THERE'S an outside chance that justice might not be done at tonight's British Comedy Awards, with Caroline Aherne somehow being denied victory in all five of the categories in which her supremely funny TV sitcom, The Royle Family, has been rightfully nominated.

If the judges do, indeed, show a catastrophic failure of insight, Caroline will still have one unofficial title to

join her shortlisting as Best Comedy Actress, earned for her chain-smoking portrayal of the ultimate self-centred slattern, Denise Royle.

For, as she approaches her birthday on Christmas Eve (her 36th), Caroline Aherne can justly claim victory in a gruelling media event in which she'd almost certainly rather not have been entered: Best Ongoing Recovery From Being The Tabloids' Favourite Troubled Funny-Girl.

Many of the more lurid and tragic personal elements beloved by the tabloids have certainly loomed large in Aherne's life in the decade since she first ventured forth from her native Manchester - and a daytime job at the BBC as a lowly and increasingly frustrated secretary - and gained the attention of Granada TV talent-spotter Andy Harries as he trawled Edinburgh's Fringe in 1991.

For one thing, Aherne's unhappy two-year marriage to a serial-womanising rock superstar, Peter Hook, of New Order, was followed by a bitter divorce in 1996. In the intervening period, Aherne had a brief affair with a TV researcher, Matt Bowers. Six years her junior, Bowers was, of course, melodramatically cited as Aherne's toy-boy lover in blaring headlines.

When all three met up at the opening of the Manchester branch of Bill Wyman's Sticky Fingers burger bar, Bowers and Hook traded blows before a low-rent VIP crowd of Coronation Street celebs. At some point

in the melee, Aherne was kicked in

the stomach. Predictably, the tabloids were thrilled.

They were possibly even more thrilled when they were contacted by the terminally-ill Bowers - destined

to die of cancer shortly thereafter -

who was trying to sell them the story

of his already-concluded romance

with Aherne.

It must be said that Aherne's own flawed strategy of accommodating the gutter press led to further problems at this time. Firstly, she had an unfortunate habit of too frequently Opening Her Celebrity Heart to salacious reporters about her love-life.

Much more unfortunately, as Aherne's first great comic creation for the BBC, Mrs Merton, the pungently-perceptive pensioner, won TV award after TV award, Caroline's growing alcohol problem repeatedly emerged

in public before the censorious lenses of the paparazzi.

At one glitzy ceremony after another, Aherne was thus

photographed in various glassy-eyed states of drunken disarray. There was to be a terrible payback. One night in July 1998, having typically Opened Her Celebrity Heart to a tabloid about another brief romance - one which had led her to exchange Mancunian friends and family for London - an unhappy Aherne phoned her mother 200 miles away.

When a slurred-sounding Aherne dropped the phone mid-conversation, her mother, Maureen, was sufficiently concerned to summon police and an ambulance. Aherne was found in a semi-conscious stupor, having taken champagne and prescription pills.

She quickly checked into a #329-a-night dependency clinic, and has since acknowledged her alcohol problem - albeit in her own acerbically witty way: ''My only alcohol problem is that I get pissed at the wrong dos.''

Aherne's career has taken few wrong turnings since she met up with her

present writing partner, Craig Cash. Having studied drama at Liverpool Polytechnic, Aherne met Cash in the mid-eighties when they were both working as DJs in small-time local radio near Manchester.

Professionally, the pairing was perfect, leading to the creation of a range of memorable and realistic comic grotesques. Aherne's talent for mimicry had been evident since childhood, first having been recognised during a family holiday at Butlin's when she

won a talent competition with impressions of Marti Caine and Cilla Black. Cash's numerous gifts as a comedy writer include economy; acuteness of observation, and speed (his Royle

Family Christmas edition script was apparently delivered in finished form within three days).

The duo's collaboration began on

Manchester's stand-up circuit with

one-joke characters such as Sister Mary Immaculate and country singer Mitzi Goldberg. While the latter was a ghastly blend of syrup and self-

promotion, the former was a fiercely-

witless Irish nun - possibly based on Aherne's first-hand experience of a convent education. Only Sister Mary Immaculate could advise girls to walk home alone at night, rather than with their boyfriends, because ''sure, it's a bigger sin if you're raped by someone you know''.

Initially assisted by another Mancunian writer-performer, Henry Normal, Cash then created the OAP chat-show hostess, Mrs Merton. Her soft, greying curls, surgical stockings, crimplene floral skirts, matronly bosom, and homely Lancastrian tones mask a frankness that's primly cruel in its severity. Sample the deceptively soft start to this query from Mrs Merton to feminist thinker Germaine Greer: ''Tell me, Germaine . . . what's the difference between being sexually liberated in the sixties and being an old slapper now?''

Cash also conceived The Royle Family, as well as continuing to write and co-star in it. He portrays Denise's gormless and supine husband, Dave, a role for which Cash has earned his own British Comedy Awards nomination as Best Male Newcomer, thereby joining the full Royle Family contenders' list for Saturday night.

The pithy-but-low-key BBC1 show - about a northern family whose extraordinarily ordinary lives revolve around little more than sitting on a sofa, watching TV, and ordering their hangdog teenage son to make them cups of tea

- is up for Best Sitcom, of course. In addition, Ricky Tomlinson pursues Best Comedy Actor and Jessica Stevenson (also the co-star and co-writer of Channel 4's best sitcom nominee, Spaced) is a contender for Best Female Newcomer.

What comic impulses lurk within Aherne's own family past? If domestic pain, deprivation, and loss are good for the formation of aspirant mirth-makers, then Aherne has a measure of all three.

Born in London to working-class parents of Irish Catholic extraction, she emigrated northwards with them to Manchester at the age of two. Aherne's father, Bert, was a railway worker; her mother, a school dinner-lady. The family settled on the

grim, featureless peripheral vastness of the low-rise Wythenshawe council housing estate.

Life quickly took a horrible turn for the Ahernes when Caroline and her elder brother, Patrick, were both diagnosed as suffering in infancy from a rare cancer of the retina. Aged only 18 months, Patrick had to have his right eye removed. Caroline had to wear an eye-patch throughout her girlhood, and was only given a medical all-clear in her twenties. Her adult vision is less than perfect.

In its unremarkable outline, Cash's own upbringing is broadly similar to Aherne's, although their educational attainments differ markedly. He was raised on a council estate in Stockport and gravitated towards comedy performance after having left school with no qualifications. He was sacked from being a screen-printer, and sacked from being a wood-machinist. He valeted cars for some years.

Aherne has described the 38-year-old Cash as ''the funniest boy in the world

. . . the wind beneath my wings''.

Where will the duo fly to on TV next? Anywhere they like, basically, although Aherne's recently-expressed wish - expressed via a tabloid, funnily enough - that she and Cash should be allowed to act as holiday stand-ins for Richard and Judy on cosy mid-morning TV can be discounted.

Well, American TV is on the point of shelling out megabucks for the concept - if not the earthy and downbeat scripts - of The Royle Family. ''Me and Craig kept arguing when we tried to explain (to US TV execs) what The Royle

Family was about,'' Aherne has said. ''I think they thought we were so bonkers that we must be geniuses.''

Aherne has been signed by ITV to star in a Christmas

comedy nativity drama alongside her fellow Lancastrian, Fast Show co-star John Thomson. Both will play eight-year-olds.

In addition, Aherne has already established herself as a solo writer and performer on The Fast Show, most memorably recreating herself as a slack-jawed unmarried teenage mum. Cash's flat, northern, everyman's voice can currently be heard on a TV ad for McDonald's.

Together in another lucrative TV

ad, for British Gas, the twosome

re-ran their one sitcom failure to date in the characters of Mrs Merton and her slow-witted stay-at-home grown-up son, Malcolm.

So she's an OAP. She's an eight-year-old. She's an alienated teen. She's a pregnant newly-wed who can't stir to cook her husband anything more elaborate than Dairylea on toast. She's believable in everything she does.

She's beautifully understated, subtle, and complex. She's very funny. She's Caroline Aherne.

n Jonathan Ross hosts tonight's British Comedy Awards ceremony live on ITV at 9pm.