Acclaimed actress and character-comedian Diane Morgan is back with a Philomena Cunk special this week, as well as starring in two high-profile new sitcoms, and the David Brent movie.
She spoke to Jay Richardson about her increasingly in-demand career.
Undaunted, unrelenting, unacquainted with reality, Philomena Cunk carries her incomprehension of the world “like a suit of armour” Diane Morgan reckons.
“She’s sort of emotionless, in that you very rarely see her smile. If you’re that stupid, living in a little bubble, nothing can harm you.”
From a talking head spouting off on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, to graduating to her own Moments of Wonder strand of befuddling interviews, Morgan’s character is now so popular that she’s been handed her own half-hour special, Cunk on Shakespeare, part of the BBC’s celebrations marking 400 years since the playwright’s death.
Written by Brooker, Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley, with no small amount of improvisation from Morgan, this unlikely meeting of minds has been facilitated by the comic’s growing feel for a confused cultural commentator whom she describes as “me really, if I had absolutely no social skills”.
“I know what she would do in any situation now and the writers do too. Around the questions I can pretty much say anything and lead [the interviewees] off in any direction, it’s all just spun to lead them down a blind alley, then watch them try to wriggle out.
“I get no greater pleasure in life than watching someone try to explain the inexplicable.”
Cunk was originally conceived as posh, hence the name.
After Barry Shitpeas, Brooker et al were wary about “having another stupid character with a regional accent”. But for some reason, her lines work better in a broader version of Morgan’s own Bolton tones.
“Some things just sound funnier in a northern accent,” she reflects.
Perplexing and enraging academics with the vacuity of Cunk’s enquiries, Morgan has no guilt about wasting such well-meaning experts’ time.
“Most professor types, strangely, don’t watch Weekly Wipe,” she laughs.
“They don’t really know what’s going on and because the interviews are so long, at least an hour, we lull them into a false sense of security for a while, then start with the weirder questions. So by that point it’s too late for them to complain.”
Only once has she been rumbled:
“By a computers guy who was a big Charlie Brooker fan, he admitted he knew but played along.
“Another academic looked genuinely annoyed, like he was going to punch me. They had to stop the interview and say to him: ‘Can you be slightly less aggressive? She’s doing her best.’
“The more aggressive he got, the funnier it was. I wouldn’t have minded if he hit me, I’m all for the ratings.”
A Cunk special on the EU Referendum was mooted, but pressure to be topical and Brooker’s commitments making Black Mirror killed it.
Nevertheless, there’s a desire to shoot more episodes.
“Because you can do it on anything,” says Morgan. “It’s not like it’s not got legs. Maybe we’ll go to America. They’re much more polite than we are and it’d be interesting to see what I could get away with.”
Although the character’s burgeoning profile might ultimately be its downfall, with interviewees becoming harder to dupe, amusingly, it’s only increased demand for Morgan’s narration on more conventional documentaries, with programme-makers invariably asking her to crank up the Cunk.
Meanwhile, the comic will next be seen in the Craig Cash-directed Sky 1 sitcom Rovers, about a non-league football team and the BBC Two pilot, Motherland, about navigating middle-class motherhood.
As an “absolute maneater, sexpot alcoholic”, Mandy the plumber in Rovers “will sort your pipes out”, Morgan deadpans.
Written by David Earl and Joe Wilkinson, Morgan’s former partner in the double-act Two Episodes of Mash and “a brilliant writer”, the cast also includes Sue Johnston, Cardinal Burns’ Seb Cardinal and stand-ups Jamie Demetriou and Lolly Adefope.
“Frankly it would have been a bit rude for them not to ask me,” she jokes. “‘Yeah, we’re filming something in your neck of the woods and we’re not going to ask you to be in it!'”
— Joe Wilkinson (@gillinghamjoe) May 4, 2016
Morgan refers to Cash, who stars as obsessive fan Pete, as “amazing”.
“I’ve never worked with a director like him before, so laidback and unpretentious. He doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing but he’s terrific and so funny.”
She loves the ensemble comedies that made Cash’s name, like Early Doors and The Royle Family.
“There’s a lot of oddballs in Rovers and it’s a sort of lo-fi way of playing comedy, weirdos but ultra-realistic, which is interesting.”
In Motherland, directed by Graham Linehan and written with Sharon Horgan, Holly Walsh and Linehan’s wife Helen, she portrays Liz, “the worst of all the mothers”.
“She just doesn’t care about her children very much, they’ve all got broken arms and she lets them run riot.
“She’s unmarried, bored and likes a drink, a contrast to the other mothers. Again, it’s very low-key, it’s not a broad sitcom at all.”
Morgan and Wilkinson haven’t ruled out writing another sketch show for television, after their previous pilot sat in limbo with the BBC for three years before being rejected.
But she doubts she’ll return to the live circuit, either as Two Episodes or with her solo stand-up.
“I have a love-hate relationship with it,” she explains. “I’ll miss it, because I like trying out new material. But once I know it works, I don’t have any impetus to try it again. It’s the repetition, dealing with drunks and the travelling I can’t stand.”
Nevertheless, she’ll be channelling some of that frustration into Life on The Road, David Brent’s cinematic debut, out in August.
Playing Brent’s PR woman, as he seeks to establish himself as a rock star, the shoot was riotous fun.
“Ricky Gervais is a barrel of laughs. I can’t wait to see it.”
Unless, that is, she’s been dumped on the cutting room floor, as she was in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.
“That was such a shame; the part got cut down and cut down and cut down, until eventually I just looked like an extra in it. But I was happy to stare at Steve Coogan for an afternoon.”
Lobbying to play purely comic roles through drama school – “I got big laughs with Lady Macbeth, I’m proud of that” – Morgan’s first screen break after graduating was as a brewery owner’s wife in Phoenix Nights.
“It was quite a small part but I was really grateful. Before Phoenix Nights was even a thing, I wrote to [Peter Kay] and said ‘I’ve just left drama school and I really like your work. If you’re ever doing anything, would you bear me in mind because I’m from Bolton’, that sort of thing.
“And bless him, years later he remembered and popped me in it. You never forget things like that.”
Cunk on Shakespeare – A Moments of Wonder Special is on BBC Two tomorrow, Wednesday May 11 at 10pm.
Rovers starts Tuesday May 24 at 10pm on Sky 1
[Main image: BBC]