Diane Morgan sits shivering in a scorching hot east London restaurant, staring at the menu. The waiter asks if she would like her water still. “Yeah, or just tap please.” She looks at me. “See how down-to-earth I am?”
Then back at the waiter. “Can I have a roast salmon fillet, please?” Back at me again. “Feel how cold my hands are. They go purple. I’ve got Raynaud’s [disease, which affects circulation]. That woman, Doctor Foster, has got it as well. What’s she called? Suranne Jones. Is it too hot for you in here?”
Morgan is fast-talking and concerned, with a great hooting laugh. She could not be less like her alter ego, Philomena Cunk – the parody television presenter is slow, unconcerned and bored senseless by the people she interviews. Now Cunk, who first appeared as a character in Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, has been given her first series – a history of Britain.
And it’s brilliant. Cunk is as ill-informed as she is rude, and fabulously po-faced. Take Lucy Worsley, add sprinklings of Mrs Malaprop, Mrs Merton and Larry David and you might end up with Philomena Cunk.
So, for example, she tells us why Henry VIII is such a memorable monarch. “Well for one thing, he was fat, so he takes up more room in the memory. He had six wives called Catherine and killed them all, hence Cath-olicism.”
Yet, amazingly, the programmes are also educational. In the episode on the Victorians we learn about Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Babbage, Charles Darwin, Sherlock Holmes, music hall, Jack the Ripper and slavery. What really keeps you on your toes is the interplay between perfect sense and nonsense. “Music hall was the first genre named after a building, and was a huge influence on acid house,” Cunk says, without a hint of a smile.
How would Morgan describe Cunk to somebody who had never seen her? “An idiot!” she says instantly. “But occasionally she’ll get things so right you think maybe she isn’t an idiot. Maybe she’s a genius! The best thing about her is she doesn’t care. We all wish we could be like that.”
Is Morgan? “A little bit. She’s like an idiot twin sister. I feel protective towards her. Cunk is who I’d love to be if I had the balls.”
Morgan did another wonderfully po-faced turn in Sharon Horgan and Graham Linehan’s sitcom Motherland, as chaotic single mum Liz. She can be so glamorous – as at today’s photoshoot – but Morgan also uses that downturned mouth, those huge blue eyes and flat Lancastrian vowels to convey indifference, incomprehension and disappointment superbly.
She says it took her ages to realise her face could be her fortune. “I’ve just got a very still, deadpan face, and I know how to use it. When I was at drama school, people weren’t taking pictures of themselves every five minutes. So I didn’t realise how I looked. It was only when people started taking pictures of themselves that I looked at myself and thought: ‘Oh my God, I look really miserable.’ Even when I’m happy I look sad.”
The daughter of a physiotherapist and stay-at-home mother, Morgan, 42, grew up in Bolton. As a child she was obsessed with comedy – particularly Peter Cook and Tony Hancock. She wanted to be a comedian, but she didn’t know how to go about it, and decided acting was the best route.
“I told the careers person [at school] I wanted to be an actress and she looked at me like I said I’d like to be a mermaid. She told me it might be easier to go to somewhere like Snappy Snaps and work my way up. Hahahahaha!”
As it happens, acting wasn’t such an outrageous ambition. Two distant relatives on her father’s side had been successful actors – Julie Goodyear, who played Bet Lynch in Coronation Street for many years, and Jack Wild, who was famously the Artful Dodger in the 1968 film Oliver!
Morgan also had a great friend who was determined to make it as an actor – Maxine Peake. After both failed to get into drama school, they decided North-ism was holding them back, and it was time to get elocution lessons. “Neither of us could get into drama school and we thought it must be because of our accent. So we’d turn up at this little old lady’s house in Bolton, and sit on the sofa and go ‘Ommmmmm’.”
Did it work? “No, we couldn’t do it. Especially Maxine. She sounds like Fred Dibnah!”
Eventually Morgan did get into a drama school, East 15 in Essex, and she says it was a massive cultural shock. She had come from a family where feelings were best expressed with a firm handshake, and suddenly she was surrounded by touchy-feely types.
“You’d get a lot of people just walk up to you and start massaging you. I’d be like, ‘Get off! What you doing?’ They’re a bit like hippies at drama school. They just want to touch you and interpret your dreams.”
She chews on her salmon with distaste. “It was a southern thing, I thought, and a drama school thing. It was a completely different world.”
And what about the accent – did it hold her back? “They felt you could move into different accents if you had a neutral accent, which was RP. And that is complete b******s, isn’t it? Because RP isn’t a neutral accent. My neutral accent is Bolton.”
Did that annoy her? “It did a bit.”
Morgan says that by the time she left drama school she was also a bit of a hugger. But it didn’t do her any good. She still couldn’t get acting work, so she spent her 20s in telesales. Her boss would listen to the funny comments she made and tell her she should go into stand-up. “He kept saying it and I kept saying no, but 30 was looming, so I thought, ‘Ah s**t, I’ve really got to do something with my life.’”
Despite the fact that she had done nothing performance-wise for a decade, she always believed things would come good – that it was just a matter of biding her time.
Is she from a family of optimists? “God, no. I’m from a long line of really negative people. Hahahaha! My dad’s terrible. ‘Never get your hopes up, then you won’t be disappointed’ is his motto.”
She soon found she could make a living from stand-up – and a good one, at that. “I thought it was amazing that I could do 20 minutes a night and earn more in a week than I did in telesales. If you did a weekend you could get £400 a gig.”
What was her comedy like? “Quite miserable. I suppose there was a tiny bit of stupid because I thought that was the only way you could do stand-up. You have to be fearless. So I’d go on looking as if I didn’t give a s**t. Really angry. Angry at life, angry at the things that have happened. And I’d always go on looking a bit s**t, too, like I’d had an awful day.”
Was her act political? “No. I was never a political comedian. It would just be anger about biscuits or something, or teachers at school, that sort of thing.”
I ask if she thinks comedy is going to have a #MeToo moment, like the film industry. She looks at me as if I’m mad. “I don’t think so.” Well, I say, I suppose it did a few years ago when TV panel shows were attacked for their lack of female representation.
Yes, she says, there are fewer women comedians than men and she was invariably the only woman on the bill, but it’s hardly a bugbear for her. “Everyone has to have an opinion these days, don’t they? All I want to do is make people laugh.”
I’m not sure I believe her. For one thing, she seems fairly opinionated in her insistence that she is not opinionated. Gradually she gave up standup for television as she was offered more acting roles (bit parts in the occasional TV series and comedies Phoenix Nights and Robert’s Web). Her major breakthrough wasn’t until 2013, when she debuted as Philomena Cunk, in Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe. Motherland has been a success, but the five-part Cunk on Britain is her most high-profile gig by far.
Cunk’s mockumentary style is always at its funniest when real interviewees are bemused by or infuriated at Cunk’s ignorance. “The angriest was the one we did on Churchill. I asked [the expert] how come he invented Tippex, and apparently he had a black dog, what was his name? They had to stop filming because the guy looked as if he was going to hit me! But I think they’re always the best. They always work really well when they’re genuinely annoyed.”
Now the danger is that Cunk will be a victim of her own success. In the new series it often looks as if the talking heads are in on the joke, and trying to keep a straight face. Morgan knows that this time many of the guests know what they’ve let themselves in for.
“Some people will come in and go ‘Oh I love Cunk!’ and they know what’s going on. Some will say, ‘I don’t know what this is, but my daughter told me to do it.’ We need more history boffins who don’t watch telly.”
But if Cunk becomes too well known to retain the surprise factor, that’s a small price to pay for success, Morgan says. “The show might have to move to America, where it’s warmer” – which, she points out, would also be good for the Raynaud’s. It’s weird that Morgan doesn’t get a writing credit when so much of the series is improvised (the credited writers are four men, including Charlie Brooker and her partner Ben Caudell, the former head of entertainment at Channel 4).
“Well, I’m just happy to improvise the interview bits because then you can take it anywhere. That’s enough for me. I don’t want to take anybody’s job off them.”
Anyway, she says, she has her own project on the go – she is writing a TV comedy for her and her friend Peake. “It’s the first long-form thing I’ve written so it’s really hard. I don’t know if anything will come of it. It’s about two sisters who are opposites.”
She looks embarrassed. “That makes it sound boring. I’m really bad at describing it. I think if you tell somebody an idea, it dies in transit.”
As we wrap up, I ask a few quick-fire questions. Who would she most like to work with? “Chris Morris. I saw him recently and was so shy I couldn’t even look at him. I pretended I hadn’t seen him.”
What most annoys her? “People who walk slowly in the street.” She laughs. I give her a look.
Oh come on, there are some seriously bad things happening out there… And this time her answer is not only opinionated, but shockingly so. “I’d punch Jacob ReesMogg.”
Why? “He winds me up. I’ve offered to go in a ring with him for Comic Relief and beat him up.”
Are there are any Tories she likes? “I can’t think of one.” Are there any politicians on the left she likes? “Lots. I’m a big fan of Tony Benn. And I love Dennis Skinner, obviously.”
Blimey. I think you’ve been pulling my leg about not being political haven’t you? She looks me in the eye, hoots, and repeats her mantra. “I’m not a political person. I just want to make people laugh!”
Cunk on Britain begins Tuesday 3rd April at 10pm on BBC2
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