SHE is renowned for her comic talents, but no one was laughing on Saturday as Caroline Aherne, creator of the popular Royle Family television series, heckled one of Britain's leading actors at the prestigious British Comedy Awards.

As Sir Nigel Hawthorne paused during his acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award on behalf of Alan Bennett, the writer, Aherne, who has been battling with a drink problem, yelled: ''Get on with it.''

Visibly angry, the theatre stalwart stopped his speech and replied: ''Would you like to do this yourself madam? . . . I'm not speaking for myself, you understand.''

After concluding his speech, the show's host, Jonathan Ross, apologised to Sir Nigel: ''Not all of us can handle the drink my friend, although normally she can,'' he said.

After the award ceremony, Sir Nigel said he had been ''horrified by the heckling''.

Aherne is regarded as one of television's brightest comic talents, but her life has been scarred by drink problems, a suicide bid, and a childhood brush with cancer.

She was rushed to hospital in July 1998, after an alcohol-induced attempt to take her own life by a sleeping pill overdose at her Notting Hill home.

Friends, who found her and dialled 999, discovered that she had written farewell notes to friends and family, including her late father, Bert.

The next day, the actress checked into the Priory, an exclusive London psychiatric clinic.

Treated for alcohol-dependency and depression during her stay at the #300-a-night hospital, the former star of the Mrs Merton Show later said she wanted to make a sitcom based on her experiences there.

Saturday's outburst was not the first time Aherne has embarrassed herself in public. In 1996, she was voted best female performer at the British Comedy Awards but her victory was marred by a rambling, slurred acceptance speech.

A year later, there were headlines when she was photographed in an intimate clinch with pop star Katrina Leskanich and, in April 1998, she was caught embracing married television host Paul Ross.

The 36-year-old once admitted, before her stay at The Priory that her only alcohol problem was that she got drunk at the wrong functions.

Problems in her love life contributed to her desperate suicide bid, which she described as her lowest ebb.

The daughter of a railwayman and a school dinner lady, Aherne split with husband Peter Hook, guitarist with pop group New Order, in April 1996.

She had a relationship with television colleague Matt Bowers but they broke up before he died of cancer the following year, aged 28.

''I suppose I hadn't really grieved and it all caught up with me,'' she said. ''I wanted to get drunk to obliterate everything. There was my divorce, my dad dying, Matt dying, and I was trying to cope with being famous. It was all too much.''