Channel 4 seems to relish the opportunity to offend and create uproar at every turn.
Their reality series “Benefit Street” profiled one of Birmingham’s most impoverished and dangerous streets. It documented how those on social welfare lived- which led to accusations of manipulation and exploitation of the working class. If one looks further back, to 2007, their planned week on masturbation (aka Wank Week) was pulled (if you’ll excuse the pun) from the station following public outcry.
The channel’s recent commissioning of a comedy set during the Great Famine of 1845-1852 has caused consternation after it was announced last week.
The comedy is set to be called “Hungry”, and is to be written by Hugh Travers, who garnered much acclaim last year following his radio play based on the “Lambo” incident of the 1980s, where Gerry Ryan and other celebrities were accused of killing and eating a lamb while participating in a reality series for RTÉ.
This new venture has already proved more controversial. Noted historian Tim Pat Coogan has stated “It does seem an unsavoury thing, with such agony, and it being such a horrendous thing that still has a bad effect on relationships between Ireland and England.”
Coogan has described the Famine as an act genocide by the British authorities of the time, where one eighth of the Irish population died in the prolonged famine. Due to this painful history, it has been compared to making a comedy on the Holocaust.
Criticism has not just been confined to historians, with Sinn Féin MLA Phil Flanagan berating the writer for using the famine as a “vehicle of comedy”, and Fianna Fáil councillor David McGuinness echoing Coogan’s opinion, stating “the Jewish people would never endorse the making of a (holocaust) comedy”.
All the reception has not been negative, however, and some members of the media community have been quick to defend the plans for a comedy, which is based on our shared history, while acknowledging the painful details.
The Rubberbandits, famed for their satire of Limerick city and its social problems, addressed "every Irish person offended" by the commissioning of the comedy series and said that such offence was the reason (Samuel) Beckett and (James) Joyce left the country. Others on twitter have been quick to point out that censorship of this nature is dangerous.
A petition has been launched, and has gained over 33,500 signatures so far. This petition has itself become the source of ridicule, with some commentators observing that television shows and films have always been quick to make comedy from tragic circumstances. Journalist Elaine Byrne mentioned MASH, Inglorious Bastards, Blackadder and Dad’s Army as examples of this.
Travers himself has said that “comedy equals tragedy plus time”. Some have been quick to point out that the hysteric uproar may be misjudged, as Channel 4 have just commissioned a pilot episode, and apart from a vague description of “Shameless in famine Ireland”, we have yet to see much style nor substance.
The author suspects that much of the vitriol directed towards the programme stems from the British element of the series. If an Irish station were to commission such a series, would there be as much consternation?
The old adage of “all publicity is good publicity” rings true here.
Pragmatically, if we are to take a step back, Channel 4 simply agreed to one episode of a comedy, but now has said series being discussed in practically every public forum. It remains to be seen if this series will be a success, but one suspects that with this much attention it’s a guarantee it gets to air.
If you would like to sign the petition, you can do so here.