I’m delighted to find a new BBC TV series from Philomena Cunk (aka Diane Morgan), the “Landmark Documentary Presenter”, with her distinctive style of forensic investigation:
- Cunk on Earth (available here for the next year).
Again, among targets that she sends up are the documentary format, her own persona, both elite and popular cultures, and indeed human history itself.
In the beginnings opens by exploring the achievements of early humans:
One thing they did invent was fire, which allowed them to see at night and kept them warm, tragically prolonging their already tedious lives.
Having conquered numbers, humankind moved on to something even more boring, by inventing writing.
The Ancient Greeks invented lots of things we still have today, like medicine and olives, and lots of things that have died out, like democracy and pillars.
And another invention:
Philosophy is basically thinking about thinking—which sounds like a waste of time, because it is.
Thanks to the volcano, we know everyday Romans had grey skin, were totally bald, and spent their time lying around inside their shockingly dusty houses. But it also preserved glimpses of how sophisticated Roman life was, with creature comforts like indoor plumbing and cunnilingus.
In Faith/off the intrepid Ms Cunk covers religion.
What’s ironic about Jesus Christ becoming a carpenter was that he was actually named after the two words that you’re most likely to shout after hitting your thumb with a hammer.
She perks up with an entirely gratuitous plug for an all-inclusive five-star resort near the temple of Kukulkan, “the last word in luxury”.
Islam represented a radical break from previous religions, because the buildings it happened inside were a slightly different shape.
And she asks
Why can’t the religions all learn to live together in peace, like they do in Ireland?
In The Renaissance will not be televised Ms Cunk sets the scene:
It’s the year 1440 (not now, but then, in 1440).
The historic present has always Got my Goat too.
Gutenberg’s press was the first of its kind in history—except Chinese history.
This is Florence—the Italians call it Firenze to try and stop tourists from finding it. […] Florence might look like a pointless mess today, but in the 15th century…
On the Mona Lisa:
Just looking at her prompts so many questions. Who is she? What’s she smiling about? Is she holding a balloon between her knees? And if so, what colour is it?
Turning to the New World,
After arriving in America to forge a life of honest hard work and toil, many of these colonists quickly discovered they couldn’t be arsed, so they stole people from Africa and made them do it instead.
Eventually Washington won, becoming America’s first president, the single most revered role in the world until 2016.
Rise of the machines opens with a succinct recap:
Last time we saw how the Renaissance turned Europe from a load of mud and parsnips into a posh resort full of paintings…
Introducing Manifest Destiny, she helpfully explains:
Americans back then weren’t the humble unassuming people they still aren’t today.
The North asked the South what kind of America it wanted to live in—one where white people leeched off other races while treating them as inferior, or one where they pretended they didn’t.
Following the Civil War,
Now Lincoln was President, at long last slavery was abolished, and replaced with simple racial prejudice.
Turning to recording,
Thanks to Edison’s pornograph, classical music could now bore an audience of millions.
She returns to the theme of femininism, on which she has already established her credentials;
Finally, with the vote, women could choose which man would tell them what to do.
Besides her collaboration with Charlie Brooker, in the final episode, War(s) of the World(s)?, “it’s easy to see why” she’s an admirer of the ouevre of Adam Curtis. Turning to Russia, Tsar Nicolas
was allowed to rule the country like a dictator, which I’ve been advised to say isn’t how Russia works today. […]
A world like this, where the masses toil for pennies while a tiny elite grow rich, seems so obviously unfair and unthinkable to us today. We can scarcely imagine what it must have been like.
As to 1950s’ America,
Adverts were so influential that it made viewers at home want to be the sort of person who bought things too. They’d work hard to get money, to buy a car, so they could drive to the shops and buy more things, which they’d have to pay for by going back to work, which made them miserable, so they’d cheer themselves up by going out and buying more things, which they’d have to work to pay for.
On the birth of popular culture:
Unlike normal culture, which was paintings and Beethoven, this was stuff people actually enjoyed.
For decades, pioneering black artists had steadily built on each other’s work to develop an exciting new musical form for white people to pass off as their own.
Moving on to the technological revolution, the Apple Macintosh was
the world’s first inherently smug computer.
smartphones revolutionised the way people interact, by providing a socially acceptable way to ignore everyone around us.
But we’re not lonely—thanks to social media, it’s quicker and easier to bond with millions of others over something as simple as a cat photo or the ritual shaming of a stranger.
* * *
Dr Shirley Thompson’s musicological expertise somewhat under-used
in fielding fatuous questions like
“Would it be fair to say the Rolling Stones were the Beatles of their day?”.
To help her unlock the mysteries of human civilisation Ms Cunk consults a range of academics, asking penetrating questions like “Why are pyramids that shape—is it to stop homeless people sleeping on them?”, “Has a mummy ever ridden a bicycle?”, and “Is there a Great Roof of China?”. Scholars such as Jim Al-Khalili, Douglas Hedley, and Ashley Jackson manage to keep a straight face, even as she disputes their so-called expert views with stories about “my mate Paul”, recommending them helpful YouTube videos wat ‘e sent ‘er. The Cunk interview is fast becoming the hallmark of the public intellectual; and I now feel that it should be a compulsory ordeal, a rite of passage for any aspiring lecturer. As Rebecca Nicholson’s review observes:
You could spend a lot of time wondering whether the interviewees are in on the joke or not; if they are in on it completely, it ruins the gag, which surely works best if they think Cunk is deadly serious. The same is true for viewers, in a way. If you look closely enough, you can see that there’s a formula: compare old thing to new thing, ask anachronistic question, wait for baffled response. In both cases, though, I don’t think it matters. None of the academics seem to think they are being mocked, nor are they trying to be funny; likewise, it’s so hilarious and well-written that if you can occasionally see the bare bones poking out, it isn’t much of an issue.
The interview in Cunk on Shakespeare, where she quizzes Ben Crystal on a list of words that Shakespeare, er, might or might not have made up, remains a great favourite of mine:
This series has a new, mystifying musical leitmotif, introduced by fine links such as
Descartes inspired an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, during which metrosexual elitists published essays that expanded humankind’s horizons in a manner that will go unmatched until the 1989 release of Belgian techno anthem Pump up the jam… [cue music].
Philomena Cunk attains a level of vacuity with which no-one outside the current government could compete. Too bad she’s over-qualified to serve as the next Prime Minister.