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WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM PHILOMENA CUNK?

 - Jasmijn Groot -



Cunk on Earth is an English mockumentary, which appeared on the BBC in late 2022 and was also released for Dutch viewers on Netflix in early 2023. In this comedy series, viewers are taken on a whirlwind tour of world history by presenter - and the opposite of a history expert - Philomena Cunk, a character played by English actress Diane Morgan. With her peculiar take on the past and her unexpected questions for the historians she interviews, she satirises everything about the historical documentary. And since satire is the best mirror for self-reflection, this series is not only hilarious to watch, but definitely one we can learn from. So here are Philomena Cunk's 5 lessons.



  1. Know your audience and choose a suitable presenter


As a television producer, do you want to reach a very limited audience that already has extensive affinity and prior knowledge of history? Or do you want to reach a wider audience whose interest you have yet to attract? Philomena Cunk knows the audience for whom she acts as a host like no other. And this is a modern audience that would rather be on their phones than watch a history documentary. An audience that has a short attention span. An audience that can only understand the past better through modern idenitifying marks. An audience that doesn't always understand why history matters. And so Philomena asks Dr Nigel Spivey if the Romans invented anal bleaching and Dr Irving Finkel if acid jazz was more important than the invention of writing. As you would. Some of the historians clearly do not know what to make of the presenter, indirectly signalling how far removed they are from the average viewer. Your documentary host could of course be an expert who understands history and knows which questions need to be asked. But you could also go for a presenter who is closer to your audience and who understands what kind of questions they would ask. It turned out to be a successful choice for Daan Schuurmans and Het Verhaal van Nederland or Ruud Gullit and The Mysteries of Ancient Egypt.



2. Do something different


It is almost always national or western history that British documentaries cover, often referring to major developments and famous people, mostly white men. Philomena makes some sharply humourous observations to put that to the test. For instance, the seemingly ignorant presenter unexpectedly and very suddenly drops the fact that book printing was a thing in Asia long before Europeans 'discovered' it. And she sarcastically tells the audience that historians now finally know that other parts of the world also have a history. In other words, why is she telling the same story for the umpteenth time? But Philomena also pokes fun at the way English-language documentaries try to portray the past: the all-too-familiar montages that slowly shuffle past museum display cases, close ups of famous paintings to illustrate the story, walks with famous historians, the highlighting of specific objects or aerial shots of ruins that the average viewer can't make sense of anyway. Philomena reinvents these existing ingredients, for instance by rolling down a dune, or applying her Minecraft game as a computer simulation to illustrate a well-known excavation.



3. Reflect the science of history


It is one thing to let experts speak, but another thing to make clear how we as historians gain knowledge. Philomena's interviews, which due to her lack of preparation and prior knowledge are nevertheless critical in an alternative way, make a case for better portraying some key components of the science of history. How history is about humans, a species on whose behaviour we cannot unleash mathematical or physical regulations to better understand our past, for example. And why history is also about topics that historians should approach as objectively as possible, but can be controversial and emotional for people outside the walls of academia - slavery, genocide and millennia-long gender inequality, to name but a few, evoke different emotions among trained historians than among, say, progressive activists, conservative politicians or descendants of enslaved people. For the same reasons, the past has a lot of (unnecessary) repetitions and contradictions. How many times have we told ourselves never to go to war again, only to find ourselves fighting again in no time. Not to mention the obvious contradiction between the United States calling itself 'Home of the Free', on the one hand, and the African slaves on the other, for whom that must have come as a surprise (though Philomena is the originator of that joke). This is certainly becoming increasingly important now that a large TV-watching audience can easily access social media with a tap on a phone screen, where all context and nuance from such narratives, including those that took place in the distant past, is removed.



4. Don't take yourself so seriously


Comparing hieroglyphics with emojis, asking a historian for his favourite ABBA song, or accidentally throwing coffee over an ancient papyrus document. Why not throw some humour into the mix of a history documentary? Philomena Cunk fortunately does not take history too seriously and makes fun of English scholars - especially those who are just a little too upper-class and have mastered the stiff upper lip too perfectly - with her quirky humour. Cunk thus shows how arrogant they can come across and exactly how high their ivory towers are. They do not so much put themselves forward as the beacon of knowledge, wanting to transfer wisdom to the rest of society. Academic historians really need to get a better grasp on how to present themselves better to popular media, if they are really so desperate to prevent viewers from pulling their knowledge from Wikipedia, as they themselves often claim.



5. Every history series deserves the Belgian 90s superhit Pump Up the Jam



It's just a catchy song.


Cunk on Earth is now on Netflix.

 

Image: ©Netflix (2023)

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