After a few weeks of festive over-indulgence, the New Year always brings with it a wave of puritanism: people start doing exercise more strenuous than extending your arm into a Roses tin. Gyms are able to pay their yearly wages off the back of New Years Resolvers who will never avail of their sweaty, David Guetta-soundtracked timeshare. Mince pie manufacturers start to curse their unsteady career choice. But in recent days. the abstemious mood has not been regarding food, but taste and public decency. Although it sort of is to do with food.
Yes, 2015’s Ban This Sick Filth engine has been fired up and gained momentum early. The reason? Channel 4 have commissioned a writer to write something. Gad zukes! The writer, Hugh Travers, wants to write a Shameless-style account of The Irish Potato Famine. Ah, there it is.
The outrage was as immediate as it was self-righteous and predominantly Irish-American. There was histrionic chest beating about Irish suffering being a soft target, and wondering whether Ebola or – Godwin’s Law trigger warning – the Holocaust would be next in Channel 4’s schedule. Niall O’Dowd, editor of the New York-based Irish Central (for which I myself used to write happily – I got some of my best death threats there) in particular went full knickertwist with outrage that somebody would write a comedy script about The Famine. So much so, he wrote one himself. Shades of Margaret Thatcher and Yes Minister abound. Incidentally, plenty of her acolytes were similarly up in arms at Hilary Mantel’s assassination daydream short story. It’s always nice to find common ground between Irish Republicans and British Conservatives.
Emigre outrage wasn’t the end of it though. An online petition garnered thousands of signatures, and one Irish politician said he wasn’t surprised it was a British company making this. Because Channel 4 are well-known for their blatant pro-Trevelyan bias.
All this before the series is ever signed off, let alone written or screened.
Nobody denies that The Famine (we know it by a much more intimate name than the rest of the world, naturally) is a sensitive subject and an abject tragedy on a worldwide scale. But so was World War One, so was World War Two (Electric Boogaloo), so was the Korean and Vietnam War, all situations the key component of which was involuntary death. And yet there have been terrific, thoughtful, poignant and fantastically funny comedies about all those conflicts too. The last five minutes of Blackadder Goes Forth is as good and noble as any Cenotaph. M*A*S*H* was a comedy – the best ever, probably – about army doctors in a warzone, and its fidelity to the notion that war was worse than hell was never undermined by their constant goofing and one-liners. If anything, the gravity of their situation was the reason they goofed so much. There are countless other examples: Nicholas Lyndhurst didn’t make fun of the blitz in Goodnight Sweetheart, nor did Robin Williams’ japes in Good Morning Vietnam didn’t discredit the troops serving there.
Not all close-to-the-bone comedy comes out of war, but that’s hardly a free pass to well-received either. Chris Morris’ Brass Eye: Paedogeddon was blasted from across the Missed Point Spectrum, one commenter calling it “unspeakably sick” – despite not having seen it. The tabloid press too whipped themselves up into a frenzy of moral outrage – while simultaneously leering at an underage Charlotte Church.
And also, let’s put this “Untouchable Nazi” argument in a bunker once and for all: The Producers is just one obvious example, written by one of the greatest Jewish comedians ever, no less. Sammy Davis Jr, Jewish and black, used to make KKK jokes at some of the most tense times in racial history. And even our own beloved Father Ted – itself thought to be a shameful mockery of Ireland in some quarters back before the show became a national article of faith – featured a whole Odd Couple-style scene where an unreconstructed Wehrmacht soldier and a Nazi memorabilia enthusiast priest accidentally take cyanide. Hell, is Julie Andrews singing about goatherds and edelweiss making a mockery of millions of innocent deaths too?
Mark Twain, no stranger to redaction himself, once said that censorship is banning steak because a baby can’t chew it. The problem is some people are happy to chow down on delicious free speech until they reach their own particular sacred cow. You might think it’s mad that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned til the 60’s, or the controversy about Life of Brian in the 70’s was sillier than a John Cleese walk, or The Interview being pulled this Christmas was outrageous. But if you turn sharply in the other direction when the subject matter moves a bit closer to home, it’s a case of untested virtue not being a virtue at all.
Ultimately, the only things a comedy really needs are a good script, a good cast to perform it, a good crew to make it and the goodwill of the audience to take it to their hearts. If a writer thinks he has an idea that ticks all those boxes, he’s entitled to give it a crack and it’s absolutely crucial that he’s allowed to try to break ground and boundaries. That’s what being an artist should be all about. A bad, shlocky, lazy, anodyne but safe sitcom is so much more tasteless and offensive. What about the suffering My Family caused millions of people for so many years?
But of course, all this is just conjecture, because not a single word of a famine comedy – Niall O’Dowd’s efforts aside – has been typed yet. It might be a modern-day Heil Honey I’m Home, a notorious one episode disaster. Or it might be a classic in the making to match that other great satire about Irish hunger, Dean Swift’s A Modern Proposal, that makes these naysayers feel very silly years from now. Whatever it becomes, let’s judge Hugh Travers on the only thing that matters: his ability to write something good.