Famine historian criticises ‘unsavoury’ Channel 4 sitcom

Award winning author Tim Pat Coogan likens ‘Hungry’ series to holocaust humour

“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,” said Famine historian and author Tim Pat Coogan in response to the proposed sitcom. Photograph: The Irish Times

“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,” said Famine historian and author Tim Pat Coogan in response to the proposed sitcom. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

Plans to develop a sitcom about the Irish historical tragedy of the Great Famine have drawn the ire of media commentators, politicians and led to an online petition with over 19,300 signatures.

Speaking in an Irish Times interview last week, young Irish scriptwriter Hugh Travers revealed plans to develop a comedy series about the potato famine of 1845-1852 for British broadcaster Channel 4; a concept that has prompted outraged responses online.

Famine historian and author Tim Pat Coogan is less than enthusiastic about the prospect of such a series being released.

“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, ” said the multi-award winning historian.

In his book, The Famine Plot, Mr Coogan writes that the famine of 1845-1852, which resulted in over a million deaths and a wave of emigration, was an act of genocide by the British authorities of the time.

“We could be all pleasantly surprised, but my initial reaction is one of dismay. Would they make a comedy series about the holocaust? It really does defeat your powers of comprehension,” he said.

“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.”

Having previously garnered acclaim for his 2014 radio play Lambo, Mr Travers says he was given a commission for “any idea” he wanted after producers at the station read another of his scripts.

Set to be titled Hungry, the series remains in writing stage, but Mr Coogan disagrees with Mr Travers’ assertions that “comedy equals tragedy plus time”.

“ Murder, genocide, people dying, retching with their faces green from eating weeds, their bowels hanging out of them- no passage of time will make that funny,” said Mr Coogan.

It’s but one of a stream of stinging criticism directed at both Mr Travers and Channel 4 for the idea.

Speaking to media, Sinn Féin MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Phil Flanagan chastised the writer for using the famine as a “vehicle for comedy”, while Dublin-based Fianna Fáil councillor David McGuinness echoed Mr Coogan’s sentiments by saying “the Jewish people would never endorse making a (holocaust) comedy”.

In a press release issued on Friday, Channel 4 defended the thought process behind the series, and stressed the sitcom remains a work in progress.

“This in the development process and is not currently planned to air... It’s not unusual for sitcoms to exist against backdrops that are full of adversity and hardship,” it read.