The Comedy Café Theatre on London’s Rivington Street was the setting for a heated debate organised by The London Irish Comedy Festival.
The panel discussion was organised in the wake of the controversy over a yet-unmade comedy by D.I.T graduate Hugh Travers about the Irish famine.
Phil Clarke, C4’s Head of Comedy was quick to clarify the channel’s plans for Hungry. He stated they were “not doing a series, not doing a pilot, but they had commissioned a script.”
Several members of the audience who said they had experienced harassment in Britain voiced their concerns.
Pat Reynolds cited the example of Bernard Manning who told racist jokes in the 70s and 80s. “It’s very easy to be a liberal and say it’s OK I’m not offended but I don’t think it’s right to be abusive to people”, he said.
Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive of the Index on Censorship, argued it was vital not to confuse causing offense with harassment and incitement to violence. “Our ability to offend people is protected and we should celebrate this, otherwise we go down a slippery slope where I could shut down all of your freedom of speech because I decide [something] is offensive. It’s subjective…”
Patrick Flanagan stood up and asked if the panel if they thought it was acceptable to set a comedy in the setting of the Holocaust.
RTE’s Eddie Doyle, Stand-up comic Gráinne Maguire and Ginsberg said ‘yes’, Clarke countered that he would have to see the script before answering but only Austin Harney, Chair of the Campaign for the Rights and Actions of Irish Communities answered 'no', saying it would be “tasteless and distorted”.
“Isn’t it time that Irish people stop being insulted?” Harney asked. “We must draw the line on Hungry…We need a serious in-depth drama, like Roots”, he continued. “Let’s be educated on the Famine before we discuss satire. I ask Irish comedians, please show respect for your own people.”
However, several members of the audience were supportive of free speech and provocative comedy.
A woman called Aoife stood up and said that comedy had a “role and responsibility to be part of history” adding this was” a fantastic opportunity” to get a conversation about the Famine started.
Eddie Doyle, Head of Comedy, Talent Development & Music for RTÉ also defended satire and its role in society.
“The function of satirical comedians is to be one step ahead, to challenge people. Some of the best satirical comedy isn’t even than funny – but it makes a point, it’s the second cousin of current affairs”, he said citing examples of satire around issues such as clerical sex abuse.
Stand-up comedian, Gráinne Maguire made a point about the distinction between “laughing about someone and at something”.
“Think about Blackadder Goes Forth”, she said, “it wasn’t laughing at the people who died in the World War I, it was laughing at the horrific and absurd situation they found themselves in. This is a sit com about Irish history written by an Irish person and an Irish production team”, Maguire reminded the audience.
Clarke said he was determined to protect writer Hugh Traver’s “right as an artist to explore the subject”.
He added: “Whether it works or not we will have to see. The idea that he can’t he even begin to write, I find appalling.”