‘One interviewee looked like he was going to throttle me so we had to stop filming’
After mockumentary specials tackling bard “will.i.am Shakespeare” and Christmas, Philomena Cunk, the breakout star of Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, is turning her dim-witted (yet occasionally insightful) gaze to our nation’s past. In the hilarious five-part BBC2 series Cunk On Britain, the spoof TV personality is “taking us right up the history of the United Britain of Great Kingdom”, from the Big Bang to Brexit. We caught up with actress and comedian Diane Morgan to talk playing the thinking man’s idiot.
What qualifies Philomena Cunk to travel the country on a Simon Schama journey to discover the history of Britain?
Diane Morgan: “How dare you! Philomena went to the university of life. Formerly known as Hull Polytechnic.”
Does she have a favourite period of history?
“Yes. The Corn Laws but she can’t remember what they are.”
What do you tell the interviewees you’re filming beforehand and is it difficult to remain in character and be that gloriously rude?
“I’m actually not sure what they’re told beforehand. I imagine it’s as little as possible. We don’t tell them what we’re going to ask them though and it isn’t rehearsed. The interviews themselves last a couple of hours and are cut down, so you can take your time lulling someone into a false sense of security before you hit them with the really weird questions. Staying in character isn’t difficult for me. I enjoy being Philomena and actually feel more comfy as her than me because she’s totally bulletproof. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her.”
Have any of them got really angry and how do they feel when they watch the show and realise it’s a spoof?
“Yes. The democracy guy [Professor Robert Hazell from UCL] looked genuinely annoyed like he was going to throttle me, so they stopped filming briefly and asked him if he would be less aggressive. It must be annoying if you’re trampling over someone’s favourite subject. As far as I know, they enjoy the end result.”
As the character becomes more popular, do you worry, like Ali G, she’ll be the victim of her own success?
“Possibly. If the interviews are too ‘knowing’, it doesn’t work as well. I think we should do Cunk On America!”
When did you realise that Philomena had the potential to be a breakout star?
“When I first started doing the character, I was warned that I might get weirdos on Twitter saying they hated me and that the Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe formula shouldn’t be tampered with, so the character was introduced gradually. But to be honest, everyone’s been really nice. People are always lovely and I feel so grateful that they like the show. I was even recognised when I had a cervical smear test at the doctor’s once. That was awkward.”
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Charlie Brooker also created Black Mirror. What are the chances of a Black Mirror/Cunk crossover and what would the plot be?
“Unlikely. I would ruin Black Mirror! Tapeworms are becoming more common because of people eating sushi so maybe an episode where tapeworms are taking over the world? That would be good!”
Do you ever find yourself slipping into Cunk in real life?
“I do slip into Cunk – so to speak! – because in a way she’s the real me. I’m often spotted when I’m staring at something open-mouthed and I’m sure people must think I’m not acting. People often tell me they’d like to be friends with her and that they think they’d get on which is interesting. I suppose she’s charming in a way because she’s totally herself in the same way children are before they become all self-conscious and worried what people think of them.”
Who would win in a rude-off between Philomena Cunk and Alan Partridge?
“Cunk. Hands down. Partridge would get too het up. I bet Cunk knows words Partridge wouldn’t dream of saying.”
In the show, Cunk tackles the likes of Britpop and Ed Sheeran. What does she make of them and what music are you into?
“Cunk doesn’t listen to music. It has no effect on her. I like ‘70s lounge music.”
What kind of format would you like to see her tackle next?
“Her own cookery show? A travelogue? I still think we missed a trick by not doing a ‘Do We Really Need The Moon?’ type show.”
Does anybody in the media think Philomena Cunk is based on them?
“I seem to recall certain people thinking I was basing her on [Guardian columnist and presenter] Grace Dent. I wasn’t, but I think that’s just because you don’t hear northern accents very often.”
Your other big role is in the sitcom Motherland, so do people expect you to be an expert in childcare now?
“Yeah, and I’ve never wanted kids. I think some people can’t understand why you wouldn’t want kids but I can’t see any advantages at all. We’re overpopulated as it is. Plus, I hate thinking the only reason I’m here is to pop out a kid or two. I’d rather leave something else behind.”
Can you tell us anything about the sitcom you’re writing for you and Maxine Peake? She recently recorded an album with Johnny Marr…
“It’s still a work in progress really. Everything takes so long. I’m very impatient. If I could record an album with anyone, it would have been the late, great Mark E Smith. He was brilliant and hilarious.”
You were nominated for a BAFTA for Cunk last year and posted a picture of yourself at the ceremony with Joan Collins where she looked like she’d rather be anywhere else (including filming Empire of the Ants). What on earth did you do to upset her?
“I was with [TV presenter and Charlie Brooker’s wife] Konnie Huq, and we spotted her. I’d always been a big fan of Joan so Konnie suggested we go over and say hi. Unfortunately, she mentioned to Joan that she used to love watching Dynasty when she was a child. Joan was not amused. Never meet your heroes.”
What do you have coming up?
“I have several things looming but unfortunately I’m not allowed to talk about them until they’re formally announced. Shall I make something up instead? I’m going on tour with Pam Ayres and then I’m doing a film with Jean-Claude Van Damme.”
Cunk On Britain airs April 3 at 10pm on BBC2
Greatest Hits: Diane Morgan’s Favourite Cunk Moments
Philomena Cunk’s Moments of Wonder – Medicine
“One of my favourites is the Monster Munch clip from Moments of Wonder on Medicine, where the expert has never heard of Monster Munch.”
Philomena Cunk’s Moments of Wonder – Time
“Moments of Wonder on Time was the first one I filmed and will always be a favourite.”
Cunk On Shakespeare
“In Cunk On Shakespeare, I particularly enjoyed Simon Russell-Beale reciting Shakespeare while I ate a banana.”
Cunk On Britain
“The Robert Peston interview on Cunk On Britain. I can’t say what happens!