Our interview was such fun! And with a very, what I call, Miranda Moment. At one point, I almost fell off my chair – something that Miranda, at least in her eponymous show, does a lot. Could this be “method” interviewing?
We meet in a photographic studio in Fulham, south-west London. Miranda lopes down the stairs to meet and greet, and you’re immediately struck by her sensational height. She’s 6ft 1in, has creamy skin, a jolly good bosom, a rather lovely, dewy-eyed face, but needs to work on her deportment. The fact is that if Miranda strutted her stuff, rather than looking vaguely apologetic about herself, she would be a stunner.
Down in the bowels of the building, in a somewhat oppressive, windowless room, the pair of us sit across a large table, both suffering from blocked noses and a cold. She will be 40 at the end of the year and when I ask her how she feels about it, she says: “Quite excited.”
Excited about ageing? “I’m excited about getting older in that each year brings more confidence and I don’t care and I can be me, which is just brilliant. And, also, yes, I do want to go to bed at nine o’clock, thanks.”
You expect actors and comedians in semi-autobiographical shows such as Miranda’s to present an exaggerated version of themselves; a persona rather than a person. But it’s the other way round, if anything, with Miranda. Or maybe that’s the effect of hearing someone, under 70, who doesn’t live in a stately home in the sticks, use expressions like “What a hoot”.
At her all-girls boarding school, Downe House, where Clare Balding was head girl (and later, famously, Kate Middleton), Miranda was a lethal lacrosse-player, popular and not particularly academic. She went to Bristol – the polytechnic, as it was, rather than Bristol University – to read political science, rather unfathomably, which she hated.
“I was a bit miserable because I was doing something I didn’t want to do but I loved Bristol, made lots of friends and had a laugh. I just didn’t go to any lectures.”
She comes from a pukka, upper-middle-class background and was brought up, with her younger sister, in Petersfield, Hampshire. Her father, Captain David Hart Dyke, was the commanding officer of HMS Coventry when it was sunk by the Argentinians during the Falk-lands War. (Miranda dropped the Dyke, kept the Hart but now seems to have dispensed with a surname altogether.)
He was badly burnt when escaping the ship, but Miranda has said that the effect on her ten-year-old self was minimal. Her uncle is Lord Luce, courtier to the royal family and a former Conservative MP. Her mother actually does say “such fun” – the catchphrase of Miranda’s mother in the show, played brilliantly by Patricia Hodge, who is obsessed with getting her daughter married off.
But there the similarity ends, although since off the screen Miranda also remains uncoupled, people inevitably jump to conclusions. After leaving university, Miranda had a sticky Harrisonpatch, which she has referred to, variously, as depression, agoraphobia, panic attacks and a blip.
Opting for the understatement, I ask her if she’s had any more “blips” since then. “No, and the ‘blip’ became an over-exaggerated blip. It’s simply, as I have said before, that after leaving university, I didn’t know what to do with my life, so I went back to Mummy and Daddy for six months.”
You have also said before that you are wired to be on the depressive side, that it runs in the family? “Well, there is a slight default setting of ‘Oh, it’s going to be a disaster’, which I have to fight against but I have retrained myself to say, ‘No, it’s going to be fine.’” In fact, she’s rather more level-headed than some of us, that’s for sure.
When we are talking about her fantasy cottage in the middle of nowhere, I ask her whether she wouldn’t be a bit alarmed at night in the wilds on her own. “Oh, that never worries me,” she says. “The idea that someone would come to kill me with an axe never crosses my mind.”
The phobia she does have is quite niche – fear of choking. She avoids lifts and is possibly a bit claustrophobic; other than that, just the usual professional panic: “You know, is series three going to die on its arse or are people going to laugh?”
It’s fair to say, I think, that Miranda is comedy Marmite. There are those of us who relish the respite from spiteful or blokey, endlessly knocking humour, and find Miranda’s funny, old-fashioned world rather a relief, with her good-hearted galumphing through life – the maddening but recognisable mother, the ghastly old schoolfriends (Tilly and Fanny), the hunky love interest (Gary, the chef ), the joke-shop gags (love the Heather Small, face on a stick, as selfhelp guru shtick).
And there are others who either loathe it or just don’t get it. Miranda responds to comedians in the same way. “Comedy is so subjective… I mean, there’s some comedy on at the moment which makes me furious – I don’t understand why people like them because I hate them so much. No, I couldn’t possibly tell you who…
“As a comedian, the audience think you’re saying, ‘Look at me! I’m the funniest person in the whole world!’ You’re setting yourself up for people to say ‘Why on earth does she think that?’ But that’s not what it is – you’re just doing your job.”
We talk a bit about romance in Miranda and why she decided on the Gary and Miranda, will they/won’t they narrative thread. It’s a bit Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, isn’t it? “Just much more highbrow!” A Miranda giggle.
“I never wanted it to be about a single woman looking for love, but I suppose I did want to tap into as many universal themes as possible and love is the sort of key universal theme that runs through life.”
So will she and Gary finally get together in the next series? “I couldn’t possibly reveal…” – a sideways, owlish look. I say that when I interviewed Julian Fellowes for RT last year, it was all I could do to stop him telling me the whole plot, he was so enthralled by the next season of Downton. “Oh, how sweet,” Miranda says, genuinely.
“There are a couple of new characters, but it would give things away if I said who they were and what they did.”
Her childhood dream was to be in a West End play – and she would still like to fulfil that dream. What does she fancy? Eddie Izzard, for instance, had an important role in a David Mamet play. “Hmmm… yes, I’d love a bit of Mamet,” she rolls the word around like a whipped creamy bonbon in her mouth.
“But I’d really like Noël Coward to come back from the grave and maybe me and, say, Dame Judi and Julie Walters and all my favourite actresses – Emma Thompson, Penelope Wilton, Imelda Staunton.” And Maggie Smith? “Possibly… she’d have to audition!” A big whoop of laughter.
But who would be your romantic lead? “Matthew Perry.” Matthew Perry? “Imagine him with an English accent and black tie.” Well, why not Matthew Crawley [Dan Stevens] from Downton, then? “I am quite obsessed with Matthew Perry. I have met him [Stevens] but he’s not quite tall enough. He’s sort of my height and I need someone taller. I’m really specific, but it’s important. Pierce Brosnan?”
How about Richard E Grant? He’s tall, isn’t he? “Yes, but he’s not sexy – at least not to me. Sorry Richard E.”
Call the Midwife, based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of midwifery in the East End just after the Second World War, returns next year and in the meantime there is a special episode on Christmas Day. Miranda plays the part of Chummy (short for Camilla Fortescue- Cholmeley-Browne) as a version of “Miranda”, but she’s also very affecting in it.
Writing, for her, is a necessary torture but what she really enjoys is the camaraderie and warmth of working with a group of actors.
“I got into this business to be around people and to be in an ensemble setting where you meet such fascinating, open people – where you become instant friends and you share things – is just brilliant. There’s none of that British reserve and small talk, which is what I wanted to get away from. Because I always knew I wanted to be around ‘theatricals’ – and that’s why I loved being with that amazing group of girls. We all got on so well, and it was such a hoot.”
For Miranda to have one tattoo (a bird and a heart on her ankle) is surprising enough but to discover she has two is almost shocking. She confesses that she has another one on her arm, a pair of Beckham-ish Chinese letters: “It’s pretty horrible and no, I wasn’t drunk – I was stonecold sober. But I do regret it.”
So what were you thinking? Were you trying to be edgy? “Yes, I think so. I think I just wanted to say, ‘I’m not the public-school stereotype you think I am.’”
She is now in the orbit of fame, which means she’s on the list of celebrities who will do a turn for the Queen’s birthday or be photographed on the red carpet for the new Bond premiere. She has had some photographers camped outside her house “and I’m just thinking, ‘Why me?’”
Her friends worry that she’s now so famous that it’s going to be difficult for her to meet anyone because “men are going to feel nervous approaching me but I’m surprised that anyone’s interested in my love life. I’m always surprised that people are interested in me, full stop.
“I don’t feel like a famous person. If I’m walking the dog and someone comes up to me, it’s a surprise. I forget that I’m on telly.”
In the meantime, I consider it an honour and my duty as one of her loyal fans to conclude with a romantic personal ad, in her own words: “No, I’m not neurotic at all. I’m very easy. I’m possibly too easy and open. Tell Matthew Perry that!”
Miranda will air on both Boxing Day and New Year’s Day at 9:00pm on BBC1. The Call the Midwife Christmas special will air at 7:30pm on BBC1 on Christmas Day