Have we reached peak twee documentary? From the art history reboot Civilisations, currently on screen, to a constant stream of Lucy Worsley programmes, to the entire genre of “British D-list celebrity travels to cutesy UK location”, British TV screens are awash with familiar faces pointing at things of historical interest. Ready to skewer the genre is Philomena Cunk, the dim-witted interviewer and talking head from Charlie Brooker’s Wipe spoof shows, as portrayed by the actress and comedian Diane Morgan.
Like earlier shows Cunk on Shakespeare and Cunk on Christmas, Cunk now stars in her own parody history Cunk on Britain. In this series she will, in her own words, travel the country “standing in front of old buildings saying things into the camera”.
If it sounds like this might get old quickly, fear not. The success of Cunk as a character is not thanks to her general persona as an ill-informed pundit, but her bizarre turns of phrase. In episode one, she likens the revelation of Roman roads to “Steve McFadden climbing on board Concorde”. Sword-fighting is “extreme whittling”. On one end of the spectrum, there are lines such as, “It was a particularly difficult time for the gluten intolerant, but thankfully, no one was yet middle class, so they just put up with it.” On the other, after a supercut of 12th-century churches, Cunk insists: “Amazingly, these were all built by one man: Norman Architecture.” It’s a line so outrageously childish and silly that I couldn’t help laughing out loud.
In the remaining four 30-minute episodes, Cunk will continue her history right up to Brexit: the sheer scale of the project might dilute Cunk’s wit. But between this and endless episodes of Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets, I know what I’d choose.
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special