WOULD you take advice from this woman? Perhaps you should. Miranda Hart’s guide to coping with “life hiccups” includes tips on surviving school, getting through weddings and how to avoid falling over...
aiting in the foyer of BBC Television Centre for Miranda Hart, I find myself genuinely wondering whether she will be able to navigate the revolving glass security doors that seem both small and dangerously fast – the perfect prop for a Miranda-style slapstick moment – without incident? Alas, when she does arrive, perfectly on time, sunglasses on head, wearing black patterned trousers, a scoop-neck T-shirt and pumps, neither the door nor the shiny floor stretching between us provoke any accident. And that’s with an elastic bandage on her ankle. (I think it’s a pilates injury but to be honest she looks embarrassed and mumbles when I ask her about it so I’m not entirely sure.) No falls, no fuss, Hart is friendly and entirely composed as she guides me passed a grumpy security guard, giving me an impromptu comedy tour of the iconic BBC building as we head outside to sit in the lunchtime sunshine - “This is our WH Smiths’, this is the canteen….”
Is my intrigue about what the real Miranda Hart is like a little ponderous? ‘Actress not the same as character shock!’ If so, it’s only because with Hart it’s a little tricky since her hugely popular sitcom is called Miranda, and stars Miranda being Miranda. Sort of. You can understand the interest.
The eponymous comedy was an idea that Hart first took to the BBC in 2003. She’d been doing the Edinburgh Fringe, often in a double act and appearing in small parts in Absolutely Fabulous and The Vicar of Dibley while temping in an office to make ends meet. Four years later Hart’s idea had become the Radio 2 show Miranda Hart’s Joke Shop and in 2009 the sitcom first appeared on telly. It struck some like a blast of 1970s nostalgia like ’Allo ’Allo or Hi-de-Hi. There were catchphrases and knowing winks at the camera with the cast waving goodbye as the credits ran. Recorded with a live audience it was full of slapstick and delightfully silly. There were plenty of detractors who didn’t appreciate the retro style, but the show bagged a loyal and growing army of fans, a clutch of British Comedy Awards and was followed by a successful second series. The third is being recorded for BBC1 at the moment. So is Miranda the same as Miranda or not? The answer is yes and no. Hart does say things like “plesh” for pleasure when you thank her. She is posh and she is very funny. But that’s where it ends. She’s not silly, apart from in a deliberately because it’s funny kind of a way. She’s not remotely oafish. She actually seems quite earnest and shy. She doesn’t look the same either. She’s more muzzed up, a bit punkier maybe. I have to restrain myself from being shocked that she’s got a tattoo on her upper arm.
“So many people say ‘what do you mean it’s not you?’ And it’s like, of course it’s not me,” she says with practiced ease of someone who says this a lot. “To me, obviously, it’s a clown character. I’ve never been in the position of being at a funeral and not knowing who’s in the box so I’m obviously acting that scenario. I’ve never been in love with a guy called Gary. I’m not in the first flushes of romance with somebody. I don’t own a joke shop. I’m acting. It’s a role and acting is required.”
But the thing is, this identity confusion isn’t going to get any easier with Hart’s new book, Is It Just Me? Written in the form of a quirky guide to life and built around grown-up Miranda addressing “Little Miranda” her dramatic, gawky, brilliantly naive 18-year-old self, the book is full of Hart’s homespun philosophy about how to cope with what she calls “life hiccups”. There are chapters on music and weddings, motherhood and personal grooming, holidays and dating. There are plenty of anecdotes too, covering all the times that she’s got it wrong (bread rolls as shoulder pads, book clubs, flicking a slippery prawn into another diner’s cappuccino) and it’s properly funny in a very Miranda-ish way. That means, if you’re anything like me, when she describes asking a man she’s just been introduced to at a party how he pronounces his name – he’s called Bob – you will be laughing out loud.
“I really liked the idea of telling my younger self what life is about because often when I’m here,” she wafts her hand around the iconic BBC doughnut in which Hart reckons she’s already spotted some of the Strictly crew – she’s a superfan – “if I’m getting a bit jaded or grumpy about my job, or tired or stressed, I will often think what would my 13 or 16 or 18-year-old self say wandering around these corridors that Morecambe and Wise used to walk? She would just be so overwhelmed. You forget as an adult what your dreams were.”
Hart knew that she wanted to be in comedy by the time she was at university studying politics. But she didn’t really know how to go about it and it wasn’t until she was 33 that she got her first break. It’s not exactly overnight stardom, but it’s still an astonishing rise from “woman who answers the phone” in someone else’s comedy show to eponymous sitcom on primetime BBC1. It’s also why Hart can deliver the message in her book of do what you want, not what you think you should do and don’t despair that things are not happening as fast as they might, without provoking raised eyebrows.
“Little M” is horrified that certain aspects of grown-up Miranda’s life have not worked out as anticipated. The business was not started at 23, she did not get married at 25.
“That was slightly inflated for comedy purposes because you don’t exactly remember, but I did feel like that,” she says. “At that age you really do plan. You really think that things are going to go the way you plan too. I was definitely going to be a PE teacher just for a bit before getting into politics.” She rolls her eyes and laughs. “So grand. And obviously you just think well I’ll get into politics. You don’t think that there might be a process, that you might have to be elected. Ridiculous grandiosity.”
Hart laughs when I tell her that in terms of the great question of who is the real Miranda Hart, her book isn’t exactly going to clarify things. “What, I’ve confused people even more about what’s real and what’s not?” She does a dastardly laugh. “The book is my first step into what is more really me, but it’s still the incredibly heightened comic side of me. It’s a comedy book. Maybe later on down the line I’ll be more honest and open and deeper, rather than just showing the heightened silly side.”
Even if it is the silly side that Hart is most happy to show, the book isn’t just silly. Just as the sitcom has become a favourite amongst women who relate to Miranda’s dating disasters and teenage girls who respond to the character’s constant struggles to fit in, the book is a heartfelt reclamation of being uncool. Hart wants us to know and accept that not being cool, not being the most beautiful, or the one who sits serenely at the centre of the in-crowd is not only fine, but to be celebrated.
“If you’re gorgeous, you’re going to get by absolutely fine...” she writes, “whereas, if you look like a sack of offal that’s been drop-kicked down a lift-shaft into a pond, you’re going to spend many of your formative years alone. This may seem miserable – but you’ll have space, space that you can constructively use to discover and hone your skills, learn a language, develop an interest in cosmology, practise the oboe, do whatever you fancy, really, so long as it doesn’t involve being looked at or snogging anyone. And you’ll very likely emerge from your chrysalis aged 25 as a highly accomplished young thing ready to take on the world. Meanwhile, The Beautiful Ones will have been so busy having boyfriends and brushing their hair that they’ll just be . . . who they always were.”
So is Hart rewriting her own history and making it less painful?
“I suppose if I was writing more seriously I’d look back at the darker times of my life and I would think, do you know what, I wouldn’t be without those times. There is that sort of redemption in getting older and in my case being lucky that life gets better as I get older. I thought it was a nightmare when I was younger because I thought I want the fun now. But everything is so dramatic when you’re younger, such a nightmare and so depressing.” She laughs.
Hart attended the all-girls boarding school Downe House in Berkshire with her younger sister Alice. Clare Balding was in the year above. The sisters were sent when their father, David Hart Dyke, the commanding officer of HMS Coventry when it was sunk during the Falklands War, was posted to Washington DC. Hart says that her childhood sounds posh but it wasn’t really. But there’s no doubt that Hart mines a lot of her comedy from playing with poshness. The character of Tilly (Sally Phillips) in the sitcom who speaks in ridiculous jolly hockey stick-style catchphrases sounds like she’s been created from an amalgam of Hart’s schoolfriends who get various mentions in the book.
“We had someone called Piss in our year,” she says. “Her surname was Pilling which turned into Pissing and then for seven years she was called Piss.” She shakes her head. “But it was sort of completely normal. It just became her name. So weird.”
Somehow, Hart has managed to ensure that her own poshness isn’t remotely alienating. It’s not the same, but there’s a whiff of a parallel with the character of Camilla Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne, Chummy, whom Hart plays in the surprise Sunday night hit Call the Midwife, having been personally chosen by author Jennifer Worth. They’re posh but ever so likeable.
“I loved doing that,” she says. “Acting someone else’s words, not having that pressure and being in an ensemble. I got so lucky. I adored Chummy.” She says the name again in her plummiest accent, smiling. “It makes you love the comedy more when you step away too.”
Hart says that ideally she’d like to do both straight acting and comedy. As for the sitcom, it really is Hart’s baby. She gets some help with storylining at the start of each series, but after that it’s really just her at home with her dog, Peggy (“full name Miss Margaret Hart”), writing. It’s obvious the cast are close, she describes them as having “a kind of family feeling”, but they don’t improvise together even though they do make suggestions.
“In the first series I had to say thank you that’s a really nice suggestion and be polite. Now I just say no. Or gold star and they get very excited and it goes in.” She laughs. “It was Sarah Hadland that came up with ‘what have you done today to make you feel proud?’ and where would we be today without that? And some of Sally’s ‘Tillyisms’, the more heightened ones, have come from her. But generally, by the time we get to rehearsal, it’s set in stone. It has to be when you’re doing it in front of a live audience, it has to be really tight. And I have to be the performer not the writer.
“Comedy is hard work really. It’s serious and technical. Although the sitcom gang are like family and we laugh a lot, predominantly it’s quite serious and really hard work. We start rehearsals on a Wednesday and perform live on a Sunday night. And I have to show it to the producers on Friday afternoon so you’ve got two and a half days really. It’s mental.”
Not everyone gets Hart’s silliness, but plenty do. It’s childlike and it’s fun. And seeing someone gallantly failing to cope with everyday situations – job interviews, joining a gym, going on a date – makes us all feel better about our experience of ‘life hiccups’ too. It’s possible that Hart may also be responsible for an epidemic of grown women galloping, one of the activities she encourages in the book.
“I do get people saying to me they galloped to school,” she says. “And if they’re in a rush they’ll gallop for a bus. In the new series there’s a great flashback that we do in a train station with the Black Beauty theme tune playing. I could just watch it over and over, it’s so joyous. That does make life better.”
Hart is plainly lovely. Given that comedy isn’t exactly renowned for attracting easy characters, she’s a bit of a treat. I want to know where her show-off instincts come from, but to be honest she seems so un-showy and embarrassed I find it impossible to square the woman sitting opposite me with the sitcom Miranda. They are very different.
“It does sit very badly,” she says laughing. “It’s so embarrassing. It’s a complete mix of ‘oh god, I’m so mortified about myself, let me just fall down a grave again. Watch me!’ But then I get embarrassed and shy about the most stupid things. It only works because it’s all an act, I’m not that person. I can be that free when I’ve got the ‘Miranda’ outfit on. It lets me get it all out of my system and then in real life I want to be a bit shy and embarrassed about everything.”
So what about being famous? How does that fit?
“I suppose it doesn’t sit that true either. I don’t really think about it and then occasionally someone shouts at me in the street and I’m like ‘oh yeah’. I’m reminded about it.”
It’s obvious that being recognised isn’t something that Hart craved, nor is it something she particularly enjoys. If anything, she says, it’s made her more self-conscious rather than less.
“I would’ve thrown a telly out of the window when I wasn’t famous, but I wouldn’t now. It slightly gets in the way but it’s part of it. You can’t get angry about it because it’s what you’ve chosen to do. It’s surreal because you don’t ever expect it, or I didn’t expect to have any success in the business so it’s a bit like what? It’s only silly old me.”
Is it Just Me? by Miranda Hart is out now, published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20.