The name Miranda Hart has become synonymous with chaos. Every stool she encounters is there to be slipped off, every sushi restaurant conveyor belt there to get trapped in. Hers is a world where, when life hands you lemons, you drop them all on the floor, slip over the stray one that rolls away and rip your trousers as you fall.
Yet, the awkward, hapless BBC character that became beloved by millions is not the same woman as Hart is off-screen. Far from falling flat on her face at every turn, the comedian has slowly conquered much of British culture, moving from radio to television comedy and drama, A-list Hollywood film – and now the West End stage.
Previews began this week on the musical Annie, which sees Hart fulfil a lifetime dream of appearing in the West End. She plays the alcoholic, sexually repressed caretaker of the orphanage, Miss Hannigan – a favoured activity in Hart’s childhood was to perform every role in Annie to an invisible crowd of thousands.
Even for those who have never watched her sitcom, which ran on the BBC between 2009 and 2015 and has a legion of loyal fans including Jimmy Carr and Russell Brand, Hart has become such a fixture of British culture that she is instantly recognisable to most.
Nikolai Foster, director of Annie, said he had been aware of the importance of star casting in a West End production to draw in crowds, and said Hart was “someone we had in mind for a long time. It was a risk in some ways but Miranda felt like somebody fresh, who has a contemporary edge, but understands the history and heritage that she’s tapping into.”
Yet Foster said while Hart had been overjoyed to be offered the part, she did not accept immediately. Instead she asked to spend time with the singing coach and choreographer to make sure she felt she could do the musical comedy justice.
“It’s very rare you work with people like this, who are so hardworking, so diligent, so professional,” said Foster. “The first thing she said before we took the discussions any further was ‘I need to have singing lessons, I need to work with the choreographer, I need to find out if I can actually do this.’
“It took a process of months for her to feel confident that she knew she could do this justice. It wasn’t about me or the producers convincing her, it was about her being able to feel herself that she could deliver it to the high standards that she sets herself.”
Hart had brought in improvised moments to the production, said Foster, but was equally very “disciplined and ruthless” about sticking to the script. “She feels like a complete natural on stage,” he added. “I am sure this is just the beginning of her theatre career.”
Miranda the introvert in daily life v Miranda the extrovert on stage has been a theme throughout her life. Born in Torquay in 1972, she grew up in the Hampshire market town of Petersfield with younger sister Alice.
It was an affluent upbringing (there are numerous baronesses, earls and dukes in her lineage and she is the fourth cousin, twice removed, of Diana, Princess of Wales) and her father, Captain David Hart Dyke, was a Royal Navy officer. He served in the Falklands war and was the commanding officer of the HMS Coventry, which was struck by the Argentinians.
He survived but was missing for several days and emerged with bad burns. Hart was 10 at the time but has said her mother sheltered her from the media foray, admitting “the impact it had on me was minimal”.
Her taste in comedy was also shaped by what she watched growing up. She came to idolise the camp silliness of Morecambe and Wise and the slapstick humour of Fawlty Towers, Are You Being Served? and the Carry On films. “I wasn’t aware I craved the laughter but I wanted to be on stage,” said Hart. “I just love silliness and I find life quite boring. I don’t want the responsibility of being an adult – I want to be making fun and lightness out of things. Being told ‘don’t be silly’ as a child really pissed me off, so I thought: ‘OK, I’ll be silly for a living then’.”
When she was 11, her father was sent to the US for work and she was sent off to Downe House, an all-girls boarding school. She wanted to study stage management at university but at the encouragement of her parents ended up on a politics course at Bristol polytechnic, earning a 2:1. Hart admits she was very shy, even in her twenties, and after university she returned to live with her parents, plagued by agoraphobia, anxiety and panic attacks. She worked in various temping jobs, including as a PA for Comic Relief, but at 26 she finally confessed to her desire to become a comedian.
She began to hone the semi-autobiographical character of Miranda at Edinburgh festival fringe shows. The flyer of her 2005 Edinburgh show boasts a now-familiar description: “Miranda doesn’t fit in! She was born into an upper-class background, she’s 6 ft 1, she finds it hard to feel feminine.”
Her breakthrough came in 2008 when she did a reading of a Miranda script at the BBC. Jennifer Saunders happened to be in the audience and found it hysterical. It was subsequently commissioned into its first incarnation, on radio as Miranda Hart’s Joke Shop – a name she initially disputed.
Dawn Ellis, who produced the show on Radio 2 in 2009, recalled working on the series, which had the same premise of the TV spin-off, based around an accident-prone Miranda who has blown her inheritance on a joke shop, which she runs with her friend Stevie.
The project was close to Hart’s heart (it had been 15 years in the making) and Ellis recalls how anxious the comedian was. “Miranda had a really clear idea of what she wanted to do with it, it was clear this was a passion project for her,” said Ellis. “She was quite nervous and anxious to begin with and she wanted to be involved at every stage. It was good fun, it was hard work but I won’t lie, she was a bit nervous. But she’s so good when she gets on stage in front of audience there’s no stopping her, she’s fantastic with the audience.”
The distinctions between Hart’s TV alter-ego and Hart herself were always clear, said Ellis. “Her characteristics are very much heightened in the show, she was never as bouncy or as potty as on the show. Miranda is a homebody I would say, she loves the dogs, she loves home comforts. She’s quite unassuming in real life and extremely self-deprecating, and I don’t get the sense that’s changed much at all, even now.”
The series would prove life-changing for Hart and by 2010 – at age 37 and a good 11 years after she ventured into comedy – she had gathered not so much a cult following as a nationwide fanbase.
However, her style of comedy is not appreciated by everyone and has been castigated for being unsophisticated and unashamedly middle class, often alongside comedians such as Michael McIntyre. Yet for every sniffy critic there is an effusive fan, praising her fusion of old-fashioned warm humour with a leading lady for the post-Bridget Jones era, and all with a pleasing lack of American TV sheen.
Hart once addressed the accusations of hers being a comedy “about posh people” with the retort: “This character is completely classless really. She happens to be from Surrey but her goals and her fears and her problems could happen to anybody.”
For Ellis, much of Hart’s appeal “lies in that she’s this ordinary, relatable person who is not afraid to share those embarrassing moments that we all have. She’s bold in her performance with things she’d be mortified if they happened in real life, she channels it all into the character.”
While the first series of Miranda had been made for TV at a leisurely pace, the second one was more rushed in an attempt to maintain the momentum.
In 2012, Hart landed her first serious role in the popular BBC drama Call the Midwife, playing Camilla Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne – known as Nurse Chummy – an upper-class viceroy’s daughter who is a bit out of place. It landed her a best supporting actress Bafta nomination and she would juggle her sitcom with the drama for three years. 2015 was also the year she landed her first Hollywood role in the comedy Spy, having caught the eye of Melissa McCarthy, who described Hart as “one of the funniest people I’ve ever met”.
Hart’s life continues to be a mix of the ordinary, living in Chiswick, west London, with her beloved shih-tzu, Peggy, while also sidling down red carpets with Jason Statham and Jude Law. She is also not entirely lacking in edge – while she has a visceral hatred of clubbing, she also has two tattoos: “One which I regret majorly, on my upper arm, and one I still quite like, on my right ankle – a dove and a heart.”
In almost every interview over the past five years, Hart has been open about her West End ambitions and her Miranda co-stars recall her speaking, even six years ago, about one day playing Miss Hannigan in Annie, replacing the imaginary audience of her childhood with a living, breathing one.
“When I was a teenager I used to want to be famous – I thought it would justify my whole existence,” Hart recently admitted. “I imagined that if I was famous, when I tripped up in the street, people would just think, ‘Bless her, she’s famous, that’s fine.”
Born: 14 December 1972
Career: Aged 26 she started bringing her semi-autobiographical shows to the Edinburgh fringe. Miranda became one of the most popular BBC sitcoms, winning several Bafta nominations. She got her Hollywood break in 2015 in Spy.
High point: Playing Miss Hannigan in the West End production of Annie, a childhood dream.
Low point: After leaving university Hart struggled with depression and agoraphobia. She also spent years trying to get her comedy character Miranda off the ground but was ignored until 2008.
She says: “You can play the big fool and hopefully people like you for it and then go: ‘Thank God I’m not as bad as her’.”
They say: “She can’t not be funny: everything about her – her expressions, her mannerisms, her pauses, even her silences – are funny. It is an unlearnable and rare quality” – Arabella Weir