herald

Thursday 27 November 2014

Why Miranda makes me laugh

We enter 2013 with a crash, a bang and a wallop. Much of the crashing, banging (mostly into the furniture) and walloping was done by Miranda Hart in the third series of Miranda, promoted from side street BBC2 to main boulevard BBC1 as a reward for its success.

I've read a lot of snooty things about Miranda which presumptuously suggest I should hate it. It's mainstream, old-fashioned and overacted, and the core idea -- socially awkward woman in her 30s desperately seeks male companionship but keeps ending up in embarrassing situations -- has been done to death countless times before.

It relies heavily on slapstick and pratfalls, and on Hart breaking the fourth wall and offering gurning asides and a running commentary on the action to a studio audience that shrieks its approval at every single gag.

As it happens, all of the above are things I love about old-fashioned comedy -- especially the pratfalls and the fourth wall-breaking, an ancient but still effective device that harks back to the earliest days of music hall and runs through the work of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Hart's personal favourites, Morecambe and Wise, as well as through 80s sitcoms featuring performers as diverse as Garry Shandling, Sean Hughes and Paul Merton.

So instead of groaning and rolling my eyes when Hart crashes into a wall, falls flat on her face or rolls off a sofa with a thump for the umpteenth (thumpteenth?) time, I find myself laughing my head off. Physical comedy isn't an easy thing to do well on television but Hart does it brilliantly.

The plots in Miranda are deliberately perfunctory. Last night's, for instance, saw her being arrested for impersonating a police officer while mucking around in a fancy-dress costume and then switching clothes with her barkingly right-wing mother, gleefully played by Patricia Hodge, in the police station.

It barely matters. Everything in the programme, which is less a sitcom than an extended variety act, from the ridiculous situations to the broadly-drawn support characters, is there just to secure big laughs.

You could say something similar about Mrs Brown's Boys, which picked up 8 million viewers -- just 2 million shy of Miranda's audience -- on BBC1 over the Christmas, in addition to the 970,000 it bagged on RTE1. But where Brendan O'Carroll's comedy is crude, blunt and calculated, Hart's revels in the pure, silly joy of making an audience laugh. It's infectious, and infectiously funny.

Someone who knew all about breaking the fourth wall was Frankie Howerd. His gossipy, innuendo-laden asides to the audience, delivered with an impeccably timed combination of butter-wouldn't-melt naivete and knowing nudge-nudge, wink-wink mischievousness, was what made Up Pompeii a hit.

Howerd's comic brilliance was recalled in Frankie Howerd: The Lost Tapes, a 90-minute documentary packed with previously unseen footage, much of it foraged from the vast personal collection that litters his former home. Following Howerd's death in 1992, his longtime partner Dennis Haymer, kept the house as a kind of shrine and the current owners have continued the tradition.

Alongside the brilliance was the resilience. A huge radio star in the 40s, Howerd's egotistical behaviour made him a TV pariah for most of the next decade. He was rescued, however, when Peter Cook gave him a regular spot at his Establishment Club.

Howerd's fortunes rose and fell like a playground swing throughout his life, but his career ended on a high when appearances at small venues and universities won him a new, young audience.

Among the archive gems here were a bizarre collaboration with The Bee Gees, and a sitcom Howerd made for Canadian TV when Britain turned its back on him.

Possibly because the film was screened pre-watershed, it was tentative to the point of prim about the darker aspects of Howerd's private life. Fascinating stuff, though.



MIRANDA HHHHI FRANKIE HOWERD: THE LOST TAPES HHHII

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