Gathered to discuss the runaway, not to mention unexpected, BBC Two sitcom Miranda at the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival 2011 over the weekend were its stars Miranda Hart and Sarah Hadland (who plays the diminutive Stevie) along with Head of BBC In-House Comedy, Mark Freeland. The event was hosted by seasoned broadcaster Mariella Frostrup.
Frostrup was keen to address issues of class in Miranda and the show’s Seventies, studio-based style, asking, “You’re unashamedly retro in way, aren’t you?”
MH: “Yeah. When my producer [Janice Hadlow] said, “Do you want to develop something?” I said, “Yes” then I thought I might as well as go for my pipe dream. So I’d love to do a sitcom that’s also light entertainment in its format with looks to camera and let’s fully embrace the studio sitcom genre.
“I think people were sort of, at that stage, slightly looking down on it and it was all about single-camera sitcoms at that time. I said let’s not be afraid, the studio sitcom is what it is. I’ll look to camera, the performances will be quite heightened and surreal. I wanted to embrace that Seventies feel that I love so much.
“The producer was great, she said, “I think you’re mad, it’s really risky”. But she was brilliant, she said “I’ll support you if that’s what you really want to do but it would be much safer, much more likelier to get it on [television] if you do a sketch show. She was great.”
MF: “The shadow of the single camera and The Office [the Ricky Gervais 2001 sitcom] was very heavy. The studio sitcom is still a good night out. It never dies.”
MH: “When I did start developing it they [the BBC] said you must write a single camera sitcom, we’re not using studios. Then, in the two years it took to write it, there was a shift and they said you can do it as a studio [sitcom] now.”
SH: “I was terrified. Because it was a slightly different style of sitcom, a more old-fashioned style of sitcom it makes you think, “Oh god, is this going to be funny? Is it going to work?
“I remember the first studio [filming] we did, the audience reaction was amazing and then you think, “Well, maybe it’s just these people that like it and we’re getting a false sense of how successful it’s going to be.””
Frostrup pushed the writer further, debating the “middle-classness” of Miranda.
MH: “I don’t think about being middle-class or I’m writing a middle-class sitcom. I know that I’ve found those heightened middle-class phrases that my mum and her friends use that I found funny. I thought that if I found it funny then other people would too and recognise it.
“I really shy away from being called middle-class, I don’t like the labeling; I just think funny’s funny. I think it’s irrelevant. I am middle-class and I bring that to it but the goals of the character are universal, they’re classless.”
The show’s success has been phenomenal; Hart was asked if she was surprised by response for such a “gentle” and “warm” comedy?
MH: “I can’t believe it, I’m still in shock. I really am. We all thought it was a risk but we knew it would go down excellently with the WI, we were sure of that. [Laughs] I really didn’t think that the broad demographic that watch it would. I particularly didn’t think the industry would like it at all. We knew critically it would get slammed, as studio shows do. So surprised.”
Moving on, Hart discussed the writing process and just how difficult it is for her.
MH: “I do have a bit of help. When I’ve thought of enough ideas I meet with two people who help me to storyline and hone my ideas. They spend about a month with me and go away and hone those and then I start writing drafts for four or five months. And then at the end of the process I’ve got a couple of people who help me gag the script up. So, predominantly it’s me but I do get help.
“I do find it stressful. I put enormous amount of pressure on myself with the scripts. I don’t enjoy the process. It’s incredibly technical writing comedy. I find it very tough and I’m very serious about it ‘cos I think comedy is important. I’m a massive fan of comedies, therefore I want to honour the audience as much as possible and make my show as funny as I can.
“I do take a long time to focus on the story, that’s where my comedy graphs come in. Once I’ve storylined an episode it’s just a way to make sure and feel happy about the ups and downs in a story and where the laughs are. I actually draw it and I’ll look at it and say, “Well there’s four minutes there where there hasn’t been a little spike.” So it just shows you the light and shade and the rhythm of it.”
From the original pilot to the first series, there was a dramatic change in the character of Stevie (played by Hadland), the panel talked through the developments and why they took place.
MH: “In the pilot Stevie was a real suit, very smart – wanted to be Alan Sugar’s apprentice. I wasn’t that happy with it so I asked the producer if I could be in a room with Sarah for a couple of days. We improvised around it.”
SH: “We were sitting around the office and then took a camcorder back to your flat and just improvised and some stuff came out.”
MH: “Suddenly you came out with “So what have you done today to make yourself feel proud?” and I said, “What did you just say?””
SH: “‘Cos that’s something I do as a person is sing something and that came around.”
MH: “The Stevie character really was rubbish. It really wasn’t very strong. We met in the audition and then had a couple of days improvising together and people would say on the pilot, “It must be so nice working with your best friend, you’ve clearly known each other for years,” even though we met just last week.
“We immediately connected and now I very much write for Sarah particularly. She sometimes comes round and performs for me like a monkey. We’re like two seven year-old children putting on plays for ourselves.
“Initially Steve was going to be the high status character who put me down and told me to grow up. But now that has become Tilly (played by Sally Phillips) and that’s much better. Now we’ve got some warmth.”
SH: “We’re much more pals. I think I’m a bit better but I’m just as bad.”
MH: “The Tilly character can pop in and be rude rather than a constant presence being rude.”
The first two series of Miranda have been on broadcast on BBC Two, but the now the switch has come and Series 3 will see a BBC One transmission; did the panel think changes would have to be made?
MH: “I’m not really thinking about it. Editorially I won’t have to change anything.”
MF: “It doesn’t have to change because it’s repeated on BBC One [Series 2 is currently airing]. There’s no change required.”
And finally, from the audience, came a question asking if a Comic Relief crossover with Absolutely Fabulous is a possibility – a notion that clearly captured the imagination of the panel.
MH: [Laughing] “I can’t imagine what would happen if they came into the shop. They would give us a glass of champagne and on one we would be pissed. Two really quite square suburban women looking at chocolate willies. Edina and Patsy would not be impressed.”