Philomena Cunk Is Weird Enough to Take on the World
On her BBC show investigating the history of humanity, Philomena Cunk interviews Martin Kemp, a professor at the University of Oxford, about the Renaissance period.
“Which was more culturally significant, the Renaissance or ‘Single Ladies’ by Beyoncé?” she asks the academic with all seriousness.
Kemp pauses before patiently answering. The Renaissance was trying to reform culture as a whole, he says, and “whatever Beyoncé does, I don’t think she’s quite got that ambition.”
Cunk responds with bewilderment: “So what, the work of a few straight white men just blows Beyoncé out of the water?”
The fictional Cunk, played by the actress Diane Morgan, is confident, impertinent and almost always wrong. At once too normal and too weird to be presenting real documentaries, Cunk has fronted satirical BBC programs and segments about topics as lofty as Britain, time and Shakespeare over the past decade.
“I quite like the idea of her not being from any time or place,” Morgan said in a recent video interview. Charlie Brooker, who created the character, described Cunk as “otherworldly,” adding “it’s like she’s off our plain by like 25 degrees or something.”
In “Cunk on Earth,” a five-part mockumentary now streaming on Netflix, Cunk grapples with the herculean task of exploring the entirety of human civilization. (In Britain, the series aired on the BBC last year.)
The show has all the hallmarks of a highbrow BBC documentary, with sweeping drone shots of the presenter standing amid vast landscapes and dramatic re-enactments. Morgan, 47, plays Cunk completely straight, never cracking a smile.
“We don’t tend to do too many things that tell you it’s a comedy,” said Brooker, who executive produced the show. “If you were watching this with the sound off you’d be like, ‘That looks like a real show.’”
But Cunk’s observations range from the absurd (“Was the invention of writing a significant development or more of a flash in the pan like rap metal?”) to the surprisingly insightful (is Jesus “the first celebrity victim of cancel culture?”). Her recollection of facts is also questionable — she refers to Christopher Columbus as Christopher Columbo, an “Italian sailor and detective.” In interviews, her questions often leave the real-life academics bewildered or reeling.
Morgan is “not afraid to leave an extremely awkward pause in, or could say incredibly ridiculous things with a completely straight face,” Brooker said. “I would find that more terrifying than doing a bungee jump.”
“Cunk on Earth” fits perfectly into Brooker’s satirical oeuvre, which is partly defined by commitment to a bit: The first episode of “Black Mirror,” the anthology show he produces and writes, is a thriller that opens with a British prime minister being blackmailed into having sex with a pig. Elsewhere, he masterminded “A Touch of Cloth,” a series that has dramatic actors parodying British police procedurals.
Cunk began life on “Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe,” a BBC satirical news show which premiered in Britain in 2013. She was originally conceived as upper-class and clueless, but the character’s trajectory changed after Morgan suggested in her audition that she should speak in her own northern British accent. Initially a bit part as a talking head, the character soon had longer segments on the show, which led to spinoffs and even a book, “Cunk on Everything,” released in 2019.
For Morgan, while the character’s appeal has a lot to do with the writing and her own dry performance, Cunk also offers the audience some catharsis. “A lot of people fantasize about being able to say whatever they want and not care,” the actress said. “She just genuinely does not give a toss, and that’s almost like a superpower.”
At a time when the mockumentary form is often imbued with resonance around real-life issues — in films like 2020’s “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” or shows like “Abbott Elementary” — “Cunk on Earth” feels somewhat different. For its creators, the show isn’t necessarily trying to make a specific point about politics, academia or even the documentary form. Its first priority is silliness.
“It’s funny to take something which should be awe inspiring and serious and grandiose, and doodling bums in the corner of it,” Brooker said. “It’s a childish urge.”
Still, the script contains moments of biting commentary. In her appraisal of human history, Cunk makes comments about religious hypocrisy, genocide and whitewashing. Brooker and the writers have also made the Cunk of this most recent series more “post-truth” than in previous iterations of the character, he said.
During a segment on math, Cunk tells an academic that she saw a video on YouTube saying numbers only go up to 700, after which they are just given different names so people think they’re still going up. “That’s something that frightens me in the real world,” Brooker said. “The confidence with which people will start asserting things that they’ve read.”
Still, the show is a comedy vehicle first and foremost. “I just want to make something really funny,” Morgan said.
“It doesn’t have to have any big meaning for me,” she added. “I’m not trying to change the world, I just want people to enjoy it.”