Craig Cash talks about Northern warmth and his new sitcom Rovers
It was a stipulation of Craig Cash agreeing to this interview that I neither asked about his friend, sometime writing partner and Royle Family co-star Caroline Aherne, or about Gogglebox, which Cash has taken over narrating during Aherne’s absence through illness (she has been suffering from lung cancer since 2014). All I could say to that is “fair enough” and wish Aherne the very best in her ongoing confrontation with the disease.
Anyway, I hadn’t requested the interview in order to discuss the state of Aherne’s health, but to celebrate the return of Cash’s lugubrious features to the small screen for the first time since the 2012 Royle Family Christmas special, or, putting that to one side, since 2008 when he appeared in a BBC One comedy about a gambling addict that he wrote for Steve Coogan, Sunshine. These days he’s more often to be found behind the camera, usually directing comedy shows for Sky 1 through his production company, Jellylegs.
“I enjoy directing more than I do acting, actually”, he says. “In the early days when Caroline and I started TV we would be all across everything – how it looked, how the story was told – we got into how TV is made and the difficulties and pitfalls of it all. A hell of a lot of it can go wrong, especially in comedy.
“I’m mindful for new writers because once a writer leaves a script they often don’t see it again until it goes on TV. I wanted for the people I work with that their vision should shine through – often they’re left at the mercy of a director and watch what they wrote and don’t recognise it.”
Cash likes to work with new writers: Michelle Terry and his Royle Family co-star Ralf Little on Sky 1’s The Café; John Osborne and Molly Naylor on After Hours (one of my favourite shows of last year); and now once again for Sky 1, Rovers, written by Joe Wilkinson (the weirdo neighbour in Him & Her) and David Earl.
Rovers is about a small group of fans of fictional non-league team Redbridge Rovers. Cash plays Pete Mott, the most dedicated of these, whose wife has left him, taking their young son, and whose fanaticism has had him to be deemed a nuisance caller by his local radio phone-in show. “I just think he’s a loveable loser,” says Cash. “His heart’s in the right place, but he just can’t get around the fact that people aren’t as devoted to the club as he is.”
As a lifelong Manchester City supporter, Cash can identify with the vicissitudes of footballing fortunes. “City spent many years in the doldrums, believe you me”, he says. “It wasn’t that long ago that City were in the second-division playoffs. A football fan is a football fan whoever they support, but, although it’s set at a football club, Rovers is more about people and characters and how they respond to each other.”
Cash first read the script coming home after a boozy night out. “I really enjoyed and I wondered if I’m just laughing because of the alcohol”, he says. “I was in London at the time and read it on the way back on the train and laughed just as much and thought ‘oh, that’s good’.”
Originally intending to direct, the writers were so determined he also star that he finally relented, despite the exhausting process of taking on both jobs. Wilkinson and Earl, are themselves also in the cast, along with Wilkinson’s stand-up partner Diane Morgan (Philomena Cunk in Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, recently seen on BBC Two in Cunk on Shakespeare) and Sue Johnston – reuniting with Cash for the first time since The Royle Family, where she played Dave Best’s mother-in-law, Barbara.
“Sue’s just brilliant”, says Cash. “She’s a really thoughtful actress, she wants to know what you want out of any given scene, she wants to know how the writers imagined it and then she puts a whole dollop of herself into these characters. You believe the character when Sue plays them.”
She’s also a trooper, and not one of the “bad apples” that Cash says can ruin a production. “I have no time for arsy actors and actresses any more”, he says. Can he name any? “I’ll name names if you want”, he says, before changing his mind. “No, I couldn’t do that. Nobody in The Royle Family or Early Doors anyway.”
Early Doors was Cash’s 2003 follow-up to The Royle Family. Set in a small pub in Greater Manchester, The Grapes, the comedy was supposed to be a sort of British Cheers and was also supposed to have co-starred Aherne, except that she had decamped to Australia, fed up with media intrusion into her private life and apparent fascination with her alcohol intake. When I interviewed him in 2011 Cash explained to me why he thought this unfair.
“I was as pissed as Caroline, but women get put under an intense spotlight”, he said. “We were naive as well, I guess. Coming to London for dos and awards was a huge thrill for us and we were just overexcited. We’d get on the train at Manchester and be pissed by Macclesfield.”
The pair met in the 1980s on the south Manchester pirate radio station KFM – until the station went legit in 1990 and everybody was given the sack, including Cash’s fellow night-shift DJs Jon Ronson and Terry Christian. Aherne then approached Cash to help her develop an Irish nun character called Sister Mary Immaculate, a collaboration that led to Mrs Merton.
Mrs Merton was Aherne’s mock grandmotherly chat show host, most famous for asking Debbie McGee, “So, what was it that first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”. The show was a great success, but the BBC executives didn’t understand The Royle Family when Cash and Aherne first presented it to them, and it was only Aherne’s threat not to do any more Mrs Merton that forced them to green-light what was to become a ground-breaking comedy classic.
These days Cash lives in a village on the border of Cheshire and Derbyshire, with his wife Stephanie, who used to read the news at KFM “very badly”, and his two sons, Billy, 17, and 18-year-old Harry, both of whom have long grown out of being embarrassed by their dad’s association with The Royle Family.
His comedies since Early Doors have all had a small-town milieu, peopled by dreamers or no-hopers, but suffused with a gentle warmth that has become a trademark.
“They’re small worlds and warm worlds”, he says. “Too many things are depressing every time you switch on the TV, and there’s a lot of depressing things in real life. It’s nice to do things that let people know there are nice people out there.
“I like to keep things small and observe little things. You don’t have to go big on big stories, you don’t have to make things over-complicated. I’m not making Nordic-noir, it’s just something that’s warm and Northern… It’s what I know about, it’s what I’m drawn to.”
Rovers begins on Tuesday 24 May at 10pm on Sky 1