There’s some serendipity in how Greg and I came to find ourselves marathoning all three seasons and five specials of The Royle Family recently. We had been watching a UK series called Born On The Same Day, which followed three notable Brits who were all born on the same day. On July 2, we watched the episode that included Ricky Tomlinson, who played Jim Royle, only to discover the next day that series star and creator Caroline Ahearne had died of cancer on the 2nd. Greg found a torrent of the whole series, and having read many gushing recaps of the show in the wake of Ahearne’s sad death, we started watching.
Winner of many awards, much-loved by Brits since the show first ran in 1998, The Royle Family is a slow-moving comedy of the single camera variety with no laugh track and not much action. Much of the humour comes from the repetitiveness of the dialogue (mother Barbara asks her daughter and son-in-law what they’ve had for their tea in every episode), and the family dynamic of a council house family in suburban Manchester.
Billed as a slice of life of the typical low income family, the general appeal of The Royle Family seemed to be that the characters were so relatable. Stories abound of perfectionist Ahearne agonizing over ever syllable of dialogue, and accents, inflection and facial expressions play a big part in the humour of this show that is predominantly about a family sitting around watching telly.
Now, while I watched every episode and grew to love the show, I’ve got to be honest and say that a lot of it was horrifically triggering. I sort of gave myself a goal to consider getting through the whole thing to be a form of therapy.
What I find odd is that, in all the research I’ve since done about The Royle Family, nobody outright mentions how toxic their living situation actually is, and how clearly the characters take on secondary roles as narcissists, scapegoats and golden children. There is some mention of how some characters are picked on, but that really underplays the toxic attacks they endure.
The main cast consists of Tomlinson as out of work Jim Royle, the father. Jim is lazy, cranky, and seldom has a nice word for anyone. He bitches at and about pretty much everyone else in his immediate family, as well as the neighbours and his mates. While there are the occasional flashes of love and kindness from Jim in certain episodes (Denise getting married, Denise going into labour) most of the time he is mean, hurtful and vitriolic and clearly suffers from narcissistic personality disorder.
Wife Barbara, played by Sue Johnston (Downton Abbey), is Jim’s enabler. She does most of the cooking and housework, and is the only family member with an income. While she disapproves of Jim’s behaviour and how he treats his kids (and others) she puts up only a minor display of concern. Barb often becomes the scapegoat if son Antony is not around.
Daughter Denise, played by creator Caroline Ahearne, is the golden child. Herself a toxic narcissist, Denise is the golden child who can do no wrong. While Jim occasionally directs his vitriol at her, it’s often done in a more funny “just havin’ a laugh” kind of way.
Son Antony, played by Ralf Little is the family scapegoat. Picked on by everyone, he is called lazy, useless and stupid by Jim in pretty much every episode and is expected to fetch and carry for everyone. In one episode he’s forced to make sandwiches for Denise and her husband, in another Jim, Barb, Denise and Dave all wait until he gets home so he can make their tea. There is one episode in which Denise stands up to Jim on Antony’s behalf, which puts Jim in his place for once, but Denise is usually too self-involved to be concerned for Antony’s welfare.
Dave, played by Craig Cash (who also wrote the show with Ahearne), is Denise’s husband, as well as her scapegoat and enabler. He wins a few of the fights (such as the name of their first child and whether he gets to keep a beloved moped), but unless Antony is around, he’s the one doing all the heavy lifting.
Other characters including Barbara’s mother Norma (Liz Smith) come in and out of the house, and in Norma, herself a narcissist, we see how Barbara developed into a co-dependent enabler.
Nearly twenty years ago, maybe we weren’t talking about toxic families as much as we are now; the definitions weren’t on the table, and for a lot of families, nothing about the Royles was out of line from their own lives. “That’s just how he is…” or “What can you do, they’re family.” are common refrains or excuses in most families at some point.
However, for me, being removed from that dynamic, especially after having grown up in a similar (but not exact) situation, watching the show was a real test. I think I watched all of the first episode with my mouth wide open, aghast, and actually had to pause the show and get up and leave the room on occasion when Jim mistreated Antony. Things like the constantly full ashtray (both Denise and Barb are chain smokers) made me shudder, and even the set, cluttered with knickknacks and bits of trash left on the coffee table, hit a nerve in me that, I guess, most people just didn’t experience.
What I wish I knew though, is – was it intentional? Given the detail of the sets, the stories about Ahearne’s perfectionism regarding the dialogue… did she and Cash set out to make a feel good show that most people could relate to, in a positive way? Or was The Royle Family really a subtly cynical look at toxic families well before we acknowledged such things existed? Given the cinematography (almost every episode in the regular series has a low shot of the disgustingly over-filled ashtray – Denise often sat slouched on the sofa with it balanced on her stomach), my guess is that Ahearne and Cash (and their co-writers) had a separate, secret message for viewers living in toxic family settings – offering them a way to see the true faces of their relatives and their own situation.
Certainly, by the time the Christmas specials roll around in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012, we are delighted to see that Antony has overcome the curse of his father that he will never amount to anything, and has a great, successful job and a rewarding life. While I dearly hoped to see him stand up to Jim at some point, that never happens, and despite his generosity to his parents, he is still verbally abused and mistreated even as an adult. But he got away, to some degree, and I finished the series considering that to be a happy ending for a character that deserved better.
So often, abuse within families is covered up, or played down. And for those of us who live(d) through toxic family situations, the opportunity to view those roles being played out so blatantly, especially when they are almost caricatures of the toxic family stereotypes, can be really helpful in pinpointing our own roles in real life. We can safely watch and express our frustration at how Antony is treated and then admit to ourselves, “yeah, I got treated that way”, or “yeah, Barb is totally my Mom and never steps in to stop Dad from picking on my little brother”, etc.
For anyone from a toxic family background, The Royle Family might be a very triggering series to sit down and watch. It is, quite often, horrifying, especially when you realize that this is, in fact, how many families interact. But it is sharp, witty, honest (sometimes overly so) and genuine. Like real family life, there are points that are sweet, touching and memorable, but there’s also a solid undercurrent of hurtfulness that is often just as evident.