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The Independent Culture
The Great Famine (BBC2) began with a trudge through mud, along an undistinguished track behind a Limerick trading estate and up to an old cross. It was the site of a mass grave, one of the places where victims of the famine were buried. It was a good image for a television history of the event, because while memories of the famine have been polished out of definition for many Irishmen - a precious heirloom of grievance - they have always been in a state of dereliction for most Englishmen. You might encounter it as a cautionary tale about feckless dependency - putting all your potatoes in one basket - or as a cruel instance of natural catastrophe. But, on this side of the Irish Sea at least, you're less likely to see it depicted as a tragedy of prejudice and colonial incompetence, a terrible demonstration of the killing power of ideology.

Though Ian Gibson's account didn't choose to make very much of it, the Great Famine was produced by an unholy combination of pestilence and economic principle. Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant responsible for the administration of relief, and Lord John Russell, the Whig Prime Minister at the time, were devout believers in laissez-faire economics. To their minds, the distribution of free food would derange the workings of the market, deprive merchants of fair profit and encourage destitution. Trevelyan and Russell not only saw the blight as the hand of God but also refused to stay the invisible hand of economics - genuinely invisible in large areas of rural Ireland which had no currency but potatoes, no markets to respond to demand in its cruellest form. Laissez-faire ruled and, as a result, what many of the Irish peasants were left to do was die.

The Great Famine began with images of the Somali famine, accompanied by contemporary Irish accounts of the effects of starvation - a shockingly close match, which brought home the strange familiarity of the historical suffering. Then, for some reason, the film went slack for a while - preoccupied with what felt like an over-condensed account of political and agricultural conditions that gave rise to the disaster. It tugged at you again when Gibson stopped summarising and showed you the living traces of the event. High on the hills he found corrugated fields, ridged by the "lazy beds" in which potatoes used to be grown, before the growers died or emigrated. The ground tells you that this is a depopulated landscape, not an untouched one. By the side of a famine road, built by starving men for subsistence wages, empty mussel shells testify to men literally scraping a living. Worst of all were the inherited memories, in particular the story told by one old man about the death of a child through starvation. No coffin large enough could be found for him, so his mother dislocated his legs at the knees and bent them backwards to fit the box available. When they were burying another victim, they heard noises from the grave and found the child still alive. He grew to old age on crooked legs.

The Peter Principle (BBC1), the latest of the BBC's comedy try-outs, contains a wonderful comic performance by Jim Broadbent. He plays Peter Duff, an indolent, incompetent bank manager whose chief preoccupation is arranging the visit of Sir Tim "The Lion King" Rice for the local Rotary Club dinner. The character's name made you moan aloud but The Peter Principle turned out to be rather sharp - marred occasionally by the British sitcom's incurable addiction to idiocy, but for the most part nicely engineered and finished. Broadbent guarantees the thing, taking his lines to the very verge of caricature but never toppling over - a wonderful display of how quite ordinary lines can be forced to give up a laugh if they're twisted with sufficient dexterity. As his exasperated assistant - a vastly superior inferior - Lesley Sharp is pretty good as well. I hope they make some more.

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