November 4, 2019

The very first episode of Miranda aired on the 9th November 2009. Unbelievable, isn’t it? Ten years! Ten years! It surely can’t be that long?

In a way, it hasn’t been. The first series went out on BBC2. Miranda Hart was not a household name at the time — and it took the Beeb a while to realise they’d got a slow-burn hit on their hands. It wasn’t until the third series in 2012-13 that it moved to BBC1. The final episode was aired on New Year’s Day, 2015 — and that was that.

Except that Hart went on to star in Call The Midwife, a successful Sunday night drama that funnelled a new audience to re-runs of the sitcom, which is also a permanent fixture on streaming services. So, Miranda never really went away — and has well-and-truly earned it’s forthcoming tenth anniversary special.

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A US remake, Carla, is in currently in development — following in the footsteps of The Office and The Thick of It. But one could argue that there’s already been a remake, of a sort: the phenomenon that is Fleabag. It’s not a literal remake, of course — or even an homage. But if a dark and twisted mirror universe were to acquire the rights to Miranda instead of Hollywood (yes, I know, same difference), then something like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s blacker-than-black comedy would be the result.

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Before I proceed any further down this line of argument, let me pause to put on my treading-carefully shoes. Just because two shows happen to have been created, written and performed by a woman, it doesn’t mean that facile comparisons should be drawn between them. I need to be to be extra careful in this particular context, because comedy is the most sexist of the performing arts.

The ability of women to act or sing or dance is never questioned, but a funny woman is, to some men, a crime against nature and a personal affront. Perhaps that’s because the key to success in comedy is authority. However much the performer makes a clown of him or her self, he or she must stay in command. The moment that laughing with becomes laughing at (or not laughing at all), the performer becomes a victim and the comedy becomes cruelty. The successful comedian is therefore an authority figure, and anyone who has a ‘problem’ with female authority is going to have a problem with female comedians.

Therefore it’s all the more important to consider the achievements of women like Hart and Waller-Bridge on their own merits and not lumped to together in a bogus category of ‘female comedy’.

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That said, the parallels between Miranda and Fleabag are too numerous and too interesting to be ignored. Both centre on single, thirty-something women from upper middle-class backgrounds struggling to find a place in life while their contemporaries appear to be forging ahead with successful careers and relationships. Miranda runs a joke shop (badly) while Fleabag runs a café (very badly). The only reason why these businesses exist at all is the support provided by a more capable best friend (Stevie for Miranda, Boo for Fleabag). Both women also have bumbling, semi-useless fathers and dysfunctional relationships with their mothers. Both possess a streak of irresponsibility that leads them into farcical predicaments. And, in both cases, the misrule goes meta with Miranda and Fleabag constantly breaking the fourth wall. (They even meta the meta — Fleabag is caught addressing the audience by another character, while once or twice I’m pretty sure that Miranda the character glances to the camera as Miranda Hart.)

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There are some equally obvious contrasts, of course. Miranda is a light-hearted, family show; Fleabag is anything but. While Miranda’s mother, played by the awesome Patricia Hodge, steals every scene she appears in; Fleabag’s mother is dead. Furthermore (and spoilers ahead) her best friend is also dead — she ran into traffic after Fleabag slept with the man Boo was in love with. Speaking of men, Miranda spends three series and two Christmas specials chasing after, and finally marrying, her love interest; Fleabag, however, starts off with and then recklessly alienates her nice, if somewhat dull, boyfriend. Everything in Fleabag is a five hundred shades darker, and filthier, than Miranda.

Unsurprisingly, Fleabag is considered the more daring show. Certainly, it’s the more fashionable – a huge critical hit, whereas Miranda is ‘merely’ popular. But while Waller-Bridge is a stunningly talented writer and actor who deserves the honours heaped at her feet, I’d argue that Miranda represents the more radical achievement.

Eponymous sitcoms are a staple of American TV. I Love Lucy, The Cosby Show, Roseann, Seinfeld and many others are named after the star of the show, who appears as a fictionalised version of him or herself. It’s much less common on British TV. There was Hancock’s Half Hour, of course, and, in the 1970s, the all-but-forgotten Sykes; but in general it’s not the done thing for UK sitcoms, no matter how big the star. Perhaps that’s because British situation comedy is more character than personality driven. It therefore took guts for Hart, a relative unknown in 2009, to put herself on the line in that way.

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There’s an intriguing question as to whether Fleabag is also an eponymous sitcom. The character played by Waller-Bridge isn’t actually called Fleabag, in fact she’s never referred to by name at all — which makes the character literally anonymous. However, my theory is that Fleabag is a corruption of Phoebe (Phoe-be → Flea-be → Flea-bag). I have no evidence to support this, other than the phonemic similarities and the absence of any other name for the character. So, if I’m right, then Fleabag is Phoebe, albeit in monstrously distorted form.

The two Mirandas, real and fictional, appear to be more closely related. But that makes the portrayal of the latter’s insecurities closer to the knuckle. There’s no shying away from Miranda’s six foot plus physical presence. She does not conform to the supposedly ideal female body shape, but rather than allowing others to make fun of it, she has fun with it. Hart’s physical comedy — a dying art — is faultless. At the time, however, she refuses to fit into any of the female comedy stereotypes — she is neither the dolly bird nor the vamp nor the frump nor the doormat nor the dragon.

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A defiantly feminist agenda is often attributed to Fleabag. This can be overdone. Waller-Bridge is hardly the first female writer to take her humour across every imaginable line. The under-rated Julia Davis has been doing that in her sitcoms for years (bubbly milk, anyone?) As for portrayals of uninhibited, confident sexuality, Mae West did it in the face of pre-war US government censorship (not that she minded — “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it”).

It should also be said that Fleabag is protected by a mantle of cool. No matter how visceral a mess she finds herself in, she never looks less than iconic — even with tear-streaked make-up running down her face she’s somehow perfectly poised.

It’s Miranda who fully takes on the traditionally male role of clown, discarding every shred of elegance and yet holding on to her dignity as both a character and a performer. That’s a much tougher trick to pull off — especially within the constraints of broad, all-ages comedy.

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Writing great comedy of any kind is supremely difficult, which is why there’s so little of it. But the dark secret of edgy humour is that it’s easier to do it well (though, as I say, not easy). If you’re willing and able to plumb the depths of human experience, then there’s an awful lot down there to work with. Laughter, after all, is a displacement activity — a way of defusing shock and surprise. With lighter humour, though, it’s much harder to avoid cliché, stereotype and dullness.

There’s also the inspiration and albatross of classic comedy — against which any new mainstream sitcom will be tried and usually found wanting. Miranda clearly sits in that tradition, overtly paying homage to the likes of Dad’s Army through the “you have been watching” bit at the end of end of each episode.

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Inviting comparison to the best sit-coms of TV’s golden age was another brave move on Hart’s part. And yet it’s a standard that Miranda measures up to, while being completely of its own time and place.

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A 21st century audience is a tough crowd, though. The uncensored comedy we have plentiful access to has both sharpened our appetites and jaded our palates. For some viewers, only the likes of Fleabag will do. We’ve become less tolerant of corn and slapstick, more open to despair and desecration A lot of people, sadly, are just not up for such fun.

But even the cynics ought to recognise what Miranda, at its best, could achieve. For instance, ‘Just Act Normal’ (a bottle episode in the second series) is 30 minutes of sheer brilliance sustained over a single scene by Hart and Hodge (plus Mark Heap as a mostly silent psychiatrist). It’s one of finest half hours of comedy written by anyone, anywhere in this century — and all before the watershed.

So, thank you, Miranda — and indeed Miranda Hart. You are a, what I call, genius.