Classic Interview: Diane Morgan, Star of Cunk On Britain, Mandy, Motherland

Classic Interview: Diane Morgan, star of Cunk On Britain, Mandy, Motherland

Cunk on Britain is currently being repeated on BBC Two on Tuesday nights at 10pm so this interview with its star Diane Morgan, which ran in the Evening Standard here when it first went out in 2018 might be worth another read..

This was actually such a strange interview. I absolutely detest doing interviews with a publicist sitting in, which may have contributed to the Q&A process being a bit dull and guarded. My fault possibly for asking dull questions. At one point I was so desperate to get something interesting I decided to adopt the persona of Philomena Cunk and I asked Morgan something so gratuitously offensive I'm not going to repeat it here. The publicist didn't seem to see the funny side, though to be honest neither did Morgan. I guess context is everything. This was an interview, not a comedy series. 

 

This year (2018) looks set to be the year of the idiot in television comedy. There is already the dim girlfriend Kelly in BBC2 sitcom Mum and the hapless Mucklowe cousins in BBC Three’s This Country. And next week Philomena Cunk, who first appeared on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe and thinks Sir Walter Raleigh invented the potato, gets her own BBC Two series: Cunk on Britain.

Cunk is not real, of course. She is played by Bolton-born comedian Diane Morgan. Although many of the people she interviews in her series are not aware of this, as she explains between sips of water. “They are just told they are being interviewed for a BBC history documentary, I think. They are quite flattered and are keen to explain their area of expertise. We are not taking the piss out of them, but it’s nice to see them struggling and having to recalibrate their ideas.”

The result is extremely funny. ITV’s Robert Peston almost combusts with comedic confusion when asked: “What’s the most political thing that has ever happened in Britain?” Elsewhere, Morgan gets to do the full Lucy Worsley, dressing up as Queen Victoria and Margaret Thatcher as she sends up the tropes of landmark documentaries, standing on clifftops as the camera sweeps over her. 

Morgan, a chatty, youthful 42 with the flaming auburn hair of a Hollywood femme fatale, relished playing Cunk. “Nothing you can say is wrong and you can do away with social niceties. You can do exactly what you want. It’s really freeing, I don’t need to worry. I prefer being her than me.” The interviews were the most enjoyable aspect. “I get a list of questions but you never know how it will go — it’s my favourite bit as there are less lines to learn.”

Sometimes it looks like the guests may have twigged that this is a wind-up. One would expect TV critic Mark Lawson, for instance, to realise what is going on. It’s a technique that has been used before, famously by Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G. Maybe others spend too much time with their heads buried in the Domesday Book. “We never make it clear what we are doing. I’m sure some of the boffins just don’t watch TV. You lull someone into a false sense of security, then slip in some weird questions when they are too polite or it’s too late to leave.”

 

“We had one guy on democracy. I thought he might thump me and they wanted to stop filming but I said don’t stop, it makes for more interesting viewing. You can get an interview that goes smoothly at any time. Let’s get a punch-up. He got so angry and that’s more entertaining. Being thumped would make great telly. One of my favourites was the Churchill expert. I asked him how did Churchill come to invent Tippex and he looked so annoyed.”

Charlie Brooker had the original concept for the character but Morgan gave Cunk her distinctive stamp. “It’s his baby. He came up with the name and the idea. But he wanted her to be quite posh, so I got an audition and did my best posh voice. But I’d been practising in my own accent and I thought it would be funnier.”

Talking of babies, Morgan was recently seen on BBC Two as cheese-freezing single mum Liz in the inspired sitcom Motherland, written by Graham and Helen Linehan, Sharon Horgan and Holly Walsh. The show definitely struck a chord. People identified with Morgan’s unconventional, alcohol-fuelled approach to parenting.

“Women were coming up to me in the street and saying they were so grateful. They needed something like this. Sitcoms are usually sweet with no viciousness,” she says. “I don’t know why it’s always men that get to play vicious characters. Women usually have to play people who are warm, not absolute bastards.”

Morgan is currently trying to write something for her friend, actress Maxine Peake, but keeps getting distracted. “Mostly by the fridge and Seventies YouTube clips. I work from home. I’ve got ideas but it’s getting the buggers out that’s the problem.” Home is a flat in Bloomsbury where she lives with TV producer Ben Caudell.
 

She started out as a stand-up after studying drama at the E15 Acting School in Loughton, which had an unconventional approach to drama. Morgan recalls how for two weeks her class went into Epping Forest and played Jews and Nazis. “I don’t think they do it any more but I think it was a regular thing back then.”

After college she picked up bit parts but nothing she really liked, and when she was working in a call centre her boss said she was funny and ought to do stand-up. “The thought of it made me feel physically sick, but then 30 started looming and I thought, ‘Oh shit I’d better do something with my life, I’ll give it a go.’”

And then Cunk came along. “Occasionally I miss writing something down and going out in the evening to see if it works.” Maybe she could do Cunk onstage? “Possibly? It could be a live thing. Or a TED Talk.”

 

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