With Brexit negotiations still ongoing, the future and nature of Britain as a country has never been so unclear. Destined not to help clear up matters in any way whatsoever, Philomena Cunk wades into these tempestuous waters with side-splitting precision – not that you’d know it.
Diane Morgan’s character, who began on Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe, has grown to become one of the best comic creations of recent years – a character to rival Alan Partridge in The Day Today. And so it is only natural that, after 10-minute investigations asking such questions as “What is time?”, she should outgrow her mini-documentary roots and get her own series. After the one-off specials Cunk on Christmas and Cunk on Shakespeare, Cunk on Britain is a full five-part box set of dimwitted genius, which sees her trace the history of the British Empire across the decades and centuries. We start with the Big Bang and 1066, before gradually progressing through the Tudors and Lord Nelson to the Victorians, Darwin and two world wars.
Cunk comes across as an easy target, and a simple joke, but she’s astonishingly well defined, managing to be recognisably aware of everyday culture, but entirely oblivious to more complex matters. She can make a joke about Hull, but show her a historical artefact and she’s entirely flummoxed. “It’s just like being there, but in wool,” she says of the Bayeux Tapestry, one of many lines that will have you howling with laughter.
It’s credit to her contributors (or, perhaps more aptly, victims) that they manage not to giggle, as she questions them about how well endowed Henry VII was, whether Brexit is important or significant (if they were only allowed to pick adjective) and why World War I was called “The Great War” when there wasn’t anything gret about it. Mark Lawson fields the latter, deadpanning his way admirably through the silliness – even with the knowledge that they’re probably in on the joke (Cunk’s early days of unsuspecting interviewees arguably saw her at her peak), it’s impressive that they don’t simply corpse every five seconds. Morgan is a shrewd questioner, though, and doesn’t let them off easily either way; Robert Peston is so eager to be in on the joke that he takes things too seriously, ending up looking even more foolish than our host, as she interrupts his cautious answers with her phone ringing or just by looking at her watch, fed up.
Morgan’s accent, timing and facial expressions are impeccable, and the writers (Cunk regulars Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris, plus Ben Caudell, a veteran of both Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe and Rex the Runt) have got to the point where they know just where to pitch something for her to knock it out of the park. But what makes Cunk on Britain such a delight is the direction, which pieces everything together with a wry awareness of all the tweed-clad cliches we expect from a history documentary. The introductions alone are expertly observed, as Cunk shouts at helicopters flying overhead and starts her sentences in one place, before finishing it somewhere else. She’s just the right balance of childish and world-weary, stopping as her train passes a camera to wave excitedly at the screen, before getting bored while filming a shot of her staring into the distance and getting out her mobile phone instead.
Cunk on Britain promises to teach us about our national identity and our place in the world – as well as “why Elizabeth I happened”. Does it? Of course not – the most valuable thing we learn is that the writers have a bizarre (and amusing) obsession with 1980s sitcom Brush Strokes. But Cunk on Britain is a reminder that no matter how stupid our country’s behaviour is, how dire conditions get, at least we’re still able to stand back and laugh at it. It may only be halfway through 2018, but Cunk on Britain is already a contender for the funniest thing you’ll see on TV this year.
Cunk on Britain airs on Mondays at 10pm on BBC Two, with episodes available on BBC iPlayer following their broadcast. Episode 1 is available until Monday 22nd March 2019.