“No one in this world, ” observed H.L. Mencken, “so far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great mass of the plain people.” A version of this saying is also attributed to Alfred Harmsworth, virtual inventor of the tabloid press, with the substitution of ‘taste’ for ‘intelligence’. You could apply it with slight alterations, to the purveyors of numerous brands of junk foods, in a world beset by obesity on the one hand and malnutrition on the other.
In what bizarre universe would anyone see the sufferings of the malnourished and deprived of the world, as material for comedy? In a Tale of two Cities a child is crushed beneath the wheels of an aristocrat’s coach. Dickens didn’t put this in to get a laugh. Who ever saw a funny side to the starvation of Biafra? Out of that sad conflict came a wonderful organisation, Africa Concern, now Concern, not an hilarious television series of merry escapades by wise-cracking relief workers in the fetid jungle of Nigeria. Had any television executive suggested to Bob Geldof, that the Ethiopian famine was a golden opportunity for a light-hearted musical comedy, I suspect that the answer would have been abrupt and scathing.
There are times when a news item stops you in your tracks. Channel 4 has commissioned a Dublin writer to write a comedy, provisionally titled Hungry, set during the Irish potato famine. They hasten to assure us that it is unlikely ever to reach the screen. The outburst of instinctive revulsion at the idea, is almost certain to ensure a wide viewership. Who said there is no such thing as bad publicity? The merchandising opportunities are worth considering—special Famine-brand tv dinners, soft drinks and even Famine-brand potato crisps, not to mention the educational value of an entertaining history lesson.
Perhaps Channel 4 is running short of the deluded, deranged, diseased, obsessive, deformed, insanitary and just plain daft people who supply so much of their output. Mr. David Abraham is the chief executive of Channel 4. His name suggests that he has some affinity with many who died in the extermination camps during World War II. Has he considered the comedic potential of Auschwitz? There is so much suffering and sadness in the world, that the comfortable need never be short of entertainment.
Defenders and apologists for this project, maintain that opposition to it is exactly the reason that Joyce and Beckett left Ireland. Now that’s almost funny.