Robert Hanks: We've tired of relentless cynicism

Miranda's success reflects a certain public weariness with the comedy of outrage

Monday 24 January 2011 01:00

Miranda Hart's overwhelming success at the British Comedy Awards on Saturday evening marks the (temporary) triumph of classical values in television comedy. Irony, surrealism and cynicism are all very well in their place, but when it comes down to it, nothing is ever funnier than seeing a skilful comedian making silly faces at the camera and falling over – and Hart is a skilful comedian. Just how clever she is isn't immediately obvious.

Reactions to Miranda, Hart's knowingly old-fashioned sitcom on BBC2, tend to concentrate on her size (6 ft 1) and physical awkwardness; but plenty of people manage to be large and clumsy without being remotely funny – it's Miranda's scandalised horror at her own ineptness that makes the jokes work. She is the most accomplished practitioner of the exaggerated double-take since Cary Grant (who was, coincidentally, almost exactly the same height).

Alternatively, critics have been so distracted by the "old-fashioned" part that they have overlooked the knowingness. The show's title harks back self-consciously to the world of Hancock or Sykes. (Hart has regularly been compared to Hattie Jacques, Eric Sykes's sister in the sitcom, as though size were all that matters; really, she has far more in common with Sykes's own baffled comic presence.) The credits at the end of every episode begin with the words: "You have been watching", just like Dad's Army. Hart's character's job running a joke-shop and her frequent asides to the audience recall the style of The Beano - eh, readers?

Socially, Miranda also sometimes seems out of joint with the times, what with Miranda's boarding-school background and her mother's cut-glass-accented cries of "Such fun!" (brilliantly performed by Patricia Hodge). But it isn't quite as trapped in the past as it makes out: the joke-shop's stock includes very contemporary chocolate penises; Miranda herself may be perpetually frustrated in her efforts to snare Gary, the gorgeous chef at the restaurant next door, but her flatmate Stevie seems to have a no-holds-barred sex life. Gary turns out to have married to an Asian immigrant to help her get UK residence; in a search for an outsize dinner frock, Miranda ends up getting outfitted at "Transformers", a shop for male transvestites (that never happened to Captain Mainwaring).

Outside the somewhat hermetic world of the joke shop, Miranda regularly runs into disconcerting manifestations of the modern world: one episode of the second series, "Just Act Normal", had her and her mother, Penny, ordered by a court to be assessed by a psychiatrist after an incident in which Miranda, struggling as always to avoid minor embarrassment, bought ice-creams for 29 schoolchildren – essentially, an allegation of on-street paedophile grooming. It doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody watching that this plotline was remotely problematic; but then, that episode, which took place entirely inside the psychiatrist's office, and demanded that the shrink remain an almost wordless audience to Miranda and Penny's increasingly hysterical rowing, was a tour de force, one of the most brilliantly crafted pieces of comedy to appear on British TV in decades.

Perhaps, too, Miranda's success reflects a certain public weariness with the comedy of outrage – the determined cynicism, the suspect willingness to play with social, racial and sexual stereotypes, that informs the stand-up of Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle and the sketches of Little Britain. Miranda belongs with The IT Crowd and Harry Hill's TV Burp in a tradition of amiability and brazen silliness, a school of comedy that wants its audience to laugh not out of shock or a refusal to be shocked, but out of delight.

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