What’s the point of Philomena Cunk?

28 April 2018

9:00 AM

28 April 2018

9:00 AM

Because I’m a miserable old reactionary determined to see a sinister Guardianista plot in every BBC programme I watch, I sat stony-faced through much of Cunk On Britain (BBC2, Tuesdays).

Philomena Cunk (played by Diane Morgan) is a spoof comedy character who used to appear on Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe and has now been given a full series. Though the character is amiable enough — a heroically thick Northern woman in a smart jacket who goes around Britain making stupid observations and asking celebrity historians dumb questions — I can’t quite work out what the point of the joke is.

Is it a send-up of dumbed-down Britain? Is it designed to make TV history experts look pompous? Is it Molesworth reimagined for 21st-century viewers who’ve never read Down with Skool!? Is it Ali G without the awkward racial element, which would likely never get past the censors now? Is it just another medium for Brooker to experiment with one-liners he can’t get into any of his other creations?

Probably it’s a bit of all of these things. And I’m not saying it doesn’t have its moments. I liked the bit in the first episode where Cunk tells us that all William I-era architecture was the work of one amazing man — Norman Architecture. And I laughed a lot at the bit where she asks a historian to sum up the Wars of the Roses in three words, then in ten seconds. But other jokes didn’t quite come off — such as the one where she repeatedly asks a historian whether King Arthur ‘came a lot’ (as in ejaculated voluminously).

Again, though: why? With Ali G, the underlying joke was this: look at the eggshells we all tread on these days in our desperate efforts not to be in any way racist. Sacha Baron Cohen pushed this to the limit in much the same way as the black comedian ‘Hotep Jesus’ did recently when he went into a Starbucks and got himself a free coffee by demanding ‘reparations’ for centuries of racism. It’s funny because there’s a satirical point.

What, though, is there to be gleaned from asking, say, Tom Holland, where the Romans came from — and being dumbfounded that they came from Rome? Or asking him about George and the dragon and affecting utter mystification at his insistence that dragons don’t exist? There are an awful lot of things wrong with BBC history programmes that truly deserve sending up. But I’m not sure that very high on the list is interviews with academics who really know their stuff being made to look like dicks. Or, if they’re in on the joke, which they may well be, to have to pretend to be made to look like dicks. Sorry.

Salamander (BBC4, Saturdays) is back. I say this like I’ve been missing it but, in truth, I never saw the first series when it came out in 2014 so a lot of the back story (wives being murdered, and so on) is a mystery to me. Like, can anyone explain to me why the detective hero, Inspector Gerardi, can afford to live in a massive country pile that is the very spit of Captain Haddock’s Marlinspike Hall in the Tintin series? Or is this the norm in Belgium? Anyway, it’s gritty, gripping stuff which I highly recommend, not least because, as is the way with Euro noir drama, it’s so fascinating observing how different the various continentals are from us.

Really, though, I want to keep the last bit of review space for Ordeal By Innocence (BBC One, Sundays), the Agatha Christie drama that infamously had to be partially reshot with a new actor after one of its original cast members, Ed Westwick, was accused of rape.

Given that he hasn’t been tried or found guilty of anything, I think this was a weird overreaction, symptomatic of a film and TV industry in the grip of a self-flagellating and terrifyingly all-consuming moral panic redolent of the McCarthy era. (See also Kevin Spacey.) Still, I thought the end result was several cuts above your usual country-house whodunit — superbly acted and stylishly directed, with lots of artsy close-ups (dripping blood, etc.) and unsettling camera angles and endlessly confusing flashbacks to wrongfoot us just in case we were in any danger of having a clue what was going on.

It was set during the 1950s and made one extremely nostalgic for the era when everyone dressed in Margaret Howell and when, if someone got murdered in your house or apparently drowned in your lake, the police would turn up within hours. Now, of course, they’d be way too busy investigating offensive tweets to waste time on minor incidents like upper-middle-class people dying. Oh, and I liked the twist at the end, even if it wasn’t Christie’s. Couldn’t have happened to a more irritating luvvie.

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