8 August 2012
The other night, Kathleen went out to dinner with a former client whom she liked, and although I was nicely invited to join, I decided to stay home and watch Miranda, as much of the show as I could. I made it through eleven of the twelve episodes, and to justify this indulgence, I kept a pad and pencil handy for writing down the rococo words with which Tillie, Miranda’s old schoolmate (played by Sally Phillips), ornaments her banal announcements. Here is a short selection.
Marvelisimus (which Miranda expands to “Marvelissimussolini”)
“Tomarzipan” is a variant of “tomorrow,” in case you’re stumped. How many of these constructions did the scriptwriters invent? At one point, Tillie says “Johnny Cashingtons” for “money,” but she seems to expect Miranda to know what she’s talking about. Tillie throws in a lot of actual Italian, and seems to speak French quite fluently; she appears to want her English to be equally incomprehensible to natives.
At one point, another schoolfriend, Stinky, declares that the sushi on offer looks “edible von guzzlebuckets.” Did I hear that properly?
Another verbal thread that runs through Miranda is Miranda’s fascination with words that catch her fancy: “Clutch, now there’s a good word.” “Thrust” is another favorite. In the eleventh episode, a pas de trois for Miranda, her mother, Penny (Patricia Hodge), and a psychiatrist (Mark Heap), Miranda fills out a slow moment with ruminations on “moist,” which is “the queen of words,” and “plinth,” which is the king. “Imagine a moist plinth,” she ventures. That might be difficult, but it is not difficult to imagine imagining a moist plinth, because by this stage of the show you have spent a lot of time in the rolling parkland of Miranda’s girlish mind, well preserved into her thirties the crushing boredom and sparkling trauma of school.
The most exciting spiel in Miranda, from a language standpoint, is Penny’s unwavering determination to be either insincere or meaningless, but impatient either way. For Penny, happiness is being enviable. That’s what she wants for her daughter, and the desire embodies a kind of love that underrides the superficial cruelty of her breathtaking put-downs. (At a funeral, she tells Miranda, “I didn’t want you here. I was going to tell everyone you’re in prison. It’s less embarrassing than having to admit that you’re still single.”) Penny’s refusal to be nice for niceness’s sake — a refusal that Ms Hodge makes persuasive — is what carries that eleventh episode, devoted entirely to a “family romance” conducted within the walls of a psychiatrist’s office. While Miranda is a constant, Penny ranges abruptly between being her ally and her opponent, her loving mother and her wicked stepmother.
Penny is given several bracing verbal tics. First, her way of saying goodbye, “Such fun!” Every possible change in sense is rung on this phrase, and at at least one point Penny infuses it with a death-camp grimness. Then there is “What I call…”, which I’ve written about before. Nobody would notice this usage except an irritated child; it’s Miranda’s pedantic inability to let the phrase go that’s funny. (“I think we all call it ‘Monte Carlo’.”) Then there’s “Your father…” A sentence beginning with these two words is guaranteed to divulge sexual caprice laced with marital discord. (“Your father and I have decided that Thursday is Naughty Knitting Night.”) We don’t see dad until the very last episode, when he turns out to be the deadest-panned Tom Conti, of all people, worrying over slush turning to black ice and creating —chorus! — “an absolute deathtrap.” Mr Conti’s great moment comes when, costumed as a fez-capped, camel-riding magus (one of the Three Kings, presumably), he tells Miranda, in tones pregnant with Foreign Office understatement, “I don’t feel excited — yet.” There is absolutely nothing about this gent to suggest the untrammeled licentiousness that his wife gleefully shouts from the housetops.
That’s part of the point, though: the mystery of parental sexuality is the final puzzle to be solved before the attainment of adulthood. We solve it by recognizing that possibility can be incomprehensible; our inability to conjure something doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen. Miranda takes place — all twelve episodes — upon this verge. Miranda is a big girl in more ways than one. The actress Miranda Hart works a formidable magic in presenting a woman with only one step to go, almost there. The character Miranda is good-hearted but lazy, dreamy, and discouraged. She is still very much an adolescent; it’s as if her inability to grow up has boiled up inside her and made her so big. I say this as praise for the actress’s ability to put her body to dramatic use. She is an extraordinary comedienne in Miranda, pouring everything that could be learned not just from British comedy but from Carol Burnett, La Cage aux folles, and even Julia Child’s French chef into a sitcom coded with all the best subroutines. She establishes the same audience rapport that made Eric Morecambe, Jack Benny, and Lucille Ball into household gods. But Ms Hart can also be sublime, as her portrayal of Chummie in Call the Midwife demonstrates.
There is no call for sublimity in Miranda — although “moist plinth” reveals a groping for it. Miranda is a comedy about being not sublime, about growing up, about working at being a better person. That’s why it’s unofficial anthem is Heather Small’s “Proud,” imitated in every episode by Miranda’s sidekick, Stevie (Sarah Hadland). Stevie manages to sing the refrain of “Proud” — “What have you done today to make you feel proud?” — without conveying any sense of the actual song, which is finally played as the outro to the sixth episode, which concludes the first of the two seasons. I hadn’t known the song before, but when I downloaded it the other night and listened to it about fifteen times in a row, I thought how beautiful it would be as the soundtrack for a montage of clips of Chummie from Call the Midwife. Chummie, unlike Miranda, hears the song itself.
Hart has observed that she wrote the Miranda pilot with a view to creating a dream job: her show would be everything that she wanted it to be. Not so much to the extent that she succeeded in realizing her dream, but to the extent that she sold it the BBC and got two seasons out of them, I suspect that the dream was, in the moment of realization, already outgrown.