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‘Motherland’ Star Diane Morgan on Her Most Beloved Roles, From Philomena Cunk to Mandy

Diane Morgan
K. Varaksina courtesy of the Edinburgh TV Festival

Actor, writer and director Diane Morgan was in her teens when she first tried her hand at improv, an experience which first gave the “very shy, very quiet” 15-year-old a chance to step out of her shell and play a different character.

“I think my whole world opened up, basically,” says Morgan of that moment, ahead of receiving Variety and the Edinburgh TV Festival’s 2022 Outstanding Achievement Award. “I’d always been completely invisible and then, suddenly, I was the funny one.”

So it was unsurprising when Morgan decided she would try to pursue it professionally, even if it wasn’t the most obvious choice for a girl from Bolton. “I always thought I’d make a career out of it, even though everyone was telling me I wouldn’t make a career out of it and that it was insane,” she recalls. “Because I was from Bolton, and, you know, [most] people wanted to be hairdressers.”

It helped that, on her father’s side, there were actors in the family, including “Coronation Street” star Julie Goodyear and Oscar-nominated Frank Finlay. Her mother, “who was a bit more cautious,” took a bit more persuading and suggested that Morgan pursue a career in graphic design. Morgan, who was good at art, applied for art school before having a change of heart.

“I was in an interview for art school and I suddenly thought: ‘I can’t do this, this is the wrong thing.’ Even though I can draw, and I will probably make a career as a graphic designer or whatever, I will always regret it if I don’t try to do what I want. And I just had this feeling that I had to really just forget this and go for what I absolutely wanted, and my whole heart was in. Because I think that — it just works doesn’t it? You’ve got to be completely obsessed.”

Comedy came naturally to Morgan who says even before she tried it herself it was all she ever watched on TV, having grown up in a family were the ability to make someone laugh was a prized asset. “I was totally obsessed, and I loved it,” she says. “It was sort of more important to be funny than clever in my family. If someone was funny it was just more impressive.”

Her first paid role was in Peter Kay’s “Phoenix Nights,” a part she says she simply auditioned for. “There’s no story really. I went for it, I did it, I got it, and I was over the moon.” She has since gone on to appear in some of the U.K.’s best-loved comedy dramas, including “Motherland,” which was co-written by Sharon Horgan; Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s “Inside No. 9″; Ricky Gervais’ “After Life”; and Charlie Brooker’s “Weekly Wipe,” where her character, hapless host Philomena Cunk, was such a hit that she has gone on to have multiple spin-offs including “Cunk on Britain” and “Cunk on Shakespeare.”

Morgan says she never expected Cunk to be so popular. “Everyone told me that when you do ‘Weekly Wipe,’ if you bring in a new segment or a new character, you will get abuse because everyone wants to see Charlie. Everyone’s obsessed with Charlie. And they just don’t want the formula to be tinkered with,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Oh, Christ, this is going to be awful. I’m going to be on TV and people are just gonna be like, “Where’s Charlie?” “Who’s this?”’ But I think because we started very slowly and I was only doing TV reviews that were a few seconds and a few minutes. And then it built up to a five-minute segment. And then I got a bigger segment. So it was easing me in very slowly.”

Morgan says she loves playing Cunk “because I can just say whatever I want on it.” She also cites “Inside No. 9” and “After Life” as some of her favorite gigs. “Working with Ricky is so much fun,” says Morgan. “We literally don’t stop laughing. And we finish early, which is always a plus.”

“But I really, really loved ‘Inside No. 9.’ Working with those fellas. I just loved it,” she says. “And they’re very influenced by that amazing ‘70s occult stuff that I love so, oh God, it was just lovely. And while I was filming it, I was thinking, ‘Oh shit, how am I going to follow this because this is great, being trapped on a boat with these three.’ But hopefully, I’ll have another job at some point that’s as nice.”

Morgan also writes, directs and stars in “Mandy,” a sitcom about the unemployable eponymous character described as “the soul sister of Philomena Cunk.” The second season aired earlier this year. Morgan says her experience of stand-up gave her good grounding for writing a sitcom “because when you’re on stage, obviously, you need to get to the funny bit as quickly as possible before people start throwing things at you.”

She said she decided to direct the show herself as much out of convenience as anything else. “If I’d have employed a director, I would have had to say, ‘Right, I’d like this’ and try to describe what’s in my head, which is almost like making it more difficult than just doing it yourself,” Morgan says.

Having starred in so many comedy favorites, it’s unsurprising that Morgan is often clocked by fans when going about her daily life. She says when she sees someone approach her in the street she likes to guess which show they’re about to reference. “If it’s a mum with a kid with a pram, it will probably be ‘Motherland.’ I think if it’s a man over 30, it’s probably Charlie Brooker’s show. ‘Mandy’ has lots of young and old. [It] sort of appeals to a lot of different people.”

Would she ever try her hand at dramatic acting? “Yes, I would. I would consider a dramatic part if I read it and I thought, ‘This is interesting,’” she says. “If it was something that I thought, well, this is a bit different, this is interesting, then yeah, why not?”