The Royle Family has in a way become the new The Vicar of Dibley in that it was a show that was a huge hit in the ’90s and technically they are still making it but it only exists as Christmas specials nowadays.
The specials saw what for me was probably the strongest ever episode, The Queen of Sheba which was a fantastic swansong to the character of Nana and had some incredibly moving scenes, such as when Barbara was doing Norma’s hair and she was saying how she was happy she never had to go into a home, not to mention the way her death and the family’s reactions to it.
But the subsequent specials also showed the lowest point of the whole series in The New Sofa with Dave and Denise kicking turkey round a kitchen floor, using powertools to cut it and having a bubble bath with the turkey still defrosting in there, which for me was a step too far into far-fetched sitcom silliness.
I’m not usually one to say that shows have to stick to a rigid formula and if they don’t they are RUINED FOREVER, but I think The Royle Family generally works best when it is just set in Jim and Barbara’s house and they are just hanging around chatting, which is more or less the case in this new special Barbara’s Old Ring. There is some stuff with them trying to help Joe on dates and giving him a makeover which is more than a little contrived. Joe getting one of his dates Philomela’s name wrong (fillet-o-fish and Philadelphia being two examples) was a bit corny. I liked the way one of his dates complained about missing Eggheads to be on the date though, and Barbara offering a cheeseboard of Dairylea, Primula, Cheesestrings and Kraft Cheese Slices.
For many fans, what’s good about The Royle Family is that we feel like we know these characters well, so we share their opinions of each other. Like them we too can tell that something is the matter with Denise as she actually is getting off her arse and offering to make a brew, we too know that Jim is going to take the piss out of Dave’s impotence in the bedroom.
There’s also the way they talk about unseen characters, like Dandruff Derek, Vertigo Vernon and that unseen character who has been a constant through the series, Beverley Macca. When they mention Cadging Carol it seems like she’s going to be one of these at first, but we are introduced to her when she muscles her way into the house. I think Cadging Carol (played by Lorraine Bruce) is one of the best new characters they’ve done in ages. She mentions one of her kids ‘borrowing’ a book from WH Smiths (“He nicked it, but that’s Broken Britain for you”) and ends up scrounging half of the Royle’s supplies for Christmas dinner, inviting herself over to join them and acting like returning the items she cadged in the first place was something out of the goodness of her heart.
Jim as usual gets the best lines, many at Dave’s expense (“Flop yourself down there”, “Bet you were bored stiff”). His view on Loose Women (“All that’s missing is the bloody cauldron”) and pointing out that Isaac Newton didn’t ‘invent’ gravity were two of my favourites, as was his comment about the back of the Royle’s sofa being like The Generation Game.
This last thing provides the main plot of the episode. Barbara is looking for an old ring that she’s lost, she finds a scratch card down the back of the sofa. She later finds out that Jim wins £100 on it and that he didn’t tell her. She becomes upset and thinks Jim doesn’t care about her. You can probably guess where this is leading up to, and indeed in the end it turns out Jim bought Barbara a new ring with the money he won. But as predictable as it is, it is framed and acted very well. Barbara’s character is the emotional core of this series, and the audience can really empathise with Barbara’s sad tears at the dinner table telling Jim and the rest of the family that she feels unloved by him, and then when they turn to happy tears when she finds out he bought a new ring for her and hid it in the Christmas pudding because he wanted to surprise her.
The episode was dedicated to the memory of Geoffrey Hughes who played Twiggy, and a caption describes him as “a lovely man”.
So while the Royle Family isn’t the show it once was, this special showed that there is still the material and the talent there to make it a good programme.
Edit – 03/07/16
This will almost certainly be the final ever episode too, after the very sad news of Caroline Aherne’s untimely death. R.I.P. Caroline Aherne, and thanks for creating this brilliant programme, I’d say one of the best British sitcoms that has ever been made.
Edit – 27/12/16
Just under 6 months after Caroline Aherne’s death, Liz Smith, who played Nana Norma Jean Speakman, has passed away too. R.I.P Liz Smith. Liz Smith was one of the greatest things in The Royle Family, and in the many other programmes and films she appeared in, and ‘The Queen of Sheba’ will be even more poignant than it already was now.