Comic Relief Night

Friday, March 14, 2003 by

Of all those dates in the calendar that remind you of advancing age, one of the most commanding, and depressing, is Comic Relief Night. Every two years it returns, unhelpfully prompting comparisons with last time round, and encouraging you to lower your expectations accordingly.

By its very nature, of course, Comic Relief invites reflections on past times; after all, it derives most of its impact from cumulative impressions in our memories to reinforce its familiar exhortation to raise more money than before. Trouble is, for those with long memories and who’ve watched each one since it began, it means each new effort increasingly ends up measured against an ever-illustrious past, when there was some thrill in staying up late to watch a TV programme that never finished, and where Fry and Laurie might come back on and do a bit more swearing.

Comic Relief‘s ability to evoke a sense of the unexpected and the unusual has long been replaced with reliance upon the predictable and the glossy. This hasn’t always meant a decline in its ability to entertain – think of 2001′s Celebrity Big Brother – but it has meant the organisation has created a whole range of problems for itself, such as how to ensure something chock full of convention stays memorable, and how to head off seasoned viewers’ skepticism at being greeted with the same premises over and over again.

So settling down to watch this year’s programme, kicking off with an excellent spoof BBC1 ident replete with Peter Kay as wheelchair bound Brian Potter, it was hard not to feel that the Corporation had played their best hand of the entire night in the opening 20 seconds. The sight of a garishly boisterous Jonathan Ross, addressing viewers from in front of a gigantic photo depicting himself pulling his patented and all-too ubiquitous “bemused” face, did little to dispel this. Neither did his weary incantation “It’s going to be the best Comic Relief ever!”, nor the subsequent invasion of the stage by a bunch of noisy screaming kids who jumped around for a bit while singing along to Busted’s Year 3000.

Sending Ross out first certainly made for a more assured start than two years ago. But one thing Comic Relief‘s never seemed quite able to get sorted is the routine business of setting out its stall. Even with seven hours to play with and a pot pourri of celebrities to namedrop, it was still all too easy to sit through the endless numbers of previews and rundowns of what’s up later yet come away with no tangible feeling of either expectation or dedication. The net result was the decidedly stoic conclusion, yeah, you’d stick around for the special edition of EastEnders, or Rowan Atkinson as Martin Bashir, even what you’d think would be the enticing promise of a one-off Auf Wiedersehen, Pet sketch; but only out of routine, of duty – not because you’d been convinced, or even convinced yourself, that any of them were really going to be that good.

As it turned out, aside from the notable announcement, “Three cheers to BBC Nations and Regions for all their help,” little that Jonathan Ross said or did set the course for Comic Relief to rise above the sum of its parts. Which it desperately needed to do, cursed with another below par official single – hamfistedly recreated in the studio – and the frankly boring recurring motif of Jack Dee standing on top of a pole outside Television Centre. If the pole had been, for instance, designed to rise or fall in step with the amount of money coming in, it would’ve leant the evening more of a momentum. As it was every time we went back to Dee proceedings were instantly held up for another protracted stream of glum looks and insults, until ultimately you didn’t care whether he stayed up the pole or not.

Despite a few brief look-ins from some of Comic Relief’s old guard, and a noticeably scant trace of any kind of “new generation” preparing to inherit their mantle, what dominated this year’s labours was an obsessive dependency upon big set-piece events and conceits. This was not the formula for an involving, out-of-the-ordinary and therefore unforgettable TV event; rather, it drifted perilously close to resembling an unexceptional, very run-of-the-mill BBC evening schedule.

Indeed, instead of a fast-moving, snappy patchwork of sketches and spoofs, intermingled with more substantial offerings, the programme panned out via a sequence of sprawling chunks of monotonous goings-on utterly devoid of variety. The headline spoof feature, French and Saunders’ Harry Potter pastiche, unpacked its tired gags and creaky behind-the-scenes premise over two cumbersome 15 minute slots: way too long for a show which, pitched at marathon length, works best when comprised of ultra-concise items to hook in channel-hopping viewers and retain those already in for the long haul. Too much of too little manifested itself over and over again, but while special celebrity editions of Driving School and Streetmate tested the patience further, the nadir came with the conclusion of Comic Relief Meets Fame Academy which lasted the best part of a whole bloody hour and remained totally without any sense of d√©nouement.

If these half dozen or so respective segments had themselves been particularly engaging or imbued with a bit of energy there might have been more reason to start treating the programme with a bit more attention and respect. Instead, sadly, none of these franchises, or for that matter your staple big budget vignettes, ever really delivered or felt properly integrated within the whole. It was up to the linking hosts to try and stitch everything together and generate a sense of the spectacular, sometimes getting away with it – Ross, Graham Norton – other times failing miserably – Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer via a lamentable run through all their now thoroughly exhausted mannerisms, and also Ant and Dec who looked totally lost amidst a format where they had to be something a little more than themselves.

As the night wore on, the overall effect left on the viewer was a bit grisly. A feeling set in of things not really unfolding anywhere, and of the evening not building to any particular climax. Certainly the totaliser didn’t prove anything like the exciting bellwether of old; it piled on the millions in fits and starts, and was so generously fed with regular injections of massive corporate donations as to render the notion of viewers being under pressure to help reach a certain target by the end of the night dangerously pointless. Precious sense was contrived of those watching at home being part of some great communal big heave to beat the previous grand total; instead our individual pounds and pennies paled in significance as each new sum was rung up with casual nonchalance by an uncomfortable-looking Carol Vorderman.

The sense of being somewhat shut out of having any immediate influence on proceedings, and then faced with navigating round the various bulwark features, sucked almost all energy out of the show. Despite the nature of the content, with its fair share of on the spot resolutions and revelations, the upshot was – ironically – that this was certainly the Comic Relief night that felt least like a live event. Some items stood out from the rest, notably the superbly underplayed Blankety Blank spoof (“No need to use language like that – this isn’t Channel 4″), and the surprisingly competitive celebrity edition of University Challenge pitting non-graduates against alumni over on BBC2 while the news was on. Yet there was never a spirit of exhilaration imbuing the night, or – more worryingly – of accomplishment. The announcement of the final total of ¬£35 million wasn’t met with that much of a celebration even in the studio; and the remainder of the show failed to live up to its promise: Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish nervously linking random archive comedy, followed by an unbilled repeat of 2001′s closing clips package introduced as if it were new for 2003.

For Comic Relief, finding that point where convention can meet topicality and still be laugh out loud funny seems to be proving an ever frustrating and elusive task. Those undertaking it didn’t make it a quite so pleasant or intriguing process to watch either. Healthy cynicism is the prerogative of the television audience, and for any host, writer or producer to presume otherwise usually signals a rather depressing concoction of half-arsed paternalism and patronising rhetoric is on hand. Comic Relief has striven long, if not that very hard, to head off such a collision of intentions via regular doses of self-deprecation – chiefly by poking fun at the gall and dubious sincerity of well-paid stars encouraging members of the public to give generously.

Over time, however, this has itself become a tiresomely emblematic aspect of comedy-based charity telethons; there are only so many variations on the world-famous star doing a wry turn about digging deep and exposing their vanity in the process. But it’s also reflective of an terribly nagging flaw within Comic Relief‘s formula: namely, the need for its progenitors to forever reconcile all its baggage – the traditions, the presenters, the repertoire (“Great Big” this, “Utterly Stupid” that) – with the TV landscape and attitudes of the present day, in order to make the end product feel fresh and strikingly contemporary. And going off the evidence of this year’s effort, it’s a predicament a long way from being resolved.


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