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Opinion: Are we being overly sensitive about C4's Famine sitcom?

The Famine itself wasn’t funny, but a comedy based in that era might be.

Mark Farrell

ANYTHING THAT WIPES out or reduces nearly 25% of a country’s population is not funny. The deaths of a million people or so during the 1840s in our own country is not funny.

War is not funny. Between 1914 and 1916, sixteen million people died and twenty million were injured in a war which was largely needless. World War One was one of the great tragedies in history. It was not funny.

Ben Elton and Richard Curtis did not find the bloodshed of 1914-18 funny. Intelligent men, just as their cast of Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry and Tony Robinson, they were horrified by the period. And yet, they wrote a comedy based in the trenches. A comedy that did not mock the dead or poke fun at dying. What Elton and Curtis created in Blackadder Goes Forth was 30 minutes a week where we laughed at the ineptitude, the poor decisions, the sheer futility of the war – but we never laughed at those who died.

What Blackadder Goes Forth gave us was a respect of those in the trenches who maybe weren’t quite sure of what they were fighting for. It gave us a sense of the fear these men faced. It was a comedy and yet it hammered home a respect for those who had given their lives. The very last episode, the last minute and the closing titles are funny and horrific, and, 26 years after they were first aired, remain poignant.

A comedy about the Great Famine? 

Channel Four has commissioned Hugh Travers to write a comedy based on the great tragedy of our nation, the potato famine. People are complaining, a small group protesting. Tim Pat Coogan compared it to making a comedy about Auschwitz or Belsen.

Maybe the programme will be insulting and make a mockery of the dead and the people who suffered. Maybe. Or perhaps it will follow in the tradition of good comedy and give us respect for those who suffered, while also finding humour in the ineptitude and stupidity that led to the situation.

Maybe the fuss is because it’s being made by Channel Four, a British company. Sorry, but RTE does comedy as well as I do brain surgery. Twenty years ago, Channel Four, with the help of Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan, put three priests and a housekeeper on an island. A lot of people thought it offensive without seeing it. Now it’s a comedy classic. Ireland’s two best comedy programmes, Ted and Moone Boy have both been produced by British companies.

Channel Four can still be a bit of a risk-taker at times. But it had grown up, even since it broadcast Ted. We no longer go to Channel Four late at night expecting something salacious. Instead we go expecting good comedy or drama, or a genuinely hard-hitting documentary.

Our famine was not funny. But there is no reason that, handled properly and with respect and dignity, we can’t have a good comedy programme about the era.

Mark Farrell lives in Kildare with his wife, Carrie, and their dogs.

Read: No joke, a group called CRAIC protested in London today against C4′s Famine sitcom

Read: Channel 4 defends Famine sitcom, says humour can come from ‘terrible hardship’

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Mark Farrell

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