Why do humans need to believe in something bigger than ourselves?” asks Philomena Cunk, sounding sincere and wise and like the sort of exploratory thinker armed with a well-researched script who would normally host a series on the history of the world. It’s possible to take Cunk seriously— almost as seriously as she takes herself—till she continues to muse: “Is it so we don’t feel quite so fat?”
Created by Charlie Brooker—the British satirist who makes many silly things but is best known for alarmist sci-fi series Black Mirror—and acted by comedienne Diane Morgan, Philomena Cunk is an instant classic, a frighteningly confident character like Alan Partridge (created by Armando Iannucci and Steve Coogan, who plays Partridge across various shows and films) but Cunk knows even less than that vainglorious oaf. Partridge is at least self-possessed. Cunk possesses nothing, except the moment she’s in. Right now, she’s in one of Netflix’s funniest shows, Cunk On Earth, hosting a documentary series about world history. Think of her as an entirely clueless David Attenborough—or as she would probably say it, Day With Hat And Bra.
It’s masterful how Morgan makes Cunk mispronounce phrases and names, mostly to confound the talking heads she interviews—but also, cleverly, to tickle otherwise dull voiceovers which actually tell us about history. Like the velvet-voiced Matt Berry in What We Do In The Shadows or Zach Galifianakis in Between Two Ferns, she plays expertly with spacing and intonation: King Louis XVI is said to have “identical wives Marie and Toinette”, and she calls one part of mathematics particularly Islamic: “Al Gebra”. The Bible becomes “Bibble”, which Morgan says in a way reminiscent of the great Rowan Atkinson making a meal out of pronouncing the name Bob.
In the 1981 Mel Brooks comedy History Of The World, Part 1, a cave dweller makes a painting on the wall, thereby becoming the first artist in mankind. Moments later, another caveman urinates on said wall, thereby becoming the world’s first critic. In similar vein, Cunk, who may be the only documentary presenter to know less than anyone watching, says magnificently stupid things (“I’m entering a cave, not by mistake, or because I’m a wolf…”) but also, being heedlessly ignorant, stumbles on insight when calling Christianity “the fidget-spinner of Medieval times” and describing Julius Caesar as “the most notorious Roman until Polanski”.
In the five-episode series produced by Netflix and the BBC, Cunk travels the world to take us through different periods of history, blindly guiding us through the Dark Ages and The Enlightenment, where, as she says, “metrosexual elites published essays that expanded humankind’s horizons.” The line blurs between tone-deafness, naïveté and blank honesty. “Writing still exists today,” Cunk says solemnly, “underneath video clips we watch online”. At one point, she if an academic would call Jesus Christ “the first celebrity victim of cancel culture”, and when the academic understandably starts to explain what cancel culture is, Cunk cuts her off and says she just wants the expert to repeat that line for the cameras so the show can have a punchy soundbite. As a takedown of the TV documentary template, it’s pretty spot on.
Most thrilling is when the benighted Cunk gets things right—seemingly by accident. “The missionaries were known for their position,” she says, “which was that the big man God was on top, and the rest of us had to lie back and take it.” A professor of philosophy gamely admits that one of Cunk’s ramblings, about splitting up a really big idea into bite-sized portions, parallels ongoing philosophical debate. Other times her phrasing is delightfully irreverent. Speaking of Renaissance artists and the use of perspective, she says Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is so realistic that “you almost feel like you could crawl inside it and betray Jesus yourself”.
Even at five episodes, Cunk On Earth can feel stretched. It’s mostly hilarious but the episodes seem a touch too long. The 1990s hit song Pump Up The Jam plays out too long each time in the style of a Family Guy cutaway gag, a mock advertisement for a hotel plays out in full, long after the gag has hit its laugh. Yet even when outstaying their welcome, each gag swiftly gives way to the next, and the show breezes by, blending fact and farce and malapropism so rapidly I was often grinning at the next joke even when not wholly charmed by the last one.
I would recommend Cunk On Earth hard. Not as much to teach you about the world—though you may pick up the occasional factoid—but to demonstrate the beautiful absurdity that drives British comedy. As juvenile as it is witty, the show—and Morgan’s impressive commitment to her slack-jawed persona—exemplifies that anything-goes insolence. Early in the series, Cunk wonders whether Neanderthals were made out of the same sort of meat that we are, and whether that meat had a “brand name like beef, or pork”. Then, after a pause, she offers a name. “Horfe?”
Not a bad name, to be honest. Philomena Cunk—with a name that sounds both like “junk” and like a swearword that Brits use more casually than Americans—works precisely because she doesn’t know better. We should learn from the way she uses that ignorance to ask questions fearlessly, and with impunity. Without inquisitiveness, we may as well be bags of unflatteringly branded meat. Cunk food.
Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.