Comic Relief Night

Friday, March 16, 2007 by

Like smoking, photos of journalists speaking into a telephone, and speeded-up footage of trains running from London to Brighton, Lenny Henry is something you don’t see much on TV anymore.

It’s quite possible a substantial minority of people watching him open this year’s Comic Relief Night didn’t know who he was. It’s almost certain a considerable portion of people in the studio audience didn’t know who he was, for they were under the age of 10 and would only have read of the man in history books.

Comic Relief recently passed into its third decade, meaning there’s now an entire generation for whom it has always been a part of life. They have no knowledge of a world free of its existence. And there’s another generation who should by rights remember society before red noses, but are angry and suspicious at the fact they can’t.

Both parties will have been equally bemused by the choice of Lenny Henry to launch 2007′s effort. Looking puffed-up, haggard and sweaty, this rare excursion into live television seemed to him on a par with a trip to an undiscovered country. Unfamiliar senses and experiences appeared to overwhelm him. Words failed his lips. Who was this strange, bumbling man, wondered viewers in a million front rooms – before their kids asked them the very same question. Those under the age of 10 who weren’t trapped in the studio would have hung around the amount of time it took Fearne Cotton to walk on and look petrified, which was two seconds, before switching off.

Criticising Comic Relief feels akin to slagging off the likes of the 2012 London Olympics. To indulge in it renders you, in certain people’s eyes, selfish, immoral, even unpatriotic. Those people, however, have not just concerns but reputations invested in the very thing you’re so lightly querying. “Don’t you know it’s doing a lot of good?” they charge. “How can you possibly consider it a bad thing?”

Such logic, or rather illogic, is built upon the assumption that by questioning the means to which an end can be reached, you’re rubbishing the end as well. It’s a trite process of reasoning, and one as facile as a fair portion of this year’s Comic Relief Night, including the doomed first hour as Lenny and Fearne did as much as they could to subtract all momentum from proceedings, ably assisted by Mr Bean, Patrick Kielty and a cameo from Joe Pasquale.

For more years than memory permits, Comic Relief Night has rarely lived up to its groundbreaking initial premise, forever summed up by the press as comics joining forces in a live telethon to raise money for good causes. Nowadays “comics” are thin on the ground; “entertainers” and bog standard celebrities have taken their place. Nobody “joins forces” either, at least not for amusing crossovers or special sketches or group efforts; now the only thing teaming up are formats and faces of a singularly non-comic nature.

Indeed, this year’s roster of non-comic shows was bigger than ever, including Fame Academy (for the third time), The Apprentice, Pimp My Ride, Beat the Boss and Top Gear. Non-comedian collaborations were of a similarly sprawling scale, with Sting on “the last ever” Vicar of Dibley (until the next one), Daniel Craig, David Tennant and Tony Blair with Catherine Tate, and the world and his wife grasping at the chance to show their face and plenty more besides in Little Britain.

Thanks to the enduring presence of all such third parties, there is now very little that is properly “live” in this notionally live telethon. Long gone is the magnificent spontaneity, surprise and edge-of-the-sofa anything-could-happen expectation that graced those great Comic Reliefs of the late 80s and early 90s.

Lastly, there is demonstrably less money raised on the night itself than in the days when the totaliser rolled upwards every hour on the hour, something self-evident by the sheer volume of contributions already in the bank come transmission time.

Does any of this actually matter? Institutions evolve to best serve and exploit the environment around them. Surely Comic Relief is wiser to embrace a multi-media multi-faceted model of fund-raising than behave like the equivalent of a televised charity stand-up gig?

There would be no cause to quibble with such a potent argument were Comic Relief Night not still presuming to be a night of comic relief when it has, for at least the last decade, resembled nothing more than a belligerently straightforward variety show of the kind mounted at the London Palladium every Sunday night back in the days of national service.

Although – not that this would matter much – those variety shows were generously populated with talented individuals supplying imaginative entertainment. Here, the likes of Kate Thornton, Paul O’Grady and Fearne Cotton try to helm proceedings, none of whom befit the stature of such an occasion nor muster enough excitement, authority or ability to demand you stay tuned.

You then get Kielty shouting the name of the Celebrity Fame Academy champion into his microphone at such bafflingly-high volume you can’t actually make out who’s won; Mitchell and Webb performing not one but two routines which elicit not a single laugh from the audience; Chris Evans sitting at his old TFI Friday desk perpetuating a joyless bit of business about guests coming on, saying one word, then disappearing; the Mighty Boosh performing an act containing not one funny line; Justin Lee Collins and Alan Carr doing likewise; Chris Moyles, Kielty (again – why wouldn’t he go home?!) and Jimmy Carr singing My Way; Russell Brand carrying on like a bad Larry Grayson impersonator; and Peter Kay phoning in exactly the same quasi-karaoke schtick as two years ago, right down to the “ironic” “appearance” of “cult” “celebrities”.

Of course it’s for charity and of course it does good, but why does it have to be such hard work for the viewer? Especially as it could – should – be so easy? The “serious” bits in between do their job the same as always, and you can take or leave them as you please. All that’s needed is the very best comedy, or rather (as seems to be the policy now) the very best entertainment, to carry you seamlessly through one night every two years.

Which is why the appearance of Lenny Henry was so baffling. Kicking off a showpiece of British broadcasting should be the duty of somebody who doesn’t go to pieces the moment the red light is switched on. Perhaps somebody who appears on telly slightly more frequently than the BBC swingometer or the bit of music that always turns up at the end of the Eurovision Song Contest may also have made sense.

As happens on every Comic Relief Night, though, a moment to cherish did make it onto the air. You had to wait till gone 2am, mind, and it only lasted around four seconds. But the sight of Dick and Dom In Das Boot, with the eponymous twosome squashed in the trunk of a car rambling in cod-German about submarines, was priceless. Well, almost: £40m had changed hands by the time Armando Iannucci’s contribution was bundled out, a Time Trumpet-esque affair that also boasted the memorable line, “Someone shouted out: ‘This is better than Saturday Zoo!’”

If only such sentiments had been true of the preceding seven hours.


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