Philomena Cunk should not be a deep and rich comic character. She started life as an unreliable talking head on Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe and is, on the face of it, some daft air-head who doesn’t know very much.
How, then, can she be worthy of Cunk on Shakespeare, a half hour special about the bard (click the link to watch Cunk on Shakespeare before it expires!)? How does a character whose daftness originally fitted 90-second slots, scale up to the larger format?
It shouldn’t be surprising that Charlie Brooker has decided to expand the character’s reach. Within the more recent episodes of WeeklyWipe, he’d provided an interview-based format for Philomena and this had become a highlight of the show (see clip below).
A character whose stupidity reveals more about the world is not a new concept either. The “idiot savant” is a well known theatrical device and has been seen commonly in TV character comedy.
Philomena Cunk’s interviewing style is very reminiscent of early Ali G and there’s a definite sense, when the character rubs shoulders with real-world people, that we the viewer are in on a joke as the interviewee tries to answer insane questions sanely.
Somehow, though, Cunk is more sophisticated than the pranks of the Ali G’s and Borat’s of this world. For a start, there’s no promise that the interviewees aren’t in on the joke.
Cunk is in no way a one-trick pony either. Sure, there are daft turns of phrase, malapropisms galore and delightful misunderstandings of the point, but that’s just the start of it. You can spot trademark Brooker writing behind some of the observations (watch out for her take on Banquo’s ghost in the BBC Shakespeare special) and you get the sense that the scripted monologues are refined to perfection – barely a syllable that doesn’t need to be there.
The real talent that makes this character so watchable comes from Diane Morgan.
Diane is very funny to watch and listen to, using her native Boltonian accent to wonderful effect. She dominates the screen with an earnest gravitas that makes everything so much more ridiculous.
There’s nothing funnier than someone getting things wrong when they appear to be trying so hard. In places where the character is not interested, Morgan plays it so straight, you can genuinely feel the rudeness emanating from her. Let’s be honest, when has someone eating a banana been funny before for being a sign of disinterest (again, watch Cunk on Shakespeare!)?
Cunk clearly misinterprets her subject matter and irritates and confuses her interviewees. This would, in lesser hands, be prank comedy.
The reason the BBC was wise to make her Shakespeare special, around the otherwise seriously programmed 400 year anniversary of his death, is that there’s no greater way for comedy to show respect for something than by demonstrating what happens when immense disrespect is paid.
Cunk’s stupidity ends up showing us the very value of the points she’s missing. We look forward to seeing Philomena back on our screens.