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Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A celebration of the most determined philistinism

At first blush, the BBC’s ‘Cunk on Britain’, a spoof of mainstream TV history programs featuring Philomena Cunk as host, seems to make gentle fun of British exceptionalism but deep down it celebrates the philistinism that Cunk embodies. I felt like screaming when she sat down, in the professionally-sculpted surrounds that are used to make the program, with one historian or another and asked them idiotic questions. This is how scientists must feel when they get on Twitter and engage with the great unwashed in “debate” in the modern public sphere.

Cunk revels in her stupidity and the high production values the BBC uses for the series underscore how important the producers feel the people she represents are. This is a progressive attempt to humanise the dumb, the uneducated and the merely unintelligent who live unseen among us and with whom we interact every day, often quite unsuspectingly. As such, the series has a dual function. One is to poke fun at British nationalistic exceptionalism (Americans will love this aspect of the show) as illustrated by such TV programs as 'Antiques Roadshow', which has been screening for over 40 years. The other is to put a face to the countless ignorant participants in the public sphere who animate social media every day. This is a very modern and knowing production.

I think that someone like Simon Schama, whose ‘A History of Britain’ screened on the BBC from 2000 to 2002, would look askance at Cunk and what she represents. Or the late Robert Hughes, whose ‘Barcelona’ (1992) initiated the fashion for deep-dive studies of popular subjects. But what we have to understand is that this is who we are as a society. We are no better than Cunk on Britain, torturing the specialists who work in academia with our jaw-droppingly misguided questions and showing no ability to intelligently synthesise the information we are given in order to come to grips with the complexities of different branches of study, such as history. Cunk throws up a mirror to who we are today. And we all get to vote. Cunk is the comedic doppelganger of Donald Trump.

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