Updated: Jun 13, 2019
You may never have heard of Mrs Merton and Malcolm, but It almost became the show that Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash focused on above The Royle Family!
Although you may not be familiar with Mrs Merton and Malcolm, almost everybody is familiar with Mrs Merton (played by Caroline Aherne). The Mrs Merton Show was a character-based chat show, interviewing real celebrities, and taking its lead from The Dame Edna Experience before it, and being among the first to popularise the genre.
The iconic moment that ended up defining the show was a question targeted at Debbie McGee: 'So, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?'
Running from '93 to '98, the Mrs Merton series was a huge success. In the series, Mrs Merton would frequently mention "my son Malcolm" and he appeared three times over the course of the show and then again in a series of British Gas adverts.
A spin-off sitcom featuring the characters must have felt like a natural progression. However, before focusing on the Mrs Merton series, Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash created the first series of what would become one of the most iconic British sitcoms of all time: The Royle Family.
The first series of The Royle Family was (unsurprisingly) something of a hit, debuting on BBC2 to great reviews from critics. Unusually, while this was going on, the duo were also working on Mrs Merton and Malcolm, which took Mrs Merton out of her chat show environment and into her home - a suburban 1950s time warp with her overgrown son Malcolm (Craig Cash), a bedbound and mute husband and only the occasional visitor to keep them company, which was almost always Arthur Capstick played by Brian Murphy.
It was written by Caroline Aherne, Craig Cash and Henry Normal (all the same writers of The Mrs Merton Show, bar Dave Gorman) and billed as a black comedy. Despite the cheery nature of Mrs Merton, there's an underlying bleakness to the show.
Malcolm, as a character, came in for a great deal of criticism at the time with critics branding his childlike behaviour 'odd'. It was Time Out Magazine that branded it "possibly the most disturbing show on television" and the negative feedback took the writers by surprise!
Malcolm's infantile behaviour (such as playing musical statues on his 37th birthday), which was presumably intended to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Dougal from Father Ted and Mr Bean, seemed to have crossed a line for many. It's hard to work out just why; when Dougal runs around excitedly in his new matador outfit it's charming and funny, but when Malcolm does a similar thing it feels a little bit uncomfortable.
Some pointed out that it was a lack of a laughter track (of real audience laughter - let's not start that one again) that gave a colder atmosphere. It was something that the duo were pioneering at the time (though The Office seems to always get the credit for it) and maybe audience laughter would have helped defuse an awkwardness here? It certainly did with Mr Bean, who I always thought was actually a pretty depressing and tragic character underneath it all. The childlike man living alone with his teddy bear. Maybe it's just me?
However, it's clear that the underlying bleakness probably was the original intention, and in this instance I think it actually works better without a laughter track.
Brian Murphy's visits were the real highlight of the show, and he contributes to one of the best scenes, which comes in the final episode, after the funeral of Mrs Merton's husband, when the Vicar (Steve Coogan) drops by and Mrs Merton decides to put on Arthur's favourite record - it's a genius scene, an absolute masterclass in black comedy:
The show was a ratings winner too, with an estimated seven million people tuning in for each episode over the course of the series. A Christmas special was already in development when the first series aired.
However, the bad press put the pair off - talking about show Craig Cash said, "We've been accused of all sorts, from incest to insanity. But we honestly didn't mean it to be. We didn't think there was anything offensive about it."
He then added that they took the decision to cancel the Christmas Special: "We wouldn't want to put people off their Christmas dinner," he joked. They took the decision to concentrate on the second series of The Royle Family instead.
So, it was an unfortunate end to the show, but an important crossroads in British comedy history, as a decision to continue with Mrs Merton and Malcolm may have inhibited the success of The Royle Family.
Personally, I don't think Mrs Merton and Malcolm deserved the criticism it got. Once again, it showed that Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne were pushing boundaries, with an awkward atmosphere that put it in the same bracket as The Office and Peep Show with its cringe factor - making it an uncomfortable yet unmissable watch.
I think it should be celebrated as the tragic/dark/surrealist comedy that it is - a fascinating and challenging combination for many at the time, but isn't challenging the norm what great comedy does?
Written by Rhianna Evans