Back in the day I'd receive VHS tapes from friends who lived in the UK or US. They'd tape shows that they knew I'd like, high-brow panel shows that were also funny, dark comedies, and bleeding-edge satires such as The Day Today and Brasseye, these plastic cassettes were treasures, and as such were shared with others, passed on like a favourite hard-to-find book.

I threw a bunch in the bin yesterday; we have YouTube now and the VHS player is in a box somewhere in the basement, just in case.

Cunk On Britain (YouTube) is the exact sort of show my friends would have sent, a satirical history of the UK presented by the driest woman in the English-speaking world, a character called Philomena Cunk.

Cunk first came to my attention as a contributor to Charlie Brooker's various media commentaries, which dissected UK and world media/politics with a viciously funny and scalpel-sharp glee.


Brooker recently came to wider fame via his Black Mirror series, which earned an Emmy among its accolades, but his producing credit on Cunk on Britain reminds us that he's not all dark dystopia, he's a fan of silly and a wordsmith on par with the best.

There's Python and Fry and Laurie in the DNA.

Cunk, the comic creation of Diane Morgan, presents a classic-looking history documentary using real locations, talking heads and an arsenal of stupid-yet-genius questions, such as: "Why did stone-age people bury all of their stuff underground? Were they worried someone might steal it?"

The observations are just as dumb, though smart: "Before Snapchat, hills were the best way to distribute dick pics to a wide audience" — that in reference to that well-hung chalk giant carved into the Dorset hillside.

Cunk presents as an idiot who accidently speaks the truth, and the real experts she questions answer as if they are not in on the joke, though, surely at least some are.

The look of bafflement sure looks real when she asks a literary scholar: "If Shelly's one of the greatest poets in English literature, how come no one gives a shit about him today?"

Lines are drawn between the old and new and the show promises to take us from "Ancient Man to Ed Sheeran", and it bloody well does.

Along the way, they take the piss out of the often pompous style of the history doco, with nods to the likes of Simon Schama and that lovely wee scottish guy on Coast (Neil Oliver).

I read that Cunk On Britain was screening in the UK and tried to watch via the BBC iPlayer and a VPN but the damn thing seems to have outsmarted me and correctly marked me as an intruder, but as luck would have it, someone has been posting the series, week by week on YouTube.

While you're there, have a look at some of Cunk's earlier works, such as her bonkers Tribute to Winston Churchill: "If he was alive today just imagine how good his tweets would be."

She's not wrong.

Cunk presents as an idiot who accidently speaks the truth


Civilisation updated

The BBC has also just released a new, serious history series that I'm also keen to see, though sadly it hasn't made its way to YouTube.

Civilisations is a 50-year anniversary remake of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, the original wonderfully stuffy history of human civilisation, made when empire was still in the rearview mirror of British TV.

Today, Clark sounds like a parody, he might remind you of a professor if you went to University, or perhaps if you watched too much TV he's Major Gowen, the regular resident on Fawlty Towers whose interests ran to cricket and the union disputes at British Leyland.

I know this because someone has helpfully uploaded the entire original 1969 series to YouTube and the BBC have left it there unmolested. It's a good watch and a reminder that something that well-made, as pompous as it now seems, is still a thing of beauty. The pace is gentle, the tone hypnotic. Give it a good 20 minutes to settle in, all good TV takes time to grab you. I always remind myself that The Wire took me four episodes to get hooked.

The new series of Civilisations made to update the '69 classic comes complete with the best modern TV historian, Simon Schama, so I'll be hanging out to see it, though perhaps the original is the better bet.

The new series, which recently began its run in the UK, has been getting mixed reviews, and by mixed I mean, really bad.

Here's how the BBC's own Arts Editor described the update: "For all its faults [partial, dogmatic, occasionally dismissive], the Kenneth Clark-written and presented originals had a clarity, structure, and coherent argument that made them fascinating to watch and easy to follow.

"In contrast, from the programmes I have seen, Civilisations is more confused and confusing than a drunk driver negotiating Spaghetti Junction in the rush hour."

Which reminds me, have you seen Drunken History? It's more Cunk than Schama, but boy, it's good.