Being stupid, as the saying goes, is like being dead – you’re oblivious either way, so it’s only really a problem for the people around you. The people around TV documentarian Philomena Cunk therefore, have a major problem.
At the end of January this year, America met Cunk properly for the first time when new show Cunk on Earth arrived on Netflix US. A documentary series follow-up to 2018’s Cunk on Britain, it’s an ambitious attempt to sum up the history of humankind in five half-hour episodes, made even more ambitious by the fact that it’s presented by a total moron.
A deliberate total moron, let’s be clear. Some apparently still aren’t clear that Philomena Cunk is not a real TV presenter but a character played by British comedy actor Diane Morgan. When Morgan appeared on US chat show Late Night With Seth Meyers earlier this year, she rattled off the list of complaints she regularly receives on Twitter: Cunk is a terrible presenter, she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she gets even the simplest of facts wrong… Add in the mass of online reaction videos to Philomena Cunk’s interviews with experts, doctored with freeze-framed bewilderment faces and “awk-ward!!!” emojis, and it appears that not everybody gets the joke.
Maybe that’s because the Cunk documentaries, which began in 2016 as a spin-off from the character’s 30-second talking heads vids on Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s satirical review show Weekly Wipe, are extremely well observed. They ape the visual language of British documentary series so minutely that if you don’t listen to what’s actually being said, you could well mistake it for the real thing – give or take the regularity with which Cunk trips over on her walk-and-talks.
Sweeping clifftop drone shots, to-camera monologues striding across moors and woodlands, close-ups of the presenter’s wide-eyed wonder, all set to triumphant classical music that tells us how Extremely Significant all this is… that’s the Cunk way, expertly mirroring the work of Simon Schama, Lucy Worsley, Prof. Brian Cox and co.
Listen to what Morgan’s saying though, and it’s impossible not to know it’s a put-on. Her lectures are 80% bollocks; riddled with deliberate comical misunderstandings (confusing Alan Turing for the Turin Shroud, pondering what people did before evolution…) and plainly ridiculous statements. About 15% of what Cunk says is verifiable fact, by which she is visibly bored. A lot of research goes into every episode, exec producer Sam Ward explained at the Cunk on Earth launch, “if we get something wrong, it’s on purpose.” 5% of what she says is acerbic, on-the-money satire
Cunk’s vacuity does have the odd moment of profundity (where is the money in a coin, for instance). And sometimes, she’s sort of right in a roundabout way. (“Coals is a fossil fuel. Which means setting fire to dinosaurs.”) More often than not though, her words are entertaining nonsense (explaining how the Mesopotamians used “a bacus” as a primitive counting tool or asking “Why do we cry when it’s the onions getting hurt?”).
Cunk vs The Experts
Cunk’s interviews with academics and experts were introduced as part of Weekly Wipe’s “Moments of Wonder” segments, which expanded Cunk from talking head to bonafide presenter. As soon as the character got off her chair and into a museum to ask the eternal question “What is clocks?”, history was made. Spin-off series on Shakespeare, Britain, a Christmas special, and a World According To… encyclopaedia-style book followed.
The Philomena Cunk character had originally been devised as a Sloaney middle class cupcake blogger (hence the posh name). Charlie Brooker’s satirical news show had been criticised for appearing to mock working class men through fake pundit Barry Shitpeas (played by series director Al Campbell), and so she was invented for balance. When Diane Morgan suggested trying the material in her natural Bolton accent during the audition though, the definitive Cunk was born.
Morgan provides much more than the accent and performance. (“You can give Diane something to say and she’ll make it 10 times funnier than it is,” says Brooker.) Cunk’s monologues are scripted by a writing team including Brooker, Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley, Morgan’s partner Ben Caudell, and more, but when interviewing experts in-character, her improv is key.
Unlike say, the interviews conducted by Sacha Baron Cohen in Da Ali G Show, where the experts were largely unsuspecting (at least in the early days) the academics interviewed on Cunk docs know that they’re on a comedy show. What they don’t know is what she’s going to ask them, which explains their bewilderment.
It’s a sort of game being played, in which the experts patiently treat Cunk like they might a four-year-old asking questions about their specialism, not calling out her misunderstandings but gently correcting or working around them in an approximation of good faith. (Who was Ron, she asked one expert in Romantic poetry. You know, the one who signed all his poems “By Ron”?). For the few minutes of discussion that make it into each episode, Morgan spends up to an hour with each interviewee.
Apart from the finely calibrated writing, the genius lies in the character’s confidence and inability to feel embarrassment. As Cunk, Morgan’s a dog with a bone, willing to push situations far far past the point of comfort. She leaves silences too long and pins down her interviewees with the unrelenting stamina of kids squabbling in the back of the car on a long journey. Terse, rude, oblivious, and in total disregard for the requirement drummed particularly into women to be polite and make people feel comfortable, she’s a brilliant kind of monster. Against her, they’re powerless.
Before Cunk, Diane Morgan was a drama school graduate working various jobs before – in what sounds like desperation the way she tells it – she tried out stand-up comedy. A decade of that, including multiple Edinburgh Fringe Festivals as part of double act ‘Two Episodes of Mash’ with Joe Wilkinson (Him & Her, 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown), and the sketch show and comedy roles started coming in. Now, Morgan is well known for starring in Motherland, After Life, Frayed, Rovers, Inside No. 9, The Cockfields, and many more. She’s also written, directed and starred in two series plus specials of acclaimed BBC comedy Mandy.
What’s then – apart from the Taskmaster series that fans are hopeful for Morgan to take part in one day – could be next?
Cunk on Universe is one possibility, according to the creators. “We’ve had discussions about other formats that you can see Cunk in,” Brooker said at the Earth launch.
“I think there’s a completely different Cunk-y format that could be explored,” suggests Brooker. An Alan Partridge-style ‘Cunk behind the scenes’ project is mooted, and not rejected out of hand. “It’s difficult, because Philomena is sort of on some unknowable level, like a horse. It’s hard to know what her inner life is […] There’s definitely a Cunk universe isn’t there? that mainly consists of her petty concerns and her mate Paul.”
Whatever’s on the cards for Philomena Cunk and her unfortunate pal Paul, 2023 is the year that she broke through worldwide. 10 years after first appearing on UK screens, Diane Morgan’s deadpan presenter is well on her way to Dame Edna household name status. US chat shows, TikTok fame, Netflix co-productions… it’s all happening for Cunk. Just don’t expect her to look excited about any of it.
Cunk on Earth is available now on Netflix in the UK and the US.