Baked Beans and Boy Scouts

Jack Kibble-White on Comic Relief

First published April 2001

Part One

Comic Relief may have done a lot of good over the last 15 years, but it has committed some heinous crimes too. The demystification and subsequent over exposure of Monty Python’s Flying Circus rides high in the list of unspeakable Comic Relief offences. Never more can like-minded groups indulge in pub-based recreations of their favourite Pythonesque moments. Where once those lines might have dripped with an unknown potency that would turn the head of eavesdroppers, now their currency is devalued and passé. Exponents of Python recitation are stonking great plonkers (see John Hannah in Sliding Doors for confirmation). We now all say, “Pants to Python”.

Glancing through the back pages of Comic Relief, one cannot help but become struck as to how perniciously and totally the televised event has influenced the evolution of mainstream comedy in the ’80s and ’90s. Yet, it is – in many ways – an antiquated and second hand concept. Band Aid and subsequently, Live Aid may owe a great deal of their success to the single-minded belligerence of ever-faded-green pop star Bob Geldof, but the juxtaposition of a youthful, counter-cultural movement taking responsibility for the well-being of others provided good, easy publicity as well as a cause which could attract an incredibly broad section of the public. If you were establishment you could assuage your cultural guilt by contributing, if you were uncool you could pay up and gain brief membership to a positive, youth-orientated movement; and if you were subversive, then your contribution would help undermine and expose an uncaring right wing government.

Live Aid though, was never really that “cool”. The fruitful juxtaposition of rebellion and responsibility could never be fully realized by a bunch of established rock stars (Geldof himself conceded that Live Aid was reliant on big, established acts to ensure its success). Comic Relief aside, the next most prominent charity initiative in the mid-’80s was Sport Aid. Again, the central activity and affiliated celebrities were designed to appeal mostly to the young. Yet this too was not quite as “hip” as it might have been. In many ways, Comic Relief was to be the event to make the most out of the union between charity and credibility. The contrasting values represented by Cliff Richard and The Young Ones, gave recognition and resolution to those wishing to embrace the Comic Relief ethos – yet unwilling to sacrifice their credibility. Unlike Do They Know It’s Christmas here was a charity single that was actually good. As important as Living Doll was in establishing the profile of Comic Relief, it also provided the blueprint for its subsequent formula. The trick of throwing establishment and anti-establishment together has served Comic Relief‘s scriptwriters well. Only when the division between Tarby and Laurie completely disappeared in the ’90s was this ploy finally dropped. Nowadays, of course, the Comic Relief joke is to use the inclusion of a high profile celebrity as a throwaway gag.

Comic Relief launched on Christmas Day 1985 as part of Noel Edmonds’ Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show. Establishing a tradition it would doggedly maintain forever afterwards, it waded in to punctuate high spirits with a sombre report from a refugee camp in the Sudan. There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas, obviously and from the off Comic Relief would remain committed to educating the public about the good causes it supported as well as raising money. The charity set out its mandate clearly. The intention was not to simply buy food for those suffering famine, but equip them to combat the problem themselves. Charity organizer Jane Tewson had set up Charity Projects in 1985 after she left Mencap. Tewson CBE is now a Director of Pilotlight (chaired by ex-BBC Controller of Entertainment, Paul Jackson), a charity initiative that’s spawned TimeBank and a member of Taskforce 2002, which “believes that business and the voluntary/community sectors can work together in equal partnerships which bring identifiable, practical advantages to those involved.”

For us though, things really began in April 1986. A pretty anarchic bunch got together at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London to stage a night of alternative comedy and music. Eagerly anticipated due to promotion by Radio 1, the eventual television broadcast was preceded by a subversive Yes, Prime Minister skit. Jim Hacker endorsing Comic Relief, whilst conceding that his government would not actually be contributing any money was a smart point on which to begin the charity’s television life. If the stamp of approval of Mayall, Elton et al had not been sufficient to resolve any credibility issues you might have had, the chance to gain the moral high ground over (even a fictional representation of) the government was surely enough to convince you that contributing to charity was not just the preserve of church jumble sales, but could be actually be seen as a subversive act.

Of course the key to sustaining this argument had to be – not just the quality of the comedy – but the overall stance taken by Comic Relief in respect to contemporary popular culture. Here perhaps we felt the first dilution of Comic Relief‘s comedic force. Much of its success as a charitable organization is derived from the associated kudos that those who donate gain from being part of the phenomenon. Alternative comedy has always been about a representation of a set of ideals, yet Comic Relief had a difficult balancing act to perform. As early as 1988 it had become far more than just a comedy programme: in fact even then it was more akin to a ninth National Bank Holiday. As such, its presence on each Red Nose Day could be felt (literally in the case of those who sported red noses) on practically every street in Britain. True subversion cannot survive such exposure. Furthermore, comedy is about standing on the sidelines and commenting on passing events that have a recognizable social impact. Comic Relief though, is such a strong presence it becomes impossible for it to adopt a position of mere onlooker.

For those who watched that first Night of Comic Relief back in 1988, the realization that this was not be an elongated edition of Saturday Live was galling. Still two weeks to go until the start of Friday Night Live, and here frustratingly, our favourite performers were failing to produce the kind of anarchy we all knew and loved. Their targets were too obvious and treated too lightly. In retrospect if we were disappointed it was because we failed to understand the night’s true purpose. Whereas exclusivity is often a key determinant in forging comedy affiliations, a charity cannot afford to alienate anyone. As such its targets need to be as recognizable to as many people as possible. Ever concerned with capturing (and often satirizing the zeitgeist) A Night of Comic Relief tells us that back in 1988 we were all talking about A Question of Sport, Spitting Image, Blackadder and Radio 1 DJs. Cannon and Ball and Little and Large both made appearances that night, providing a strategically important broadening of the programme’s base audience, yet further diluting the rebellious allure of the product. As if to acknowledge such impurities, Comic Relief foisted upon us worthy relics from its favoured performers and antecedents in the shape of “comedy classics”. The reverence afforded to pieces of old tat such as Monty Python and The Young Ones was initially rather refreshing. Here, we could see that the underlying “alternative” spirit of Comic Relief was still alive and well (that Dead Parrot died to absolve Comic Relief of its comedic sins it seems), yet the trick of easy credibility through affiliation with acknowledged classics (much the same trick that we used to use in the pub) was to wear out through repetition. I truly no longer care how “brilliant” Lenny Henry thinks The Young OnesUniversity Challenge episode is and have been forced into seeking more obscure material to satisfy my elitism.

Disastrously, Comic Relief was to return just a year later. Obviously, originally conceived as a springtime counterpoint to Children In Need, its return seemed somehow premature. From a comedic perspective the alarming trend of treating comedy products in an “Oh what the hell” attitude (first glimpsed by the inclusion of a parodic version of Prince Charles in Blackadder) set hold with Carla Lane’s The Last Waltz (a meeting of characters from Bread, Butterflies, Solo and The Liver Birds). In years to come we would be subjected to Four Birds of a Feather (French and Saunders and Sharon and Tracy), Have I Got Sports News For You, Torvill and Bean and Prime Cracker – marrying off two separate, popular programmes or personalities must have seemed truly hilarious to some people. “Event comedy” took other forms though, but really came into its own with A Night of Comic Relief 2. Lenny Henry’s self-indulgent Theophilus P Wildebeeste, and Phil Cool’s horror spoof The Night of the Comic Dead were comedic attempts very much in the “Christmas special” mould.

Although a transient and insubstantial vehicle for comedy, the demise of Enfield’s Loadsamoney provided one of the few moments of Comic Relief that can withstand viewing outwith the context of the night, retaining some significance in it’s own right. Culturally, if not amusingly, the life and death of this iconic character seems to define a passing social revolution. This coup aside, Comic Relief already seemed weary to me. Perhaps we had simply had too much too soon. Or perhaps it was the rather elderly collection of comedians that seemed to have been roped in to ever widen the charity’s appeal (Comic Relief 2 included relatively major contributions from Ken Dodd, Little and Large, Frank Carson and Paul Daniels). A rather oddly motivated article written by Ben Elton for the Comic Relief edition of Radio Times seemed to inadvertently encapsulate this feeling of tiredness and dissatisfaction. “I hope it’s all right if I catalogue one or two of the woes of my profession” he began. “Perhaps the principal hazard of being involved in comedy is that there is a certain type of person who believes that, like the President of the United States, you are never off duty. ‘What do you do?’ they will say, and, on getting the reply, ‘I write comedy’, they snap contemptuously, ‘Well you haven’t made me laugh yet.’ … The words, ‘Go on, tell us a joke then’ will be written on the graves of all comedians and all comedy writers. Sad to say, the phrase is an ironic one, poignant in its own futility because, nine times out of 10, the sort of person who says, ‘Go on, tell us a joke then’ is also the sort of person who would not know a joke if it moved in next door to them and shot their dog.”

Elton has always been a good benchmark by which to judge the public’s attitude towards that generation of comedians central to the founding ethos of Comic Relief, and by this stage he had begun to move away from his traditional audience and attain wider popularity. Like the charity, he had an abrasiveness that belied a real concern for environmental issues and humanity. Unfortunately it was this abrasiveness that his early admirers seemed to have liked best, and Elton – like Comic Relief – seemed set on a course for comedic emasculation. Here though, the similarities end: Elton was ubiquitous throughout 1990 and 1991, Comic Relief, on the other hand, was mercifully reclusive. A scant report broadcast late in 1989, ensured that viewers and donators were aware that the charity was still ongoing, yet wisely there seemed to be recognition that Comic Relief was too large an event to sustain public enthusiasm on an annual basis. So two years passed this time. By 1991, Comic Relief seemed now ever more determined to finally attain truly populist appeal and leave behind any last vestiges of its earnest (and rather teenage) past. As such The Stonk seemed more like a statement of intent than a rather weak pop song sung by two men with a very limited range. Utilizing the talents of Hale and Pace, Brian May, Mike Moran and Bruce Forsyth to propagate the increased usage of a nonsense word was a strategy surely only likely to appeal to fans of Children’s BBC‘s Broom Cupboard or – indeed Hale and Pace. My earliest recollections of the word “stonk” seem to emanate from the direction of Jonathan Ross. Regardless, by the time we had finished “sticking a red nose to our conk” Comic Relief had well and truly entered “embarrassing dad territory” and “stonk” had replaced “farty” as the favoured buzzword of the office bore.

Comic Relief The Stonker found little worth lampooning in 1991, because there didn’t seem much going on. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Postman Pat represented the sum total of the zeitgeist. Comedy too, was rather bereft of innovation. Tarrant’s home videos, Vic Reeves and Smashy and Nicey represented the progress that British comedy had made in the last two years, with Enfield as perhaps our most talked about comedian. Things got so desperate that the poor man’s Spinal Tap, Bad News, were revived some three years after not being a very popular Comic Strip Presents … film. Comic Relief seemed happy just to know that it was transmitting material worthy of a repeat showing by Philip or Sarah on the next day’s Going Live! (upon which Lenny Henry could get overexcited all over again). Still it was nice to see that some of the Comic Relief stalwarts were still going strong. Aside from the last proper “Val, Pete and John” line-up of Messrs Henry, Ross and Rhys-Jones, we were again able to enjoy clips of classic comedy (which now seemed no longer directed at young comedy enthusiasts, but rather their dads), fast-paced celebrity packed sketches and Lenny self-indulging as Theo P.

Yet happily at last, with the final remnants of hip kudos departing Comic Relief we saw a resolution to one of the concept’s longest running underlying tensions. Comic Relief‘s headlong charge into a “comedic middle age” meant that it was no longer a serious choice for those looking for subversion or credibility. Pretty much all of the programme was embarrassing now, and not just the occasionally mawkish serious bits. From this point on the rather frivolous debate of “Is it cool to watch this?” was replaced with the simple guilty frustration of wishing you could get back to watching Victoria Wood singing The Smile Song as Griff tried to tell you about the need for clean water among the Masia in Kenya. Perhaps if you donated a couple of quid, they would cut straight back to the studio hi-jinks? In the midst of all of this it seemed to go almost unnoticed that Little and Large were contributors no more. Now that alternative comedy had finally assumed the status of mainstream popularity, these previous stalwarts found themselves marginalized by Comic Relief. This, though, was surely becoming a feeling familiar to those who could no longer find favour within the corridors of Powell and Yentob’s BBC.

Part Two

It’s 1993 and what else is there to say about Comic Relief? Only a scant five years after the first big night, and Total Relief was eating itself. Formulaic in the extreme, this was to be the last ever pre-Coogan Comic Relief. Knowing Me Knowing You had concluded its first radio run two months earlier and its television incarnation (along with sister programme The Day Today) was just over a year away. Of course, Have I Got News For You had sauntered along in the interim (starting on 28 September 1990). Collecting together a central cast previously best known for Private Eye, Whose Line is it Anyway? and the Hee Bee Gee Bees, Have I Got News For You had been essential viewing from the start. At this point though, Deayton was still hedging his bets a little, and another series of KYTV was to come in the autumn.

Nonetheless, pitting the Deayton gang against the Question of Sport team said perhaps less about the MOR-ish mentality governing Comic Relief, and more instead about a television world in which only one amusing television panel game existed. Come and see the battle of wits that ensues between Merton and Beaumont! This of course is eminently forgettable, but at least at the time there was some credibility attached to Have I Got News For You (the most recent series had included Peter Cook, Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and Stephen Fry amongst its guests).

Survey the 1993 Comic Relief schedule and it becomes clear that British comedy is in a perilous state. The targets are even more outdated than ever. In particular, the Mr Bean on Blind Date special seems to last forever doing very little with the character and relying on a set of shared jokes directed at Cilla and the programme that have been around as long as Faith Brown’s act. As if it is not already obvious enough that this was a fallow year for creativity, the star studded sketch show compilation is unimaginatively title “Star Crazy!” and Chris Evans (appearing for the first time) gives us his spoof of the National Lottery – “The Snottery”. Still this is nothing more than an accurate representation of the state of British television comedy at the time. This was the year – remember – that gave us the first series of Newman and Baddiel in Pieces and The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, both of which were positioned as cutting edge at the time yet neither of which is now remembered as anything other than the death throes of late ’80s student comedy. Perhaps only Victor Meldrew escapes the evening with dignity intact. Surprising this, considering the eight-minute One Foot in the Grave sketch features Richard Wilson in the bath. Thankfully though, there are no baked beans here only a rather welcome opportunity for Meldrew to ponder as ever on some of life’s little mysteries.

Even this year’s accompanying song is rather off the mark, causing us once again to wonder if this the best Comic Relief can do? In truth, Right Said Fred’s Stick It Out has little of the catchiness of I’m Too Sexy nor the charm Deeply Dippy. Tellingly, it was to be the Fred’s last major hit to date. The night’s other big song turns out to be rather more entertaining – at least in retrospect for those who can’t resist a look at the BBC’s breakfast telly set, or a glimpse again at daytime presenters of yore. Apparently the inclusion of the cast of Red Dwarf (then embarking upon recording of series six) into this montage of celebs crooning along to Bohemian Rhapsody was to compensate for the cancellation of a sketch written by Grant Naylor in which the boys from the ‘Dwarf were to be pitted against the Daleks. Fact fans might also care to note that Kryten’s nose is missing as a result of Craig Charles ripping it from the face of Robert Llewellyn just prior to this sequence being filmed. Although 72% of the British public might have taken part in Red Nose Day 1993 (including 3,307,000 who purchased a red nose) it seems that – on this evidence – the abstaining 28% were the ones with the comedic talent.

1995 finds us entering a new dawn of comedy: one presided over by Chris Evans. Just doing something stupid is the new funny! The kind of lame, time wasting stunts pervaded on Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and TFI Friday seem to be the perfect way to pad out 425 minutes of live telly. The two prime examples this year are the cowpatting of Patsy Palmer and the snogging of Hugh Grant. In an admission that ’93 had indeed been dismal, a number of format changes were introduced this time around. Most noticeably, the actual broadcast itself was split into “six staggerblasting shows, each presented by a different, very well dressed presenter.” Much had happened in the intervening two years though and a new era of inclusive comedy was upon us. The pseudo student posturing of Newman and Baddiel (the ultimate logical extension of the absorption of a predominantly politically left wing movement into the acceptable popularity) has left modern British alternative comedy, non-political, and resolutely mainstream. In the year in which Fry and Laurie moved to BBC1, the term “alternative” comedy had finally become obsolete. Still not everything had changed, comedy was still closely aligned with pop music (for Alexei Sayle and The Clash, read Chris Evans and Oasis), and traditional light entertainment was still a major target (although Alan Partridge offered a far more sophisticated parody than Filthy, Rich and Catflap had back in 1987.) However, comedy in ’95 is now part of a lifestyle choice encompassing Britpop, laddism and all those other movements that you have only just been allowed to forget about. Sorry for reminding you again.

Another break with tradition found Comic Relief abandoning the “Star Crazy” format of yore and instead bringing together myriad talents under the aegis of one ongoing “story”. “Oliver 2: Let’s Twist Again” retained the endearing habit of titling a section using the first name that came in to Richard Curtis’ head, and also attempted to – once again – pick up on a popular trend. Remember when “costume drama” was de rigour for any serious conversation about British television? Some things seldom change though, and this year’s Bean special was the torturous “Torvill and Bean” which – like the Blind Date sketch previously – seemed to be never ending. Thankfully this was to be the rubber-faced goon’s last major Comic Relief appearance.

Although as part of the trade in we had to accept Patrick Kielty in return. Here was a career that was strongly shaped by the charity event. “I did Comic Relief in Belfast in 1995″, he said during a BBC interview. “Lenny Henry, Jo Brand, Ben Elton and Julian Clary were all there, and I was the local Belfast lad they had on as well. So that was a great break, and off the back of that BBC Northern Ireland gave me my own show.” Still all in all, this was a slightly spunkier show than before, and the introduction of Evans and his ilk at least showed that Comic Relief was staying true to its ultimate vision and using the most popular elements of the contemporary scene to fill its coffers. The decision to change the strategy of the accompanying record signified too that there was a desire to ensure the charity remained relevant and modern. Unfortunately, the resultant Love Can Build A Bridge suffered due to the charity’s decision to use big name artistes (as opposed to currently popular ones). Also the song was just plain awful. So, more changes were still required.

By 1997, Saturday Live (now with Lee Hurst and on ITV) had come and gone again, Never Mind the Buzzcocks had arrived on BBC2 – as had The Simpsons, and later in the year we were to enjoy I’m Alan Partridge. The big thing in comedy though was none of these. Men Behaving Badly had picked up a BAFTA in 1996 for Best Comedy as well as notoriously that year being voted the best comedy in the BBC 60th Anniversary Awards (just five years later and the lads are conspicuously absent from the Channel 4 list of the all time Top 100 TV characters). It is difficult now to explain the passing but all encompassing popularity of Gary and Tony. Certainly the scripts were sharper than most, but essentially the only logical conclusion one can reach is that the public have a voracious appetite for an essentially bog standard sitcom which is actually not just complete crap. The inevitability of the duo’s appearance was made all the more predictable thanks to their brief turn on Children In Need two years previously. This time out, Comic Relief chose to adopt the tried and trusted method of bunging a celebrity guest appearance into the mix. In truth, the Kylie/Men Behaving Badly team-up did little to dissuade the duo’s hardcore fans that this was a series on the wane. Also one was left to wonder yet again just how many more times Comic Relief could actually get away with that hoary old chestnut: the unrecognized celebrity gag.

Amusing juxtapositions though, was the theme of the night as in Prime Cracker Fitz and Tennison found themselves memorably thrown together in a nicely produced sketch that (in treating the two characters with a little more reverence) seemed to indicate that Comic Relief was at least able to recognize when it was in the company of good raw material. That Coltrane and Mirren chose to gurn their way through the sketch, distracted only marginally from the stature of their fictional alter egos. Unfortunately, Del Boy and Rodney fared rather more poorly in the transition from sitcom to sketch. Unbelievably written by John Sullivan, the last ever TV outing for the Trotters, whilst full of the warm hearted Cockney spirit that had secured Del and Rodney a place in the nation’s affections, is bereft of the series’ usual snappy patois. To whit, Del says to Rodney “I had a thought last week”. Rodney replies, “Oh you should have said something – we’d have had a little celebration!” Although churlish to expect comedy as wonderful as the duo’s famous chandelier scene (which could have done with a repeat viewing at the time anyway – just to stop people going on about David Jason’s wine bar pratfall), Del’s final pay off line (“Yeah, alright. Goodnight sweetheart. Yeah don’t be so stupid, Albert. I’m not a Detective Inspector, but even I can work that one out!”) is just another variation on Comic Relief‘s strategy of deploying celebrities in unusual or throwaway roles, and is hardly a fitting final farewell to this most treasured of sitcoms. Some years on, people still recall the demise of Loadsamoney on Comic Relief, yet (perhaps happily) our lasting final image of the Trotters remains that which closed their 1996 Christmas trilogy.

Our “star crazy” format made its return in the form of “The Great Big Stupid Celebrity Sketch Show” and the spectre of Evans was back again in the form of a special TFI Friday. Father Ted too found its way from Channel 4, and all in all this eclectic mix suggested that the low points of the early ’90s were perhaps behind us for good. Certainly the mid decade reinvigoration of British comedy was making Comic Relief appear more relevant to an up and coming younger demographic, whilst still being able to retain those who had grown up with the charity and had since succumbed to the winsome charm of The Vicar of Dibley. Best of all though, this year saw the return to form of the Comic Relief single. It was exactly the right time for Comic Relief to ride the coat tails of the Spice Girls, then at the absolute peak of their popularity, and one of the few popular entertainment artefacts of the time able to outgun the charity itself. The video was a reversion to the Help antics of some years previous, but nonetheless the Comic Relief single always was the best indicator of the charity’s credibility and hooking up with the Spices was certainly a more “on the money” collaboration than that of just two years ago. Whilst many might have ached for a street cred link up with Oasis or Blur, manufactured pop was cool at the time too (largely thanks to the trailblazing work of Take That) and Lenny, Griff and Jonathan’s appropriation of the Spice Girls built a generational bridge that was to prove far more successful than the one Cher and company had attempted to construct out of mere love.

Now it’s 1999 and our trawl through the annals of Comic Relief is almost at its end. By this time the TV comedy scene is almost identical to that which we know today. The cult of Chris Evans was finally on the wane, and now we had The League of Gentleman (who’s first TV series ended just weeks before Comic Relief: Red Nose Day 1999 – The Record Breaker), Ali G, The Royle Family and Trigger Happy TV – pretty much the current comedy “Royal Family” then. This year’s Comic Relief line up though was unwilling to accommodate any of these new favourites. Instead we were presented a rather outdated collection of comedians and programmes sacrificed at the altar of the charity behemoth. Most noticeable perhaps is the inclusion of a series of Doctor Who spoofs. Discussed in greater detail elsewhere on OTT, and appreciated by many at the time, it was still rather symbolic of charity – once again – having difficulty identifying the hip from the passé. If further proof was needed then just weeks after the BBC had cancelled Noel’s House Party, time was given up to Griff Rhys Jones’ attempt to gunge 1000 people. Similarly there was still a home here for Chris Evans with one hour devoted to the ailing TFI Friday.

Worst of all though was the choices of mini-episodes. These things seem to have become almost trophies to the comedy community, with the belief that only the best and most popular programmes will be invited to dine at the Comic Relief table. As such, the choice of The Vicar of Dibley, Harry Enfield and Chums, Men Behaving Badly and The Fast Show represents a line up that is neither innovative, nor (more importantly) representative of the current state of Britcom. Victoria Wood’s place is – of course – rather different, and like Rowan Atkinson her appearances transcend mere current vogue. Yet, the malapropism of “Wetty Hainthropp” was as good an indicator of any as to what she had on offer this time around. Still for every Wood there has to be a Partridge, and Coogan’s creation was in masterful form providing a series of links to comedic and serious clips “live” from his Norwich Radio studio. This is very fine stuff indeed, purposefully sticking to the mundane and shunning the opportunity to “go big” with the concept as de rigour for Comic Relief. Even the choice of arbitrary guest celebrity (Bryan Ferry) is handled well, with Ferry providing just the right amount of “has been” frisson that is so important to the fictional life of Alan.

Still, if the last Comic Relief of the 21st century did seem a little behind the times, at least the obligatory single was still on the money. Boyzone were the biggest singles band that Comic Relief could have picked at the time, and if the desertion of the comedy record now seemed a permanent state of affairs, this was probably a justifiable trade-off in the pursuit of a number one record and evermore funds for the charity. Once again the fact the record was intensely annoying was neither here nor there.

That Comic Relief was to return to form in 2001 was a pleasing, if predictable state of affairs. Innovation in television comedy has been thin on the ground in the last two years, thus allowing the charity to take breath, catch up and come back at us with the most relevant and interesting broadcast since the inaugural telethon. In truth Comic Relief has always told us much about the health of our national humour. Sometimes it has been a little off the money or behind the times, but this has been merely symptomatic of the varying speed in which our dominant culture has been able to absorb new and challenging ideas. Looking back across the years there are only a few notable absences (perhaps the untrustworthy Chris Morris is the most obvious) from the cast list of the great and good, and the recent decision to broaden Comic Relief‘s perspective has allowed it to address national preoccupations outwith its original remit of comedy broadcasting. The inclusion of a Big Brother special might just hint at the future for the charity. Its biannual broadcasts may soon become a vessel for all sorts of specially made variations of popular programmes. Rather like a second Christmas special. Whatever the future for Comic Relief one still senses that the guiding hands of Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry will remain on the tiller, always more mindful of the charity’s ability to generate money, then of its place as an unofficial celebration of the Best of British Entertainment. This – in the end – is absolutely right and as it should be. Just please no more Vicar of Dibley, specials – okay?