Children in Need

Friday, November 16, 2001 by

If you want people to stick with at least some of a live seven hour TV charity fundraiser then at least make sure you’ve sorted the first 60 seconds. Ideally they should be on tape, especially if a dash round half a dozen outside broadcasts is planned, and to places where the only thing to show are glum crowds standing about looking cold. But though Alan “Deadly” Deddicoat on voiceover duties did his best at grappling with the miscued footage, the job of creating a suitable sense of occasion was something that, along with the fact it was Children in Need‘s 21st anniversary, the producers of this year’s coverage seemed to have forgotten about. They also seemed to have forgotten about one Terence Wogan.

We didn’t see the face of Children in Need for almost 10 minutes. Westlife shuffled about doing another of their karaoke hatchet jobs on Never Can Say Goodbye, and an infobar scrolled across the bottom of the screen to explain what was coming up later, which was just as well because no-one else had bothered telling us. Eventually Tel and Gaby Roslin appeared, heralded with a suitable fanfare. This is Terry’s one surviving really big telly gig at the Beeb now, and whether by accident or design he seemed strangely subdued, even downbeat, right from the start. Gaby ruthlessly sidelined him from the opening link – but as the evening unfolded Tel seemed more and more content to step back (literally) and look around, pull a face or gaze into the middle distance.

So while he boomed, “There’s no time for slackers tonight!” if anyone created an impression of not pulling their weight it was himself. After the “Children in Need official band” S Club 7 had performed, Tel resorted to rather meekly chirping from the sidelines “I can do that!” as Gaby goaded the group into repeating some of their spectacular dance moves. Then he tried the insults. Waiting for us in Belfast was, well, “It’s a forlorn hope – but it’s only Eamonn Holmes.” Perhaps taken by Gaby’s renewed determination to speak over the audience whenever possible, he then made the first of many references to her attire, specifically her tiny denim skirt. Then he tried the sight gag – going for a clinch with Gaby in a prop hospital bed. But if Tel’s strategies were flopping one by one it wasn’t his fault alone: for throughout the evening there was hardly any atmosphere in the studio, and consequently precious little excitement translating onto screen.

None of the OBs seemed to work, at least in terms of creating real event television. Up in Doncaster lurked Katy Hill, her first bit of proper work for months. Unfortunately when we joined her A1 had already started performing on stage, so the camera cut to them halfway through a song, then back to Katy (who trailed the group Liberty, who then never showed up), then back to A1 again for another tune. “We always like a bit of an A1 moment,” was Katy’s summing up.

Members of the public always play important and symbolic roles on Children in Need nights. They are the padding between the celebrity acts, the points where everything is brought back to basics and the viewer encouraged to feel affected by seeing people like themselves doing distinctly abnormal, even disturbing activities. Sadly the first batch of fundraisers seemed to merit more sympathy than the people they were raising money for: an unhappy-looking man who had worn a diving suit all day, plus “two very kinky looking ladies” who Katy wanted to speak with at length but ran out of time. The OB felt dangerously pointless: why Doncaster? Why Katy?

Back in London Gaby quickly introduced more entertainment, including some dance routines from the Cirque De Soleil performing troupe. It seemed the whole evening had been sequenced as a non-stop cabaret showcase, conceived around a stream of musical acts, cued in quick succession. This made for little diversity or imagination. Non-singing celebrities were singularly absent – it was just endless show tunes and corny ballads (Geri Halliwell was the worst, though she was late on because, according to Tel, she was “removing her ankles from behind her ears”). There again, when we moved out of the studio there always seemed to be problems. When Gaby showed up in the Top of the Pops Star Bar dreadful sound quality hampered attempts for “Tanya the Web Mistress” (“I’ve got my whip, so be careful!”) to explain how we could donate on-line or via digital TV handsets (this year’s big innovation).

Whenever Alan Deddicoat announced an update on the amount of money raised so far, a brief musical “celebration” followed. These came in a range of styles – the twist, the waltz and so on – but also in the form of a marching band who broke into The Floral Dance. Terry couldn’t resist it, and some vintage Wogan vocalese followed, much to Gaby’s (all too real) discomfort. Here was another area where the evening faltered. There was never any real chemistry between Terry and Gaby. There’s was a relationship based on out-and-out patronising on Tel’s part, and total submission by Gaby. Matters weren’t helped by continual mis-timed cues between presenters and the orchestra – for example, Tel being helplessly drowned out by another fanfare when pretending to produce a Radio 2 cheque from Gaby’s skirt. It all left Tel looking silly, and Gaby even more furious.

“Welcome to Leicester – woooh!” Here was Anna Ryder Richardson, standing in front of some girls wandering about looking bored and an old woman sitting down. Once again we joined the on-stage act – Atomic Kitten – mid-song. Her co-host was Richie, ex of Five, who held his mike like a pop star and really got into the mood of things: “Down here the atmosphere is absolutely electric!” They talked to some proud parents who relished relating how much money they’d raised in as boring a way possible. Even the venue looked seedy. After a brief shot of Richie going “Wa-hey”, Anna chatted to a bloke from Warburton’s who’d run for 106 miles and then two women chained together, to whom she giggled, “How are you going to go to the toilet?” This memorable segment ended with Louise singing “her brand new hit” – of several months standing – Stuck In The Middle With You. Sometimes the OBs came good. Phillippa Forester was in control in Portsmouth, bragging, “This is possibly the hottest party in the country,” while a hyper Rhodri Williams was working the audience with relish in Cardiff. For most of the evening, however, they just didn’t gel, merely continuing the sullen stream of musical acts from a different location.

There were a few great moments. Blue Peter‘s tribute to Eurovision was always going to be a winner the second Tim Vincent, John Leslie, Anthea Turner and Diane Louise-Jordan appeared dressed as Brotherhood Of Man. Peter Purves was the MC (“A definite douze points!”), Mark Curry did two Cliff Richard songs complete with costume change (which went wrong, giving Mark the chance for some patented buffoonery) and best of all the current team performed Making Your Mind Up, with Matt Baker really getting into it. In fact he got so carried away that when, in a neat twist, it was the lads who ripped their own trousers off, he knocked his mike off the stand. But this didn’t matter. Even Peter Duncan singing All Kinds of Everything (as Dana International – do you see?) was bearable, and for a finale the whole ensemble united for a chorus of Waterloo, with Peter P on keyboards.

The other highpoint, providing a welcome break from the endless singing, was Celebrity 15-To-1. Contestants representing quiz shows past and present (including Phillip Schofield Tim Vine, Jeremy Beadle, Des O’Connor, Nicholas Parsons, and, naturally, Tel himself) were grilled by a charged-up William G. Stewart. When a giant Bill And Ben appeared to hand him the questions, Bill quipped, “Frightened the bloody life out of me!” He was on form – “There’s always one know-all in the audience,” he moaned, “I should’ve written these questions instead of this lot at the BBC!” While Tel came over all cocky when he didn’t know the answers (“It’s my show, I’ll do what I like”) Bill was far more likeable, dropping in spontaneous gags, telly facts (one question, remarkably, was about the IBA) and taking no nonsense from the assembled egos. Sadly the quiz was cut short as time was getting late, though Bill still found room for a shout out (presumably) to his kids.

But these successes were all too rare. Sometimes the entertainment was charmless (your usual bit of film showing BBC newsreaders behaving foolishly); contrived (S Club 7 – again – singing together with thousands of kids); or just dreadful: seven Big Brother contestants joining in a tuneless rendition of I Will Survive. Craig was there, of course, still desperate for any chance of national exposure going, along with all the jokers including Darren, Bubble and Helen. Amusingly someone had to run on halfway through so they could all split up into pairs for a dance. You think they could’ve persuaded just one more contestant to show up to make up the numbers.

The latter half of the show, after the 10pm news, boasted a shocking performance by Cliff Richard of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Tim Vine cracking a joke about hi-jacking (“I’m sorry, I wrote it months before …” he began, before there was a quick cut back to the main studio). The roster of acts seemed to be repeating itself, such was the similarity in choice of artists and material. Viewers voted for Cliff to sing his first ever hit, Move It – “I don’t know why I bothered continuing,” the man snapped, sentiments many would be quick to agree with. He got a rapturous reception, but had to do an encore singing into Gaby’s chest mike, and then Des O’Connor crooned a short number despite Terry yelling, “The public don’t want him!” (which visibly shocked Gaby).

Once we reached midnight the show became a gruesome cavalcade of musical theatre as all of those who’d finished their duties up the West End streamed back to Television Centre to repeat some of their most bombastic numbers. Rhodri in Cardiff was still having a great time despite the late hour, proudly introducing a video of The Stereophonics (“They were supposed to be here!”) and footage of a woman who “wowed the audience, and me for that matter – Bonnie Tyler!” Proceedings became more cosy and self-indulgent as that familiar we-know-hardly-anyone’s-watching attitude kicked in and Terry led the audience in wishing Dave Arnold, the conductor of the studio orchestra, a happy 50th birthday. After the obligatory striptease involving various young hunks from the soaps we were faced with a series of clips showing stuff we’d already seen – “So you know what everybody is going to be talking about tomorrow,” explained Gaby – plus some other bits we’d missed from the various OBs.

When the end came, there was palpable relief that they had raised more than last year, but only just: £12.9m – “We’ll call it £13m,” said Tel enthusiastically. And that was it for another 12 months. “Hope you’ll join us again next year when we celebrate 75 years of Children in Need!” Terry signed off bizarrely. Then, to a huge feeling of anti-climax, they re-showed S Club 7 from earlier on, before the show suddenly ended – no credits, not even a BBC copyright. It’s a curious experience, the Children in Need TV show. Compared to Comic Relief – its younger brother – this year’s effort contained surprisingly few “serious bits”, hardly any sense of occasion, a really unimaginative attitude towards choosing the featured artists and acts, and a presenter who didn’t show any respect towards his audience. Sometimes you feel that just raising the money isn’t enough.


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