She's conquered our television screens, now she's injecting some serious silliness into our reading list. It's the return of Miranda Hart.
Words: Debbie McQuoid Photography: Mark Harrison
The smell of toast is having a contradictory effect on Miranda Hart. Memories of the boarding school she attended and ‘breakfast duty’ seem to be conjuring a pleasant nostalgia, but the tummy bug she picked up last night means she can’t indulge herself. It’s making her very torn. Instead the 39 year old settles down on the sofas of the north London studio for our shoot with an Alka-Seltzer and cup of Earl Grey, not quite ready to talk.
In truth, we’re lucky to have time with Miranda at all. She’s been writing her third series of the hit show Miranda since January, has just wrapped on a week of location shoots and is filming in front of a live audience every Sunday night. That’s on top of appearing in a second series of hit BBC Fifties drama Call The Midwife (it’s back in the New Year) and writing her debut book, Is It Just Me?. The book is a collection of Miranda’s musings about social scenarios gone wrong, using her wealth of experience of awkward situations, it reads absolutely how Miranda talks and, like her show, can induce cringing. But also laughter. Lots of silly, juvenile, laughter. Rather like a student with a textbook, or a romantic with One Day, reading Miranda’s book on my commute advertises I’m in a club. A club that doesn’t mind laughing at itself and won’t die of embarrassment if toilet paper sticks to her shoe. Luckily, Miranda doesn’t mind talking about being silly at all. In fact, the more we talk, the less need she has for that Alka-Seltzer…
Has sitting still and writing a book been difficult for someone as physical in their comedy as you?
I loved writing the book. It was lots of fun and much simpler than writing the sitcom because you don’t have to go for big belly laughs because there was no studio audience. So the pressure was off slightly. And also the technicalities of a sitcom story, with other characters to weave in and things, the book was much more of a stream of consciousness.
Were you disciplined?
Yes. I treat writing like a day job and then towards the end, a day and night job. I’m not very good at stopping. I can stay at the desk for too long during the day. Not enough to not go to the toilet or anything, I haven’t got the pelvic floor for that, but I like exercising and being active. And that’s what I hate about writing; I get very unfit. We’re not designed to be sitting down for ages. It’s not very good for us. I have to force myself every hour or so to get up and wander around and take the dog for a walk.
Why do you think people should put the time aside to be silly?
Laughter is very cathartic. Half an hour of giggles can make you feel brilliant. It’s a good release. And historically, in a recession, big mainstream belly-laugh comedies have always been in the fore, so really there’s a need for it when politically and socially things aren’t great. And it’s good to remind ourselves not to take ourselves too seriously. Vocations are important and what we decide to do on this planet is really important – we all need purpose – but it doesn’t have to be so serious. It’s often people in the creative industries that take themselves a bit too seriously. We must be clever.
Must we? Can’t we be both? Clever and silly? And there are proven health benefits to laughter…
Definitely. But you can’t force it. Worryingly, as you get older, those moments of hysterical laughter become quite rare. It depends if you’re constantly surrounded by it. But as a writer, it’s rare because you’re not in an office. I used to laugh a lot in an office.
Which social scenarios could do with an injection of silliness?
I’m not very good at the formal drinks party. I find them quite boring. Sitting down for dinner is easier because you can actually chat to people and you have food to distract you. But drinks parties are the type of things that end up feeling too drenched in etiquette. When the tray of nibbles comes round, I just want to flip it up in the air. I have the joy of being able to do that in a sitcom. I get it all out of my system so I can be safe in public.
Do you have to schmooze at more drinks parties than you used to?
I suppose I could if I wanted to but I sort of don’t want to. I don’t see myself as a celebrity. I don’t need to be seen at places. If I get invited to something I really want to go to like a theatre opening that I think is amazing then yes. But no, I tend to stay away from anything you have to be smart at. Or anything where people look you up and down to see what you’re wearing.
How do you feel about people approaching you for autographs?
I find people’s brazenness to ask for photos really weird because I would never do that. I get embarrassed and shy very easily about the strangest things. Causing a fuss of any kind, I find excruciating.
But most of the scenarios in your book are basically you creating a huge fuss. Like flicking the prawn into a neighbouring diner’s lap…
If it’s something like that, then it’s hilarious because it’s my mistake. I mean scenarios where I’m not quite sure of the rules. Like tipping. It’s always awkward. A restaurant is easy; put it on the table. I’d never tip a taxi but occasionally I round it up. I don’t go to the hairdresser so that solves that problem. I don’t have anyone to tip thinking about it. If I did, I would probably just not tip because of the embarrassment of tipping, not because I didn’t want to.
Would you explain that to them or just leave in silence?
I think it would be quite weird to say, “I would love to give you a tip but I’m too embarrassed”. They would be like, “F*ck off, give me the tenner”.
Have you always had a strong sense of fun?
I think so. But it was dampened due to social pressure in the past. When you’re younger you don’t have the confidence, because you want to be liked, which is why mothers and grannies are so embarrassing; they’re free. So I don’t know what I’ll be like when I’m 70. I will be so embarrassing. I literally won’t give a sh*t.
Turning 30 was good because you no longer have to pretend to be all these things you were told you had to be in your 20s…
Yes. Turning 30 was brilliant because you could put your hands up and be truthful about what most people think anyway. Like, I hate clubbing. Then everyone admits they do too. And I hate standing in a pub. I like sitting down. And I quite like going to bed at 9 o’clock, maybe 9.30. I’ve just finished writing an episode where I think I must go to a music festival. Why would I want to be surrounded by girls who wear wellies and swimming costumes, even though they’re not going swimming? And what are the facilities like?
“I’m not sure I’m up for going to the moon. I’d rather go to Antigua. They all went mental didn’t they, Astronauts?”
What are the key elements to a successful pratfall? You’re very good at them.
Thank you. You have to want to do them and be relaxed. Recently, I was shooting on location and I started to get a bit scared [about the falls] and that’s a disaster. That’s the thing about age. You start thinking about health and safety, which you would never have done in your 20s. ‘What is the risk assessment here?’
Like acquiring a fear of flying…
Oh, I’ve only got scared of flying in the last five years. I’m like, ‘Why?’ I used to be the one not scared! But you know a bit more as you get older and how things work. So once I’d worked out how a plane actually works and that they’re designed to fly, you think, ‘Yes, of course [I’m scared]. It makes perfect sense.’
You’re a smart woman. Do you know lots of things, like how the television works?
It’s wires, isn’t it?
But do you really understand how it works?
No, don’t think about it. You’ll be physically ill. What about emails? Written words bouncing through the sky. Even the word satellites, if you really start. What sort of explanation is that? It’s just a word. I still don’t truly understand what it means.
So when space travel becomes commercial, you won’t be booking a holiday to the moon?
I’m not sure I’m up for going to the moon. I’d rather go to Antigua as far as holiday destinations go. Well, they all went mental didn’t they, astronauts? Perhaps it’s very helpful because you’re reminded that you have a very short life and really there’s nothing to worry about at all. But then you might come back to earth and not give a sh*t about anything. And then the next thing you know you’re not getting out of bed and sh*tting in your nightgown.
Who do you find funny?
I would always go back to the Seventies and Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper. I think it’s hard, when you know people in the industry, to watch comedy now without an analytical eye thinking, ‘What would I have done?’ And a lot of them are friends…
You’re friends with Julia Davis [they worked together on Nighty Night] yet your brands of humour are so different. Can you enjoy watching darker material?
Yes, very much so. I love Julia’s stuff. I think she’s a genius. But – and she would say the same thing about me – I couldn’t do what she does and she couldn’t do what I do. I couldn’t write in that subtle, nuanced way she does.
Do you ever worry about the trend for your type of comedy changing?
I try not to think about it even though I assume every month will be the end and I won’t be popular in six months. I’m just excited if I remain in work. The fact is popularity doesn’t last in this business. You just don’t know what’s going to happen and after this series that might be it.
Has Call The Midwife whetted your appetite for more serious acting?
Yes, definitely. I loved it and was thrilled how well it was received. I haven’t had the phone off the hook yet, sadly. But I suppose there’s less drama being made.
What about personally? What sort of things make you laugh?
The thing that makes me laugh most in life are animals, if I’m honest. My dog, Peggy, ate a wasabi pea by mistake the other day, and it was the funniest thing I’d seen in my life. I nearly gave her another one. And I always laugh with David Walliams. He has a sort of silliness where he can find the comedy in anything.
He always looks like he’s on the edge of laughter.
Yes, Julia does too. She’s always on the verge of a corpse. And that’s a good sign because it means you feel funny when you’re doing it and that comes across on screen.
Do you ever feel that way?
We have a live audience, so we have to be more precise, and we rehearse within an inch of our lives. We’ve only got two takes to do it. Occasionally, someone will do something ‘in the moment’. Patricia Hodge [Penny] is our corpser. There are takes where you can see her about to go, and we’ve just got her. I love that look on someone. As a comedian, you’re constantly worried it’s not funny, or that this could be the career-ending episode. You’re always relieved that you find a little moment of laughter.
Is there any comedy you don’t like?
Yes, lots. I think people in this country are incredibly passionate about their comedy so they get really angry about comedies they don’t like. So when comedy is successful you can get a lot of hate for it. I accept that about my show because I have the same reaction to other shows myself.
What about American shows? Can you watch them less critically?
Yes. I love them because you feel so far removed. They feel so exciting and massive. I’ve never worked in LA but I think it’s a romantic, amazing place.
Is working there an option? They seem to love the BBC in America…
The show hasn’t been on BBC America. I don’t know quite why. I’d like it to be. I’d love to experience LA. A small part in a film. That would be amazing. I love the idea of living in America, work aside. I like the idea of having a ranch. Because that’s what Julia Roberts does. I don’t know anything about ranching. Is ranching a verb? I love the thought of Colorado; skiing in winter, beautiful hikes in summer.
Would you dress appropriately… in cowboy boots?
No. I’d dress like Scarlett O’Hara. Isn’t that what they all wear?
Is It Just Me? by Miranda Hart is out 11 October (£20, Hodder & Stoughton)