Monday, 5 January 2015

Laughing at History

It has been reported that Channel 4 are producing a comedy set during the Great Famine in Ireland, not typically a moment in Irish history that we would associate with comedy. The news has been met with a great deal of criticism, and it's hard to disagree with any of it. As I write this, a Change.org petition to stop the production has amassed over 30,000 signatures. Historian and author Tim Pat Coogan, who argued in his book "The Famine Plot" that the Famine was an act of genocide by the British government at the time, has condemned the idea, noting that “you really would have to be talking about making jokes about Belsen and Auschwitz and the gas chambers to make it an equivocal thing in our lifetime.”

I agree that this idea is controversial and quite possibly ill-advised. Over a million people died in the Famine, and over a million more emigrated, never to see their homes again. The conditions that people suffered through were inhumane, and the response of the British government at the time was wholly inadequate and indefensible. However, even with all of this in mind, I think that this show should go ahead.

This scene, in which "Hitler" humorously promotes the Hitler Youth, is followed with real footage of the children who joined and the revelation that they ended up having to fight in the war despite their age.
We laugh at history all the time. Horrible Histories (of which I am a devoted fan) takes some of the worst moments in human history and can make us laugh about them, without failing to convey the tragedy behind those moments. Blackadder Goes Forth takes the gruesome conditions of the trenches of the First World War and turns them into comedy, but the very final scene of the main characters going over the top remains one of the most emotionally impacting moments in television history. Likewise, M*A*S*H made us laugh about the Korean War, but it also brought us back to earth by showing us the horrors of war in every single episode.

Laughing one minute, despairing at the death and destruction the next.
While the topic of the Famine is a very sensitive one in Irish history, we have no reason to believe that this show will treat it with total irreverence. If it follows the path of the most memorable historical tragedy-based comedies, it will show us the despair and sorrow alongside whatever humour it does manage to find. It will bring the Famine back to the front of public memory (as indeed, it's already doing) and more people will learn about it and its devastation.

If it doesn't, then I'll join in calling for its removal. But first, let's wait and see. Comedies about terrible events in history have the potential to be controversial and offensive, but they also have the potential to convey the gravity and seriousness of those events. We'll just have to wait and see if this show can strike the right note.