Cunk On Britain: History made hilariously simple

Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk with “Tyrannical Sawdust Rex”. (BBC)
Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk with “Tyrannical Sawdust Rex”. (BBC)

The irrepressible Philomena Cunk, comic alter ego of actress Diane Morgan, first came to public attention thanks to her star turns on Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe. In BBC2’s Cunk On Britain however, the straight-talking presenter takes centre stage. The end result is every bit as gloriously daft as one might have hoped.

The joy of Cunk

Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk with Norman Architecture. (BBC)
Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk with Norman Architecture. (BBC)

Cunk On Britain is also written by Brooker and the show embraces the same bone-dry humour found in the Cunk segments on his Wipe shows. This time though, the format sees Philomena guiding us through the entirety of British history. Or as she so eloquently puts it:

“The best way to find out where Britain is heading is to look behind us into something called history, a sort of rear-view mirror for time.”

Cunk’s trademark po-faced delivery is tailor made for a show like this. She manages to convey both an air of calm authority and at the same time display a complete and utter lack of any historical knowledge. Morgan does sterling work throughout, fully convincing us that her character is utterly oblivious to the nonsense she is spouting.

Episode one of the show was unrelentingly silly and utterly hilarious from start to finish. From Cunk’s observation regarding the Big Bang’s decibel level, “probably deafening, but back then ears didn’t exist”, to her incisive comparison of Stonehenge and the Nemesis ride at Alton Towers.

Stupid meets clever

Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk at Stonehenge. (BBC)
Diane Morgan as Philomena Cunk at Stonehenge. (BBC)

In amongst the absurdity though there are some subtle satirical points being made too. Brexit is naturally the obvious butt of several jibes, the funniest of which comes during Cunk’s discussion of the end of Roman influence in Britain. An event which, as she puts it, saw Britain “taking back control from the unelected bureaucrats of Rome”.

The show’s hit rate is hugely impressive. The relentless barrage of jokes ensures that even if one doesn’t quite get you, another will soon follow which might be more to your liking. There were countless great gags in episode one, but my personal favourite remains Cunk’s observation that all castles in England were actually built by one man, Norman Architecture.

The show revels in a spot of word play and Cunk’s trademark mispronunciations and malapropisms are a huge part of this. These little mistakes are a delightful character quirk that Cunk has now turned into a high art form. Thus we see her talk of the legendary “Baywatch Tapestry” and describe the last known dinosaur a “Tyrannical Sawdust Rex”. As ever, the impact of these little errors is heightened considerably by Morgan’s steadfast poker face.

Awkward Interviews

Diane Morgan asking the pressing questions as Philomena Cunk. (BBC)
Diane Morgan asking the pressing questions as Philomena Cunk. (BBC)

As well as the various ‘walk and talks’ that accompany Cunk’s meanderings through our collective history, the show also features a host of interviews with historical experts. While these interviewees seem far wiser to the joke than many did in the Ali G heyday, they do still all seem wonderfully bemused at what Cunk asks them. Their exasperation is of course only fuelled further by the hosts’ unflappable demeanor.

We see Cunk pose plenty of prying questions to the assorted academic experts. These range from asking ITV Political Editor Robert Peston what the most political thing to ever happen to Britain was, to asking a medieval literature expert about the extent of Chaucer’s crudeness.

Throughout her interviews of course, Cunk resolutely refuses to show any comprehension of her misunderstanding. Part of the fun in these situations lies in watching the experts admirably attempting to steer her round to some degree of common sense. Not all these interviews are work quite as well as others of course, and some are almost too awkward to watch, but on the whole their intelligence provides a nice counterbalance to Cunk’s wide-eyed confusion.

Cunk On Britain manages to skillfully juggle its satirical comment alongside its unabashed childishness and absurdity. Whether its Brexit, the nature of British Identity or even just the pomposity of certain historical programmes, Cunk has the uncanny ability to make a wickedly cutting joke one second and then deliver an unapologetically awful pun the next. History has never been so gleefully unclear.

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