Comic Relief Night

Friday, March 16, 2001 by

We had to wait just 45 minutes for Lenny Henry to start screeching.

Dispatched from the wings to rescue a miserable first hour that had touched bottom with Westlife’s reedy nasal whining, Len dutifully ran about a bit, jumped on a couple of the Irish clothes props, then dashed off again hooting. But it was in vain for enough damage had been done to saddle Comic Relief with its worst opening ever.

It wasn’t really the fault of our hosts, Ant and Dec. Their usual polished exchanges and carefully applied cheekiness unfolded as you’d expect. What ruined it was a management decision: they were simply the wrong choice to begin the evening, and couldn’t overcome the dreary studio set, the unappealing slickness of proceedings, and a line-up of items so overwhelmingly dreadful as to positively encourage you not to donate money.

The final of 1000 To 1? If you hadn’t already nipped out for a piss during one of the Serious Bits, aka Tea Breaks, then this was the moment. The EastEnders “Who Shot Phil?” celebrity carnival was particularly woeful, with Mel Smith, Harry Enfield, Danny Baker and others falling foul of that perennial Comic Relief strategy, the put-someone-famous-in-an-unusual-context-and-that’s-it. So we had Ted Rogers, and Nicholas Parsons, and Barry Cryer, because, well, they’re Ted Rogers, and Nicholas Parsons, and Barry Cryer, and they don’t have to say or do anything funny, no, because, well, they’re Ted Rogers, and Nicholas Parsons, and bloody Barry Cryer …

With Comic Relief what was once unconventional has become the norm, the expected, the inevitable – just like Lenny running on to “spontaneously” disrupt another act. Absent this year were those minute-long scattergun celeb cameos which while extremely variable in quality used to play a big part in keeping up the momentum during the evening. But that appalling humorous-by-association thinking still reared its head in items such as the atrocious My Herosketch. A ditched sitcom should not be a central part of Comic Relief night anyway, no matter how many politicians or newsreaders or Noel Edmonds pay-off lines a script editor can conjure up.

A full 90 minutes passed with little that actually worked, save Stephen Fry making a welcome appearance, glass of brandy in hand, to play Wonkey Donkey. At 8.30pm Len returned, but with Zoë Ball, a hopeless pairing that never gelled and was embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch. The really really last ever One Foot in the Grave wasn’t that bad, but then Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie could’ve taken any crap and made it shine, even if David Renwick hadn’t delivered his usual commendably quality material. But it was telling that others who you’d have thought might have had a high profile by way of their reputation – Victoria Wood, Julie Walters, the sulking John Cleese – stuck to forgettable two-minute inserts. There were other notable absentees – Ben Elton, Griff Rhys Jones, Hugh Laurie, Tony Robinson … A greatPopstars pastiche starred Rowan Atkinson as a freakishly convincing Nigel Lythgoe, but was somewhat let down by Lenny playing himself playing Lenny Henry the Soul Singer. Again. It was also telling that the film inserts stripped with tiresome regularity through the evening didn’t feature any comedians: instead we got Davina McCall, Robbie Williams, and journalist Fergal Keane encouraging us to give generously. This actually undermined the whole point of Comic Relief: for where were the comics?

It was a desperate run up to the 10pm news, with an entirely unfunny Fast Show Ted & Ralph sketch with Robbie Williams, and Harry Hill as Eminem – again, more of that base mentality which dictates that sticking someone unexpected in an unusual context then doing nothing else for five minutes is amusing. Lenny desperately tried to revive signs of a pulse within an increasingly obstinate studio audience. Life ebbed away from Television Centre with each missed cue and camera link by Zoë. It all came to a head, literally, with Billy Connolly’s genitals and the site of several hundred swaying knobs belonging to a crowd of naked men. This was Eurotrash material, and anyway it’d been done before (in 1999), so felt all the more self-indulgent. The alternative to the News, BBC2′s Have I Got Buzzcocks All Over, reflected badly on all who took part, and was neither that funny, original or exciting. Roy Hattersley was brought on in a reference to a joke that first started almost a decade ago.

Part 2 on BBC1 began at 10.35pm, mercifully with a decent host. Jonathan Ross, veteran of these occasions, proved still right for the job, obviously not entirely enamoured with proceedings so far (as he was to make clear on his radio show the following morning), but up for a few good one-liners (most memorably after The Corrs delivered a dreadful performance of The Long and Winding Road) and some gratuitous swearing (“look at this ugly fucker!”) Traditionally once the news is out the way Comic Relief gets more, hey, unpredictable. It took a while but the quality of this year’s entertainment did improve, boosted by the great finale toCelebrity Big Brother, and the welcome return of Alan Partridge, “live” in Manchester from a sports club run by Peter Kay. Vic and Bob were good too, even though their “unplanned” stunt was clearly just intended to get EastEnders‘ Charlie Brookes to stick breadsticks and bits of celery up her arse. This was far better than the much hyped Ali G meets the Beckhams interview, which had the misfortune to be leaked to the press weeks ago, and then turned out pretty ineffective and lacking any real spark.

Come midnight David Baddiel and Frank Skinner attempted to re-create their Unplanned show in the studio, to little success thanks to a stubbornly unresponsive celebrity audience. There was excitement when David’s beard was shaved off, and a great shambolic link to some London nightclub where a ludicrous Battle of the DJs had taken place hosted by an amusingly hassled Pete Tong. This half hour was the most ragged and therefore addictive section of the whole evening, partly by design, with even the celebrity “band” (Ian Broudie, Alex James, Jamie Oliver) proving spectacularly unable to accompany a childishly simple rendition of Uptown Girl (“This is almost as bad as Westlife’s version …”)

The last leg was capably anchored by Graham Norton, helped by a selection of decent features – including a surprisingly affable Sarah Ferguson, and some great “Rock Profiles” from Matt Lucas and David Walliams. The League of Gentlemen were saddled with the same punitive audience which exacted such dreariness on Baddiel and Skinner, but Graham soldiered on to supply a frantic finale which thankfully saw Lenny back but unfortunately saw the appearance of S Club 7. The genuinely staggering grand total (£22,501,43) was announced to shots of rows of empty seats in the audience, a reminder of how this year’s programming had gone on much longer than usual (by the time Graham bowed out at 1.50am we’re normally onto the comedy film). A fine collection of archive clips took the official coverage through to 3.10am, linked by Dermot O’Leary and Cat Deeley from the BBC Des Lynam Memorial Sauna.

There’s only so far you can go in accommodating a particular act, song or event in the name of charity. At a given point the entire set-up and organisation starts undermining itself, no matter what the money is being raised for, and unforgiving unswerving cynicism takes over. With this year’s Comic Relief that point was reached far earlier than ever before, thanks to a poor running order, muted studio audience and misguided choice of hosts. We needed Len and Jonathan and other big-hitters out there from 7pm hyping up the occasion and turning the regular rattling of the Comic Relief plastic dog collection box into something worth sticking with.

The closing clips package also highlighted another factor: how much the essence of Comic Relief has changed, especially over the last few years – fewer sketches, far fewer comedians seemingly involved “on the ground” – and how incredibly funny a lot of those early shows still remain. It’s hard to think of anything from this year’s line-up that will have such an impact a decade or so down the line. Just to rub it in, the entire night closed with a burst of the worst Comic Relief song ever, Love Can Build A Bridge. Any chance of Fry and Laurie thrashing wildly around the studio holding a framed photograph of Bob Holness next time?


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