Tragedy plus time?
A number of perennial talking points were raised by the announcement that Channel 4 have commissioned a script for a sitcom set in Ireland during the Great Famine. Hugh Travers, the writer, explained his thinking:
They say ‘comedy equals tragedy plus time’.[i] […] I don’t want to do anything that denies the suffering that people went through, but Ireland has always been good at black humour. We’re kind of thinking of it as Shameless in famine Ireland.
The announcement has already generated a good deal of predictable (sought-after?) blowback, and some predictable defences. Channel 4 tells us that “It’s not unusual for sitcoms to exist against backdrops that are full of adversity and hardship”, which seems a rather harsh as a description of its commissioning department. Rory Fenton suggests that people calling for the show to not be produced “have failed to see the difference between comedy about the Famine and a comedy set during the Famine”, going on to note that
The slaughter of the First World War wasn’t funny and yet Black Adder Goes Forth, set in the trenches, was. The Holocaust couldn’t be further from humour and yet Life is Beautiful, set in a concentration camp, was very funny.
I have no desire to see an official list of topics which are or are not suitable for comedy, or for any other dramatic or literary depiction; nor would I wish to see C4 prevented by law from going ahead with this programme if they see fit. But there are reasons to wonder if this project is appropriate, or whether it has been properly thought through.
First, there is Travers’ pocket description: ‘Shameless in famine Ireland’. Granted, this may well have been a throwaway remark rather than a summary of his pitch to C4, but it’s a pretty worrying comment to include in an interview. It’s hardly stretching things too far to suggest that much of the humour in Shameless comes from a family whose members are presented as feckless and irresponsible, though often sympathetic and even lovable. For all that can be said about the structural and cultural causes of long-term unemployment and the serious problems faced by people in that situation in modern-day Britain, their predicament pales in comparison to people dying in their thousands for lack of food. The premise of Shameless is that no matter how hard things get or how badly the people behave, the safety net of social welfare is always there. In Ireland in the 1840s, this was emphatically not the case.
Second, to return to Fenton’s distinction between a comedy about the Famine and a comedy set during the Famine, it is worth asking why a sitcom should be set during that period, unless the situation itself can be mined for humour? In order to deliver on its audience’s expectations, and in order for the decision to make creative sense, the script will have to address the reality of what happened, even if in a light-hearted way. What’s required is something much more like Blackadder Goes Forth than Dad’s Army, a sitcom set during a terrible war but which scarcely addresses it.[ii]
Finally, there is the choice of genre. The famine is, in principle, perfect material for black comedy – indeed, one of the earliest and greatest examples of that genre, Swift’s Modest Proposal, concerns similar conditions of dire poverty in Ireland. More recently, Alan Partridge famously gave his considered opinion on the matter: "at the end of the day, you will pay the price if you're a fussy eater".
However, Swift and Steve Coogan were driving very different comic vehicles to that which C4 are considering. Swift’s is a short and pungent essay – any longer and it would be in danger of becoming fascinated by its morbid subject-matter and descending into horror-show tourism. Coogan gave Partridge a few lines about the famine in a longer episode, lines which, in the context, clearly reveal him to be the butt of the joke. This kind of distance won’t be available for a sitcom set during the famine; nor will it enjoy Swift’s brevity.
A good rule of thumb for black comedy is that less is more. The butt of the joke is usually something pretty simple (the pig-headedness of military leaders during WWI, or the stupidity and ignorance of a certain kind of Englishman when it comes to the sometimes complicated history of Empire). To keep going after the point has been made risks losing the humour and (even more importantly) changing the tone, from the casual understatement which is the genre’s hallmark to something shrill or blankly nihilistic. It may be that Travers can pull off the delicate balancing act his project requires, but it will take some doing. It might have been better for him never to have mounted the tightrope.
[ii] Which is not to say that Dad’s Army is not about WWII, just that it considers that war not as a colossal waste of life but as Britain’s Finest Hour; and because the war was widely remembered along those lines, there was no expectation that it would address any of its more grim aspects.