Big Top, BBC1; Miranda, BBC2

What was the BBC thinking with this offensive 'comedy' throwback? Still, the tall lady rises to the occasion beautifully
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The Independent Culture

When I was a child, wintry Sunday evenings meant watching Last of the Summer Wine while eating my supper, snuggled up to the radiator. It wasn't so much the thrill-a-minute antics that held me in thrall as the gentle rhythms of Peter Sallis's voice, later employed to such wonderful effect by Aardman. "More cheese, Gromit?" Certainly, but if you don't mind, I'll stick to the Stinking Bishop rather than the terrible stench wafting over from Big Top.

One can only imagine that the BBC commissioners are hoping to recreate the feeling of warmth engendered by Cleggy, Compo and Foggy with this throwback of a comedy, and the cheese gauge is certainly set on full fat – but the gags are never more than inanely mild.

To judge by her hotpants and hunting jacket, Amanda Holden must be the ringmistress of a circus whose acts we never see but which sounds, from behind the scenes, where the action takes place, frankly, rubbish, despite an all-star cast. The Thompson twins, Sophie (of EastEnders, and, erm, sister of Emma fame) and John (Cold Feet and Coronation Street, though admittedly a Thomson without the "p") are married circus clowns – Helen and Geoff – who, we are constantly told by Erasmus (Tony Robinson, in an odd-job role I could never quite put my finger on), would bring more joy to the assembled crowds by leaving the ring rather than finishing their act. Ruth "Hi-De-Hi!" Madoc finally drains any goodwill her campers might still hold for her as a demanding grande dame who can't keep her dancing dogs on a leash; and Bruce Mackinnon harks back to the benign world of Alf Garnett as the idiotic acrobat Boyco, from Eastern Europe. (Thank you for the geographic tip, BBC press release.) Bruce who? Oh, come now, Bruce Mackinnon... you know, that one from The Office and The Catherine Tate Show. Still no? Me neither.

Sorry, did I say benign world? I meant disturbingly racist world. Eastern European, is he? He'll probably have a funny accent. Oh, he does. And he's casually homophobic in a nonsensical way? ("That homosexual pop group ... Coldplay.") Of course he is. But that's OK. Because he's Eastern European. Any particular country? Apparently not. But then, as stupid and offensive as Boyco's character is, it's no worse than the rest of this trite bunch. Did you not know that everyone who works in a circus is dim?

One could dwell on the curiosity of Holden's Botoxed face not allowing her a full range of gurning (or, indeed, any expression at all); on a paucity of imagination (one of Madoc's dogs is called Fido. Fido, for goodness' sake); on the offensive and pathetic punchlines (Geoff: "When we come in, you're supposed to play Looney Tunes, not ..." Erasmus: "... Hitler's speech to the 1935 Nuremberg Rally." Do we really need the date as detail – in case we thought it was a different rally? Is that speech even comedy fodder?); on the repeated attempts to get a laugh from a story straight out of a Victorian music hall about sticking ferrets down trousers ("Looks like they had a ball." Ho ho!). But to go on like that would be cruel.

Let's instead be kind and suggest that maybe it'll be a grower. Just as Miranda has been. Miranda Hart is a distinctly amiable and engaging comic whose funny bones are as prodigious as her height. Hart, a stand-up, made her way on to TV via the exemplary Smack the Pony, the execrable Hyperdrive and, latterly, the excellent Not Going Out, in which she channelled Count Duckula's Nanny – an oversized hen who is impossible to dislike. All of which has led to her own show, which at first felt rather twee, what with all her knowing glances to camera and the actors' waving over their names as the credits rolled à la Dad's Army. Really, who do you think you are kidding?

But, to Hart's credit, the series has picked up, and its latest outing, which saw her taking a holiday – to Thailand, she told her friends, but actually around the corner to a luxury retreat – had me in fits. Not for its originality of premise – taking on a self-improvement lecturer's persona and playing merry hell with it is not exactly mind-blowing – nor the farce (one of the friends she lied to turns up as an "escort" she mistakenly ordered) but perhaps because it is impossible not to warm to someone so at ease with their own inadequacies.

Promoting her show, Holden asked the salient question: "In this current climate who wants to watch a desperate family in their living room? They want escapism, colour and clowns – even if they're rubbish!" Well, Amanda, sorry to disappoint, but I'd rather spend the rest of this seemingly never-ending crunch watching Miranda Hart and her friends struggling to make something of their lives than another second of you sending in the buffoons.