YAY!!! Much as I love China, you can’t beat coming home to a new BBC TV series of Philomena Cunk (now immortalized with her own tag on this blog!)—this time reflecting, topically, on the history of Britain, in a noble tradition stretching way back to the mists of time with 1066 and all that.
All the trademarks of her inimitable style (scripted largely by Charlie Brooker) are here, not least her fatuous interviews with bemused experts.
Episode 1 takes us through Britain’s early history:
Dinosaurs came in many flavours, just like kettle chips.
On the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset (“the second crudest hill in British history, after Benny”):
Before Snapchat, hills were the best way to distribute dick pics to a wide audience.
I’m very keen on “middle-evil” (cf. “femininism“), and intend to adopt it. Admiring the Bayeux Tapestry, she observes:
It’s just like being there—but in wool.
I’ll need several viewings, as by the time I’ve scraped myself off the floor in tears of helpless mirth I’ve missed yet another bon mot.
Episode 2 does for the Tudors [is that it?—Ed.]:
Hampton Court Palace—a building so impressive, it has to be accompanied by harpsichord music.
Drake—the first person to circumcise the globe.
As a Puritan, Cromwell outlawed popular entertainment—effectively turning the entire country into BBC4.
Holding further earnest interviews with the likes of Alice Roberts, Ashley Jackson, and Shini Somara, all suitably shell-shocked:
How did Sir Walter Raleigh invent the potato?
she moves boldly on to Horrorshow Nelson (unable to clap, possibly a prototype for Rod Hull and Emu) and Napoleon Cumberbatch.
The third episode, helpfully called The third episode, takes us on a heady journey right up the 19th century,
a time when British creativity was at its peak, bringing us everything from great works of art to great works of train.
Again hapless experts find themselves fielding probing questions like
If Shelley’s one of the greatest poets in English literature, how come nobody gives a shit about him today?
Who was the man from Nantucket that By Ron wrote about in his poem?
She moves deftly on to the novels of Jane Austen,
filled with words it’s almost impossible to care about.
And the “Industrial Revalation”:
Workers did long, thankless hours with no breaks and low pay, in a squalid and threatening environment—conditions unthinkable today to anyone who isn’t a junior doctor.
Putting her experience in researching “femininism” to good use, she ends with a paean to the suffragettes:
Women were thought of as simple creatures who could give birth and raise families, but couldn’t be trusted with something as complicated as drawing an X with a pencil. Today it’s unthinkable that a woman wouldn’t able to vote—unless she was really hungover or… in her slippers and it was raining…. Emmerdale Pankhurst thought women could be more than just wives and mothers, so she deliberately only had five children, leaving her loads of time for politics.
One suffragette, Emily Davison, threw herself under a horse to get the vote. But the vote wasn’t under a horse—it was in a little wooden booth in a primary school, though to be fair, women wouldn’t have known that.
Episode 4 is a penetrating analysis of the turbulent 20th century, beginning with King Edward—
who despite his name, wasn’t a potato, but a man.
Interviewing the game Howard Goodall about Land of ‘ope and glory, she asks
If you sang it in, like, Portuguese, would it still feel British, or would that just fucking ruin it?
Along with the sitcom Brush strokes, which makes several lengthy and baffling cameos throughout the series, Ashley Jackson is one of the star interview victims, fielding questions like
Why did they call World War 1 “World War 1”? It’s quite pessimistic numbering, isn’t it? Or did they just know it was the start of a franchise?
Why did neither side think about mud wrestling?
Cunk addresses the early days of BBC television:
The show got a record audience of 400—the sort of viewing figures BBC4 still dreams of.
Boris Johnson doesn’t come out of it lightly either.
Ms Cunk covers the NHS:
Once the NHS arrived, if you were poor and you got sick, you weren’t on your own any more—you were in a crowded waiting room full of other sick people.
Robert Peston gets sucked into discussing whether the NHS might give out free crisps, observing patiently:
I don’t think many people would argue that you can’t have a decent life without free crisps.
Episode 5, The arse end of history, is the icing on the cake, taking us right up the present—
a time when the archive footage goes colour at long fucking last, and some things you might actually have heard of, happened.
The only form of expression women were allowed was wearing pointy glasses.
Were miniskirts actually shorter, or did it just appear that way, cos people’s legs were getting longer?
With his love of yachts, classical music, and church organs, Edward Heath seemed to be a real man of the people.
Howard Goodall comes in for some more probing questions:
What was the difference between punk rock and … just being angry—but without a guitar?
* * *
The series is essential viewing. Having been led astray by Chinese culture from an impressionable age, I’m deeply grateful to Ms Cunk for her authoritative survey of British history. Surely the BBC must soon commission a series in which Chinese history is mercilessly subjected to Cunkification, and so-called sinologists meet their inevitable fate.