Why were cave paintings not adapted into Spielberg movies? Was Jesus Christ the first celebrity victim of cancel culture? Which was more culturally significant: the Renaissance or Single Ladies by Beyonce? These are some of the tough questions that Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan) tackles in Cunk on Earth.
The five-part limited series narrated by Philomena Cunk, a character famous in the mockumentary genre on British TV, having tackled British history in an earlier show, takes us on a journey of understanding the history and evolution of human civilisation.
Cunk on Earth
Through interviews with experts, copyright-free footage of famous monuments, and stock photos of others, Philomena transports us to these landmarks and relays their history while peppering it with some very obvious falsehoods.
Philomena is funny, inquisitive, and your next-door Whatsapp conspiracy theorist who believes that 700 is the biggest number there is. Her steadfast faith in unverified tweets and random YouTube videos makes for hilarious confrontations with experts on myriad topics. She takes on subjects like religion, revolution, art history, and nuclear weapons over the course of these episodes, all the while asking seemingly naive questions that upon deeper introspection end up stumping the experts.
By interspersing significant historical events with the sensibilities of the 21st century, Philomena exposes the absurdity of human existence.
In the third episode, while taking a tour of the works of great artists, she raises doubts about the authenticity of Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and tries to convince an expert in art history that it is likely that Botticelli used Photoshop in his magnum opus. She soon follows it up with asking whether there is a version of The Vitruvian Man with “underpants on”.
While Diane Morgan’s portrayal of Philomena is impeccable, it is the incredibly strong writing that gifts the show its identity. Philomena’s one-liners will most definitely give you some laugh-out-loud moments. Here is a couple to help you gauge the experience:
- Egyptian kings were known as Pharaohs and when they died they would get turned into Mummies of Scooby-Doo fame.
- Rome’s empire rose to supremacy under the leadership of Julius Caesar, the most notorious Roman until Polanski.
Philomena is sharp in her critique of documentary filmmaking. She walks in scenic but irrelevant landscapes during her narration to create an atmosphere of seriousness. Cunk on Earth also mimics the fashion of re-enacting seemingly irrelevant actions throughout the series. The audience being unaware of whether the experts are also in on the jokes only adds flabour to an already simmering critique.
However, not all is well with this BBC show. It gives disproportionate importance to the history of the first world (predominantly white) countries while relegating the history of the global south to a footnote.
Philomena is confident that this is an award-winning documentary. You can check out her claim for yourself.
Cunk on Earth is currently streaming on Netflix and BBC iPlayer