Channel 4’s stealthy documentary on engineering human meat from the poor parallels Swift’s suggestion that people should eat the children of Ireland’s most destitute.
T here wasn’t much advertising ahead of the release of Gregg Wallace: The British Miracle Meat, which was touted as a documentary about the food industry.
Wallace is a TV presenter who is much beloved by British audiences so a documentary about the food industry would seem like pretty standard weeknight TV fare. However, instead of an informative and family-friendly exposé on the British meat industry, viewers were presented with something totally unexpected during the 8.30pm Monday night slot.
Gregg Wallace: The British Miracle Meat was about British meat but he wasn’t taking viewers on a fun-filled tour through a chicken or beef factory. Instead, he was touring a factory devoted to producing “engineered human meat”. Shock, awe, horror.
Suddenly the easy viewing associated with this sort of documentary aired at this time (pre-watershed) clashed violently with the almost unmentionable, certainly unthinkable content. Human meat: what a horrible and preposterous suggestion.
It was, of course, a pointed satire. The show was a scathing comment on the cost of living crisis proposing that hardships might be ameliorated for poor people if they could be paid to donate their own or their children’s flesh. This factory would then process it as a new kind of meat for rich people.
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Social media went crazy and major media outlets pounced upon the public reaction to the documentary. Audiences seemed to have had a very difficult time separating fact from fiction.
It succeeded in generating the heat because it tapped into the anger and passion that people feel about the current state of affairs. It was savage satire, and satire works when it inhabits a very well-recognised form.
In fact, Gregg Wallace: The British Miracle Meat links directly to Jonathan Swift’s 1729 pamphlet essay, A modest proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.
Swift, Satire and Channel 4
Swift was an Anglo-Irish satirist, poet and essayist known for his visceral polemic.
His essay observes the conventions of the 18th-century periodical essay or pamphlet, a form was very popular for disseminating political polemic. Swift’s contemporary, Joseph Addison, used his Spectator essays to poke gentle fun at the other politicians of his day.
In Swift’s pamphlet, however, the cuttingly satirical “modest” proposal is to take the young children of poor Irish people and sell them as “a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout”.
The desired result of such cannibalism would be the radical reduction of a poor, mainly Catholic population in Ireland, and the removal of responsibility for a blighted society from the British government. Sound familiar?
Channel 4’s documentary works similarly because it gets all the elements of the light factual TV documentary exactly right. Its writer, Matt Edmonds, reportedly spent a great deal of time watching as many examples of this type of TV documentary as possible, very carefully. He did so to make sure that his product was true to its genre, with the proper frame and style for what was ultimately recognised to be preposterous content.
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The outrageous mismatch of the content to its format suggested that it had to be satire. It is no wonder then that Greg Wallace’s apparently cheery, yet viscerally outrageous tour of the human meat factory fooled the audience only for as long as that audience treated the content and the form as utterly coherent and consistent. As soon as the clash hit them, they saw it for what it was: satire … well, most of them.
There are striking parallels between our present circumstances and the world that Swift railed about through his satire. In Swift’s day as in ours, the violence of poverty can be made to shock when the unthinkable is presented as a solution.
In 1729, the proposal that babies be treated as consumable meat to reduce the population and increase resources is both as absurd and as wicked as the idea in 2023 that meat might be sourced for cash from human donors to address the cost of living crisis. Satire thrives on visceral anger at the state of the world. So let the rich eat the poor for the public good.