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Old-fashioned girl has the last laugh

Let's call it sticking up for the little guy -- even if Miranda Hart is female. And 6ft 1in. Either way, the growing success of her sitcom -- simply called Miranda -- has caught TV executives by surprise. Women in comedy have always had a platform, but they've been making their presence felt with a vengeance in recent years.

On paper, a show like Miranda looks like a cult hit at best, and tokenism at worst. So, what's the secret to its success?

Somewhat autobiographical, Miranda charts our eponymous, happily awkward heroine's misadventures after she invests her money in a joke shop -- a shop she's plainly incapable of running.

It's a simple enough set-up for a sitcom -- there is, of course, a love interest, in next-door-neighbour chef Gary (Tom Ellis), and a bunch of supporting players, including disappointed mum Penny (Patricia Hodge) and childhood friend Stevie (Sarah Hadland) -- but the reason Miranda has connected with so many viewers is the simple fact that, although the set-up might be traditional, the leading lady is not. She's a lady, for a start. And happily unhip.

"It now feels like people are allowed to openly like an uncool show," explains Hart of her unashamedly old-fashioned sitcom and her love of broad-stroke comedy. "I just thought, that's the kind of comedy I love, so, why not embrace the genre wholly and go, 'guys, this is what I'm doing, and you really will have to like it or lump it'."

On the other side of the Atlantic, women have long played a pivotal role in comedy, from Phyllis Diller and Carol Burnett to Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman. On this side, it's always been a tougher battle. Most were relegated to second or third fiddle, and those who made it through were often cartoon creations, whether it was the big-boned Hattie Jacques taking a barrage of fat jokes on the double-chin in Hancock's Half Hour and the Carry On films or bikini-clad babes being chased around a park by Benny Hill.

There were hints of progress along the way -- working-class girls looking for thrills on the pill in The Liver Birds, Carla Lane and Myra Taylor's '70s feminist counterpart to The Likely Lads, or Polly and Sybil being the only sane inhabitants in Fawlty Towers.

A measure of just how far women have come in comedy these days can be seen in Devon-born comedienne Hart. It's somewhat fitting that Hart should be born in Torquay, the tiny seaside town where Fawlty Towers offered sweeping views, for sitcom silliness is her first love.

Being politically right-on just isn't on Hart's radar, having grown up loving Fawlty Towers and Are You Being Served? before emerging into a comedy battleground where Ab Fab and Gimme Gimme Gimme were ruling the roost. Hart is more interested in being funny than being cool, and she's not afraid to look like a loon.

Here is a comic who clearly knows her faults, her limitations and our often deep-seated prejudices against them.

"I think there are different kinds of comedians," Hart has said, "and I prefer the clowns who are going 'I'm an idiot. Aren't we all a bit like this? Laugh at me', whereas a lot of other comedians are saying: 'Aren't I clever? You want to be me. Aren't I cool? Revere me.' Which is fine. But that's not my bag."

Having come through as a character-based stand-up, Hart rose up through the TV ranks by guesting in the likes of French And Saunders and the Lee Mack sitcom Not Going Out before the 2009 debut of Miranda.

The key to this new breed is in one simple fact -- like Aherne and Fey, these women are writing it for themselves. It's been going on for a while, the likes of Sharon Horgan penning Pulling, Ruth Jones co-creating Royle Family wannabe Gavin & Stacey, and Jessica Hynes co-creating Spaced.

Just as Sex And The City opened up studio executives' eyes to the simple fact that half their audience out there are women, and both the big and the small screen have opened up to women creating stories for, and about, women today.

And from Bridget Jones struggling into another pair of granny knickers or Tina Fey's eternally single Liz Lemon finding another Cheesy Blaster stuck in her hair, the problems may be distinctly female but the laughs are universal and unisex.

For Hart, it's all about being a big kid.

"I think if I was to psychobabble myself, I would say it's probably just -- indeed, for comedians, full stop -- a desire to stay in a childlike state," she, eh, psychobabbles. "It's just boredom of adulthood."

Miranda is on BBC2 on Monday nights


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