What happened to cast of The Royle Family – from starring with Johnny Depp and tragic deaths

Remember how we all used to gather on the sofa to laugh, cry and truly identify with The Royle Family? This hugely-loved show really was one of those once-in-a-blue-moon sitcoms that managed to unite the generations – from your comedy-disliking grandma all the way through to that surly uncle who usually only watches sport.

Shot through with a real warmth and easy-going humour, audiences instantly just clicked with this most down-to-earth of familes. Tuning in to follow their trials and tribulations almost became something of a ritual, helping propel the program from strength to strength through the late 90s and beyond.

Of course, you could argue very little happens in each episode – ‘just a load of people gathered round the television and enjoying a natter’, but try telling that to the makers of the massively successful Googlebox!

Skilfully observed and acted, The Royle Family’s dialogue would flow as effortlessly as the laughs.

The top UK sitcom ran for three seasons on the BBC between 1998 to 2000, with specials airing between 2006 and 2012. Reuniting actors Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston – who played married couple Sheila and Bobby Grant in Brookside in the 80s – The Royle Family also Served as a launch pad for actress, singer and presenter Sheridan Smith and Death In Paradise’s Ralf Little.

The Royle Family was penned by then-relative unknowns Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash.

But before we get too dewy-eyed with nostalgia, let’s take a look at what happened to the stars once the Royles went their separate ways …

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Ralf Little starred as Antony

Ralf Little – Antony Royle

Often viewed as the ‘runt of the litter’ by his family, Antony was forever pushed into menial household tasks such as popping the kettle on, taking out the rubbish or answering the door. The only son of Jim and Barbara and brother to Denise, Antony was something of the show’s lothario – courting Emma (Sheridan Smith), Sarah, and Saskia. Played by former semi-professional footballer Ralf Little, the talented actor later went to tread the boards in a myriad of roles, including playing the lead character in romantic comedy Billy Liar at the Theater Royal in Windsor.

Ralf later enjoyed several one-off film and TV roles, most notably appearing in romantic drama The Waiting Room, Doctor Who and drama Paradise Heights, before gaining a permanent lead role as D.I. Neville Parker in popular BBC crime show Death in Paradise. During the 2020 lockdown, Ralf went viral on the internet for his short homemade videos of neighbors competitively applauding the NHS.

Jim, played by Ricky Tomlinson
Jim, played by Ricky Tomlinson

Ricky Tomlinson – Jim Royle

Ah, who doesn’t love Jim Royle? This salt-of-the-earth northerner may be very opinionated and cantankerous but also has a heart of gold, loves the banjo and, along with wife Barbara, is the glue that holds the family together.

Tomlinson snapped up the role after stints in the 90s British crime drama Cracker, with Robbie Coltrane, and popular Liverpool soap Brookside. Once the original run of The Royle Family came to an end, the much respected actor enjoyed cult success with his 2001 starring role in Mike Bassett: England Manager. That very same year he went on to appear with Hollywood A-lister Samuel L Jackson in bizarre comedy drama The 51st State.

In May 2010, the actor opened his own cabaret club in Liverpool. Ricky’s very distinctive voice has secured him much voice over work, with his familiar warm tones featuring in adverts for British Gas, McCains and Farmfoods.

As well as making periodic appearances in comedy dramas and Brit films, Tomlinson also toured the north of England with his Royle co-star Ralf Little for the Gold show Ricky & Ralf’s Great Northern Road Trip, in 2020.

Barbara Royle, played by Sue Johnston, pictured with Nana, played by Liz Smith
Barbara Royle, played by Sue Johnston, pictured with Nana, played by Liz Smith

Sue Johnston – Barbara Royle

The super-caring foil to her grumpy husband Jim, chain-smoking Barbara holds a place in all our hearts. Another former Brookside cast member, Sue’s career really took off following her appearance in The Royle Family.

From 2000 to 2011, she starred in the very popular mystery drama Waking the Dead, before featuring in eight episodes of period drama Downton Abbey. She was awarded an OBE in the 2009 Birthday Honors and an honorary doctorate from the University of Chester in 2010.

Two years later she joined the cast of Coronation Street as Gloria. It was her second time in the show – you may remember back in 1982 she appeared in a number of episodes as a certain Mrs Chadwick.

Last year, Sue starred in harrowing prison drama Time, with Stephen Graham, and later revealed how he had given her some insight into life behind bars. “For me, what I got out of it when I read and watched it, was the claustrophobia of it all; being trapped,” she said.

Caroline Aherne played Denise Royle
Caroline Aherne played Denise Royle

Caroline Aherne – Denise Best

Hands down one of the finest British comedy writers of her generation, the multi-talented Caroline Aherne played Jim and Barbara Royle’s only daughter, Denise. The former Mrs Merton was the central point of much of The Royle Family’s drama in the first series, breaking off her engagement to the mysterious Stephen before marrying the affable Dave.

After The Royle Family’s original run ended in 2000, Aherne vowed to never appear on TV again and moved Down Under. She continued to write for programs such as The Fast Show and Early Doors, but struggled with alcoholism and depression.

Caroline later returned to the UK and reunited with Craig Cash to pen several of The Royle Family one-off shows before appearing on TV for the first time in eight years in the BBC comedy drama Sunshine. The comedian lent her distinctive voice as the narrator for Gogglebox from 2013.

She made her final screen appearance on Sky 1 show After Hours, reuniting with Cash who produced and directed the programme. Tragically, Aherne died in July 2016, following lengthy battles with retinal, bladder and finally lung cancer. She was 52.

Dave, played by Craig Cash, enjoys a bacon sandwich with plenty of tomato sauce
Dave, played by Craig Cash, enjoys a bacon sandwich with plenty of tomato sauce

Craig Cash – David Best

This cheeky chappie often provided a load of belly laughs for the audience, thanks to his laconic delivery and charmingly simple, relaxed take on life. Partner to Denise (Caroline Aherne), good-natured Dave would often find himself agreeing with father-in-law Jim, usually to keep the peace.

Cash was the show’s co-writer and creator, alongside Caroline Aherne, and once the Royles concluded he wrote the sitcom Early Doors with Phil Mealey, before penning the drama Sunshine. More than a decade ago, Craig directed all six episodes of The Café, a show written by, and starring, his Royle Family co-star Ralf Little.

Of course we all know Craig as the narrator in Channel 4’s immensely popular Gogglebox, which he has been doing since 2013. In 2016 he directed and starred in the British comedy Rovers.

Craig paid tribute to his former The Royle Family writing partner Aherne when she died in 2016, saying “she will of course forever be in my life.”

Sheridan Smith played Emma
Sheridan Smith played Emma

Sheridan Smith – Emma Kavanagh

Now a household name, Sheridan Smith’s big break came in The Royle Family when she landed the role as Antony’s first girlfriend, and eventually father to his child Lewis. Emma actually received relatively little screen time, but was still an integral character on the show.

Following her stint with The Royles, Sheridan went on to star in sitcom Two Pins of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Gavin & Stacey, Benidorm, Lark Rise to Candleford and The C Word. Recently, Sheridan has enjoyed high profile roles in feature films, with a voice over part in The Queen’s Corgi.

She is all set to star in film The Railway Children Return, which will be released in July this year.

Geoffrey Hughes played Twiggy in The Royle Family
Geoffrey Hughes played Twiggy in The Royle Family

Geoffrey Hughes – Twiggy

Warm and cuddly Twiggy was a longtime family friend of the Royles, forever dropping in to see Babs and Jim. Played by wonderful character actor Geoffrey Hughes, he was already well known to sitcom fans as slob philosopher and vest-wearer Onslow in Keeping Up Appearances, and to Corrie fans as binman Eddie Yeats.

Following his stint on The Royle Family, Hughes performed as the Angel Gabriel in the BBC production Liverpool Nativity, before playing the role of Uncle Keith in three series of the E4 teen drama Skins. Moving on to 2008, he featured in British horror film Flick before taking to the stage as Frank, in Tim Firth’s Absolutely Frank.

After a cancer relapse in 2010 he took a step back from acting before his untimely death in 2012, aged 68.

Liz Smith played Nana
Liz Smith played Nana

Liz Smith – Norma Speakman (Nana)

The family matriarch and Barbara’s rather demanding and irritable elderly mother was played by Liz Smith. Born Betty Gleadle before taking a stage name, Liz’s big break came relatively late in life at the age of 49, in Mike Leigh’s dramatic romance Bleak Moments.

Liz was a well-established actor by the time she joined the Royles and went on to enjoy roles in numerous Hollywood blockbusters. She played alongside Johnny Depp in a big screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as featuring in 2005 black comedy Keeping Mum, with Kristen Scott Thomas. Liz also starred in ten episodes of Lark Rise to Candleford.

Just like co-star Ricky Tomlinson, Liz was blessed with a wonderfully distinctive and warm voice, lending it to such productions as Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Liz died less than six months after Caroline Aherne, on Christmas Eve 2016, aged 95.

Doreen Keogh played Mary in The Royle Family
Doreen Keogh played Mary in The Royle Family

Doreen Keogh – Mary Carroll

Talkative and rather nosey, Mary was the matriarch of the Carroll family, the Royle’s next-door neighbors. With her well-meaning fiery spirit, she was the direct opposite to her stoically hushed husband Joe.

Talented Irish actress Keogh had already enjoyed great TV success with recurring roles in Cold Feet, Father Ted and (Irish soap) Fair City, she took a step back from acting after The Royle Family finished. Her and her husband went into buying, renovating, and then reselling houses. She died in 2017, aged 93.

Jessica Hynes played Cheryl Carroll
Jessica Hynes played Cheryl Carroll

Jessica Hynes – Cheryl Carroll

Daughter to Joe and Mary and Denise’s best friend, Cheryl was a constant source of comic relief in the series, walking from one faddy diet to the next. Once the Royles packed up in 2000, Hynes enjoyed a string of high profile roles as she featured in big-hitting movies such as Son of Rambo, Paddington 2, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Shaun of the Dead and Bridget Jones’ Baby,

She followed her silver screen success by featuring in several hit BBC comedies, including 2012 and W1A. Among Jessica’s most recent roles was in the BBC and HBO production Years and Years in 2019 after playing the co-lead (alongside former Doctor Who David Tennant) in the comedy drama There She Goes.

During the pandemic in 2020, Hynes trained for an open water swim along the Kent coast which she successfully completed in aid of charity.

Peter Martin as Joe
Peter Martin as Joe

Peter Martin – Joe Carroll

The actor Peter Martin became best known for playing the shy and reserved Joe Carroll, husband to Mary. Martin would begin playing the role of Len Reynolds in popular ITV soap Emmerdale in 2001, a role he returned to in May 2007, when his character was killed off.

His most recent role was alongside his Royle Family co-star Sue Johnston in 2018’s Walk Like A Panther.


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