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TV review: My Sexual Abuse: The sitcom, Mysteries of the Pyramids with Dara Ó Briain, and Shetland: Scotland’s wondrous isles

07 June 2024

Channel 4

Mark O’Sullivan in a courtroom scene in My Sexual Abuse: The sitcom (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week)

Mark O’Sullivan in a courtroom scene in My Sexual Abuse: The sitcom (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week)

THE programme My Sexual Abuse: The sitcom (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week) was about as unsettling as can be imagined. Throughout, it explicitly posed the question: should this even be attempted? There is nothing new about using comedy as means of drawing the barb of pain or distress — gallows humour has a long and distinguished history; the hell of warfare is a rich source of grim jokes.

Making a joke about something awful enables us to bear it, enshrining it, as it were, in a safe niche where the unspeakable can be gazed on, dissected, and discussed. Here, however, the comedian Mark O’Sullivan has gone much further. He has known for years that the sexual abuse that he suffered as a child at the hands of a loved and respected uncle gave an edge to his performance and career. Like so many clowns, his need to make people laugh cauterised or blunted the trauma seared into his soul.

When an audience laughs at his jokes, he stops, momentarily, feeling a worthless victim. But here he has gone much further, attempting a far more radical catharsis — perhaps even redemption. In an extraordinary act of public self-evisceration, he has produced a short sitcom to tell the story: by making us laugh at it alongside him, we are drawn in and become complicit with all the other adults who ignored the reality of what was going on, or, even when his eventual testimony led to the perpetrator’s conviction and imprisonment, refused to accept the truth (the family rift continues today).

The sitcom format domesticates the crime; we, too, share the guilt and are offered a means of cleansing. Laughter opens us up, enables us to enter into the experiences that otherwise we are too ashamed or frightened to admit or discuss (think of all the jokes about sex).

Channel 4 presented both the sitcom and a documentary about its development and production. It was, as it should have been, constantly disturbing: should I really be finding this funny? This was groundbreaking and courageous TV, provoking wider speculation. Do many clergy embrace our profession of caring, truth-telling, and public performing as a response to personal trauma? Perhaps we wouldn’t continuously bang on about the infinite love of God if we didn’t need it so much ourselves.

In Mysteries of the Pyramids with Dara Ó Briain (Channel 5, Monday of last week), another comedian presented something serious, with lots of jokes. Refreshingly, he heard from the pyramid conspiracy theorists — they were built by extra-terrestrials, etc. — and breezily dismissed them without wasting energy on refutation.

Shetland: Scotland’s wondrous isles (Channel 5, Sunday) presented a tale of two festivals: a community/commercial celebration of the splendid local foodstuffs, and the annual church thanksgiving for exactly the same thing. Guess which one constantly expands, and which one is heading for extinction?

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