Comic Relief Night

Friday, March 11, 2005 by

“Those nice people at McCain have taken the humble potato and turned it into a fundraising phenomenon!” Ah yes, the Great Big Utterly Stupid corporate thank you: quintessential part of Comic Relief Night since its debut on BBC1 in 1988, and always never very far from being interesting.

At least this year we were spared the sight any nervous management executives inching their way gingerly onto stage clutching giant novelty-sized cheques. For once the practice of allowing a few words from Comic Relief’s many sponsors had been swapped for some carefully-timed, indifferently-dispatched voiceovers from our various hosts, making for an even more celebrity-saturated evening’s telly, albeit one where it was easier than ever to lose sight of just how much (or how little) of the eventual total of £37.8m had been raised on the night itself.

There are probably statistics hidden away somewhere that reveal precisely how much Comic Relief raises through campaigns and stunts both before and after Red Nose Day compared to how much actually comes rolling in prompted by the latest extravagantly-filmed Rowan Atkinson spoof or shots of a comedian looking mournful in a tin hut in Africa. Both of these have become just as much hallmarks of recent Comic Relief Nights as Lenny Henry and Griff Rhys Jones arsing around in a bare-looking studio epitomised by much earlier efforts, but you do get to wondering – on seeing the same footage of teary comics in sandy streets or moody monochrome scenes of lonely-looking kids on a council estate come rolling round again and again – whether these TV shows really are as remunerative as they felt like they once were.

Once there was real tension at watching the totalizer creep up, hour by hour, towards an unpredictable, unfathomable final amount. Once the passing of each additional million was gained by the promise of seeing Andy Crane gunged, or Stephen Fry thrashing round the studio with his photo of Bob Holness. Once the reeling off of six- and seven-digit numbers seemed to unfold in something passing for a logical sequence, and you’d want to stay watching right to the end of transmission to see if they could possibly get as high as you secretly, though never publicly, wished.

This year’s Comic Relief Night confirmed, as had been the case in 2001 and 2003 and no doubt further back, that yet again all such things are long long gone. The total spirited upwards in fits and starts whenever our various hosts sought fit to tell us. You knew before you even switched on at 7pm that by the end of the night the amount raised would be something-or-other-millions of pounds, and that it’d beat the existing record: not a lazy or facile reason to rubbish the whole enterprise, of course, but just a bit of a shame as far as a whole evening of potentially-entertaining TV goes.

And if suspense and tension were thin on the ground, you might have at least hoped for a generous dose of spontaneity and that particular kind of memorable wit that is traditionally the preserve of live telly. Well, in this instance Comic Relief Night did break with tradition as once more history warned otherwise and once more it was unhappily proved right.

This year’s proceedings were by far the most disciplined, controlled and rigid ever. It made for an admirably smooth and glitch-free broadcast, but at the expense of much in the way of sparkle and atmosphere. Nobody wandered on stage to indulge in a bit of off-hand business that would or could instantly become this year’s highlight. Those portions of the evening set aside for events rather than sketches – a Blind Date spoof (again), the final of Celebrity Fame Academy (again) – offered up nothing but shouting and fearsome displays of emoting. The latter dragged on interminably – again! – re-appearing what felt like five times, each occasion Patrick Kielty’s same lugubrious delivery (“We … are … here, we … are … live …”) robbing the night of still more dwindling reserves of excitement.

One further result of all this was that the endless whooping from the studio audience just proved more and more of a distraction and a turn off. In fact, the studio didn’t even look like it was the sort of place you wanted to be. The carefully tiered seating and obvious layout of previous years had been junked for a set-up more akin to a jumble sale. The crowd milled about on their feet between various podiums upon which hosts and guests did their stuff and flogged their wares. It didn’t feel much like a family affair either, most of the audience unashamedly twentysomething or under. Presumably they had an uproarious time watching the My Family sketch and the all-too short lived Smith and Jones reunion.

There wasn’t much by way of all-age, cross-generational fun to be had at all, really, bar Dick and Dom’s spirited appearance in the first half hour leading to a Creamy Muck Muck fight with Lenny Henry (cue Len’s screeching, clocking in a whole 20 minutes earlier than usual). Not to sound too prudish, but early evening references to Dermot O’Leary’s head looking like “an elephant’s scrotum”, people pissing themselves and Jack Dee indulging in premature ejaculation can’t have been that enjoyable for anybody still polishing off their tea.

Meanwhile McFly, dressed as 1950s rockabillies, seemed to sleepwalk through this year’s official song, and were completely upstaged by a tambourine-wielding Chris Evans. It should be said that the rehabilitation of Evans as the effortlessly capable TV host is now complete. He seemed thoroughly likable all evening, and anchored the last two hours of the night with the kind of aplomb and naturalness that harked back to the best of Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush (aided by the convenient presence of Jools Holland and co as a house band). There’s bound to be a regular Evans-fronted show back on television before Christmas. It does seem the man can simply switch his presenting abilities on and off when he chooses.

It was he who also supplied the entire night with something approaching a proper conclusion, unlike on past occasions when proceedings have spectacularly fizzled out (most famously in the shape of a hapless Ben Elton cueing in a selection of archive clips from an empty studio). A mass singalong of Tony Christie’s Is This The Way To Amarillo? didn’t really have much to do with what had gone before, other than the fact it had already turned up twice in the form of a Peter Kay-mimed video, but at least it was something in which everybody could take part. By way of an epilogue came the now-obligatory compilation show, this time hosted by a familiarly heavy-handed Johnny Vaughan and Keira Knightley.

Comic Relief is now the only kind of TV, Children in Need aside, where people come on screen to do a turn then go off again. Maybe there’s simply not many around who know how to do this anymore, or at the very least do it well, hence the way the last few years have seen a slide into more heavily-scripted, event-based shows. If that’s the case perhaps Comic Relief should simply go all the way and dispense with turns altogether, especially if it’d mean no more excruciating Absolutely Fabulous “moments”, Jack Dee “stunts” or badly-received Alan Partridge revivals. As it was, this year’s Comic Relief Night didn’t feel quite so much like the strange and frustrating out-of-time corny cavalcade it has before, but it was still nowhere near the phenomenon of a McCain humble potato.


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