TV Review, Cunk on Britain (BBC2): a brilliant puncturing of television histories

A subversive take on the myths and fables of our island story, but with more swearing

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 03 April 2018 14:18 BST
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Diane Morgan as Cunk: the funniest take on British history since ‘1066 And All That’
Diane Morgan as Cunk: the funniest take on British history since ‘1066 And All That’ (BBC/House of Tomorrow)

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To understand Cunk on Britain, it’s best to think of it as Simon Schama’s History of Britain but with a strong Bolton accent, and minus the scholarship. Plus a simpleton female presenter, and some rather funny lines in her tour d’horizon of everything “from ancient man to Ed Sheerhan and from the tranquil beauty of Roman bath to the golden wonder of Oxford motorway services”.

Not that there was much wrong with Schama’s lines in his classic series, you understand, but they didn’t have that playful mix of filth and insight that fall so easily from the lips of Philomena Cunk, the televisual persona of the brilliant comedian Diane Morgan. So: Cunk on Britain then deploys all the usual tropes of the sweeping TV history documentary series, but sends them up nicely.

Thus we get the usual rostrum-camera work on some old engravings, Cunk/Morgan doing pieces to camera up mountains and in mediaeval yards, clips form bad Hollywood films about history and, most importantly, interviews with a variety “talking head” academics.

Ah, these poor talking heads, about to be decapitated just as surely as Charles I or Anne Boleyn or any leader of Ukip. Cunk hits these apparently unsuspecting brain boxes like a paramilitary version of Ali G or Louis Theroux, for she is the faux-est of the faux naïve.

Robert Peston, clever clogs hack, came off worst when he took far too seriously Cunk’s question: “What’s the most political thing that’s ever happened in Britain?”. The agony on his face was exquisite as he attempted to process this barmy query into any of the many intellectual frameworks at his disposal. The result? Historic levels of gurning, squirming and the most impressive collection of Peston noises even seen on British television, or leastways not since Northern Rock went down. Cunk took Peston down with much the same violence as he did to the former building society-turned-bad bank.

Tom Holland, historian of the Roman empire, was just visibly very annoyed by Cunk’s persistent attempts to find out “where did the Romans actually came from” and the fate of the dragon St George fought.

The female dons came off much better, for what it’s worth. Given just 10 seconds to explain the Wars of the Roses, of the Roses, Vanessa Harding, professor of history at the University of London, summarised it as a dynastic struggle for control of England the crown with times to spare. First-class honours, there. Laura Ashe, fellow of Worcester College Oxford, must be woman of the world to have been able to discuss Chaucer’s “bum jokes” with a comparatively straight face, and to maintain her composure when asked whether King Arthur “came a lot”.

Coolest of all was Dr Jessica Nelson of the National Archives, who had got the actual proper real Domesday Book out of the vaults specially and decided to treat Cunk like the idiot child she was obviously playing. (“Is the Domesday Book like The Runaway by Martina Cole?”).

Cunk’s main problem (like Ali G before her) is that as soon as she becomes a bit better known for her technique, anyone with letters after their name will be putting the phone down on the TV researchers trying to “bid” for an interview. Thanks to Morgan’s astonishing sharp delivery and the writing team of Charlie Brooker, Ben Caudill, Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris, this constituted the funniest take on British history since 1066 And All That (WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, 1930), with that same subversive cheek on the trad myths and fables of the British “island story” (and a lot more swearing).

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Here, then, are just a few of my favourite Cunk-bites:

* The Cerne Abbas Giant (chalk drawing with an erection: “The second crudest Hill in England after Benny.”

* The Norman Conquest: “William winning was like Brexit in reverse.”

* The Bayeux Tapestry: “Like a Game of Thrones season finale drawn by an eight-year-old boy ... Just like being there, but in wool.”

* Castles: “Originally built by kings to protect land and to sit in, whereas today they are extortionate wedding venues.”

* The Scots: “A proud nation quick to complain if they’ve not been given their own section in a landmark history programme ... To this day the words Stirling Bridge conjure pride in every Scotsman’s heart, while to an Englishman those same words conjure up literally no feelings at all.”

* Roman baths to an ancient Briton: “Like Steve McFadden climbing on board Concord.”

Scrutinising the end credits to give credit where credit is due, I found the name “Wes Taster”, who they claim was their sound recordist but, given the foregoing, could just have been some impenetrable, if you’ll pardon the expression, dirty joke on the part of the programme makers. With Philomena Cunk you can never quite tell, you see, if you’re dead brainy. In any case, I’m looking for the glossy coffee-table book version of Cunk on Britain to be out for Christmas.

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