very funny.
One of the things that writers and stars Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash got so right with The Royle Family was that this really did feel like a family. They were comfortable in each other's company, they knew each other's little habits, and they had no inhibitions (see Jim Royle's regular toilet visits, for example).
Actually, Ricky Tomlinson's performance as Jim Royle is one of the best things about the series. He's a very recognisable "dad", but he doesn't seem like a trope - instead, he has a very realistic personality. And his facial expressions are perfection - who else would have been able to convey frustration, annoyance, disbelief and surprise quite so well? (Not to mention that he somehow made "my arse" into a catchphrase.)
Tomlinson's not the only talented star in the show, though - on the contrary, everyone is brilliant. Take Sue Johnston as hard-done-by Barbara - clearly the best member of the family but in a constant state of mopping up their messes (both literal and metaphorical). What's great about Barbara, though, is her cheeky giggle. She might attempt to keep up appearances, but underneath she's just as silly as the rest of them.
And what about Anthony (Ralf Little), the youngest and dogsbody? Or the fabulous pairing of awful Denise and nice-but-dim Dave? We might feel warmth towards Denise overall but she can be just awful - lazy, selfish, generally not so nice. And that's without even mentioning the regular family friends and visitors, like the wonderful Jessica Hynes as poor Cheryl or Geoffrey Hughes as slightly-dodgy Twiggy.
The thing about The Royle Family, though, is that it gets better the more you watch. It's almost like getting to know the family - you settle into their rhythms and have a little smile every time Barbara asks if Denise and Dave have had their tea yet.
With a few exceptions, we only really see them in their living room and kitchen, but that's all we need - we find out dribs and drabs of information about their lives outside the home. This is where the family gets together - in front of the TV - and so this is where we meet up with them, too.
You'll have noticed that we've focused on the original series of The Royle Family, but of course the show has become known for its Christmas specials (though this year we're doing without because the writers failed to deliver the scripts on time - classic Royle Family behaviour).
The show's first special Christmas episode, 2006's 'The Queen of Sheba', was perfect Royle Family stuff - it continued the gentle but very funny humour of the previous series and added in heaps of emotion as Jim's irritating mother-in-law Norma (the fab Liz Smith) neared the end of her life. Anyone who didn't cry has a heart made of stone.
But beyond that, the one-off instalments have always had an air of disappointment surrounding them, as if everyone's striving to reach the previous highs but can't quite get there. That's not to say that they don't captivate audiences - they still pull in millions of viewers - but a bit of the magic has gone missing.
Still, stick to the first three series (and 'The Queen of Sheba') and you can't go far wrong. This is a dysfunctional family, sure, but they also feel very familiar. And while it might not provoke belly laughs, it's very funny. The Royle Family had to be smart to work - no gimmicks, relying instead on well-placed silences, comic timing and facial expressions - and it is very clever indeed. So why not revisit them in place of the Christmas special?
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