The Guardian • Issue #2041

Streaming Review

Cunking the class system

Cunk On Earth host Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan). Photo: Jonathan Browning via Netflix

The UK dangerous for Australians for a few reasons. One reason is that the country that is still legally our colonial overlord is about to help make our military and foreign policies even more dependent on the United States, via the horrendously expensive AUKUS submarines deal, a deal so wasteful that if we ditched it, we could introduce free dental care, free post-secondary education and still have enough left over to give every capital city in Australia a replica of the Sydney Opera House.

Another way the UK is dangerous is that if you spend too much time-consuming British culture, Australia can begin to look like a classless meritocracy by comparison. Look, they’ve got a House of Lords, how silly! Look, they can’t go five minutes without talking about class (unlike nice Australians who can’t go five minutes without being classist about bogans, real estate, or, in Melbourne, asking “what school did you go to?”).

Look, they have a silly Royal family (ie  the Royal family that’s on our coins).

All this British-watching is dangerous because – as readers of The Workers’ Weekly Guardian probably don’t need to be told – Australia is not a classless egalitarian meritocracy. We have classes, and those classes have different interests (also, anyone who thinks this place is a meritocracy really wasn’t paying attention for at least the last three Prime Ministers).

The steady tide of British stuff that Australians consume really should come with a warning: “THIS DOES NOT MAKE YOUR COUNTRY A CLASS-FREE UTOPIA” in big letters like the warnings about tongue cancer on cigarette packets.

So, it’s with a certain familiarity that we turn to Cunk On Earth, from the very talented mind of Charlie Brooker. Cunk sounds like a rude word, but the show feels like yet another BBC documentary, with lavish footage of old monuments, lots of vaguely classical uplifting music with trumpets – but wait! The presenter is an idiot with an Essex girl accent (how common!) who gets all sorts of things wrong! That’s the gag really. Apologies if this revelation has spoiled the joke for you, but in fairness it’s pretty obvious in the first five minutes.

Philomena Cunk is a fictional documentary-presenter who has what is not a smart-person’s accent – that is, she does if you’re used to BBC docos (and dramas and comedies for that matter). She asks stupid questions, like “Can you tell me about the Soviet Onion?,” and interrupts the brainy authentic academics she’s interviewing to tell stories about mates of hers who’ve done stupid things on drugs.

She also parodies the genre of Expensive Classy British Documentaries by asking the bewildered-looking academics if they could either just cut down something as complex as the Renaissance to a one sentence soundbite, or say something obviously wrong to make the program go down better with the Cunk-like masses.

Before you resolve to go elsewhere for your laughs, I hasten to add that Cunk on Earth is not as bad as I’ve made it sound just now. A lot of it is laugh-out-loud funny. The malapropisms, crudities and nonsense are often pretty cleverly written, so if you’ve ever enjoyed a Classy British Documentary, and/or have a funny bone, you’ll probably enjoy it. If you do like the idea of making fun of classy British docos, you’ll really like it but (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?) it’s not as good as it used to be.

Anyone who hasn’t met Philomena Cunk, do yourself a favour and go check out Cunk on Shakespeare, Cunk on Britain, Moments of Wonder, and all the other Cunkery that is out there on Youtube for free. Starting your Cunking with Cunk on Earth is a bit like starting with a band’s fourth album, if the band in question has gone from “cult genius” to “getting blander but they know what moves units.”

That’s a tad harsh, because as I said, Cunk on Earth is still very funny indeed, if you don’t mind a bit of classism in your comedy (if you do mind classism in comedy you probably never ever watch British comedies anyway, and have tuned out of the review five paragraphs ago).

My point is that the early stuff is really funny, while the current stuff, discovered by Netflix and very popular, is showing the strain a little. Interrupting the interviews with anecdotes about “my mate Paul” gets a bit old by the second episode, and the gags about “the producers asked for this bit” only go so far. Mind you, I never got tired of being surprised by references to Techtronic’s 1989 smash hit Pump Up the Jam.

Something else that may swing the deal for you is that Cunk on Earth is written by Charlie Brooker. Well, Brooker and eight others, which is no shame because Brooker is vastly more famous, busy and important now than he was when he first came up with the Philomena Cunk character for a very funny show called Screenwipe. If you’ve never heard of Brooker, he’s the author of two book-loads of columns about British TV shows, columns which were hilarious even for someone like me who was never going to see the shows discussed. He’s also the creator of Black Mirror, a kind of modern British Twilight Zone.

Check out Cunk On Earth if you like a brainy laugh and have ever seen a British doco. Hunt up the early Cunkery on Youtube if you want more of the same. Read The Hell of It All or Screenburn if you want good writing that will make you laugh out loud about TV that you’ll never actually see.

Just don’t ever assume that Australia is a classless wonderland.

Cunk On Earth is now screening on Netflix. Philomena Cunk’s other outings can be found on Youtube.
The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More