Comic Relief Night

Friday, March 13, 2009 by

Fry and Laurie contended every good play needed “a Paul Eddington in it”.

A conviction of similar import has infected the producers of Comic Relief Night. But while Stephen and Hugh went for constructive criticism, the Red Nose brigade prefers the opposite. They believe every Comic Relief Night must have “a Peter Kay in it”. Preferably the man himself, even if, as in 2005 and 2007, he’s not actually live in the studio. Or, as was the case this year, even if he’s not actually done anything new at all, but is still “in it” thanks to a caption that introduces stand-up Jason Manford with the patronising statement “is he Peter Kay’s son?” and a clip from a DVD that was released in the shops a few years ago in which Peter talks about filming his appearance for the 2005 fundraiser which viewers are reminded was “the most famous Comic Relief video ever”.

It’s a box-ticking, event-telly-by-numbers mentality, and it made for the most tedious and unsatisfying Comic Relief Night since…the last one. These jamborees are not getting any better as they get older. They’re not getting any better as you get older either. The silliness of their – and your – early years is long gone. Likewise the easy ideals and the casual pursuit of cash.

Phew, perhaps this "new" stand-up isn't so new after all!

Phew, now I know it's OK to laugh at this next bit!

Now there’s a ruthless streak to affairs. No messing around is allowed; everything must be orientated towards the accumulation of money, with reminders of “the real reason we’re here tonight” at least every 10-15 minutes (meaning even more time for you to finish doing the pots); and above all, in order to ensure a punitive a Comic Relief as possible, there must be as much relief from comics as possible.

This year’s effort hit a new extreme in this regard. Not one comic was allowed a go at presenting until three and a half hours had elapsed. And that was Alan Carr. Followed by Graham Norton. That was it. Two comics.

The bulk of the wallet-wounding anchoring was done by people who had nothing to do with comedy. One, David Tennant, had nothing to do with anchoring. The others were just TV faces, some more capable at reading an autocue (Fern Britton, Jonathan Ross) than others (Claudia Winkleman, Davina McCall).

None of these distinguished themselves with much in the way of memorable wit or attention-grabbing antics. Winkleman, McCall and Britton couldn’t muster much composure either, alternately shrieking (“Hiya! Hello! Hiya, hiya! Hello! Hiya! Hiya!”) or blubbing buckets after the serious bits.

Fern hugs herself while crying about some young mothers

Britton hugs herself while sobbing about young mothers

So much for the presenters. What about the bits in-between? Maybe this was where the titular comedy was to be found. Wrong again.

Where were the corporation’s most popular comedies? Why weren’t My Family, The Green Green Grass of Home and Not Going Out involved? Surely if you’re purporting to be “the biggest night of comedy ever” you’d want to cast your net wide enough and rope in fans of the hits as well as more alternative offerings.

Oh, but wait, because they weren’t invited either. No room here for, say, a special one-off episode of The Thick Of It, or a bit of nonsense from Adam and Joe, or Stewart Lee and Dave Gorman, both of whom had new series debuting on the BBC just days later, or a chance in the mainstream spotlight for something like Lead Balloon?

Nope. Nothing too off-the-wall and leftfield was to be found, and with nothing too populist or conventional either, all that remained were relics from a third, weird, hybrid kind of camp that was sold as being big on Big Names and Big Laughs and low on anything unexpected, i.e. fresh, exciting and fun.

Mostly this took the shape of The Collaboration, which has become a wretched obsession of Comic Relief Night. Yet again the thinking appears to have been: let’s marry one thing with another and, er, that’s it. Let’s not bother thinking how or why these two parties should be combined with a view for creating a bit of humour. No, the simple fact that they have been combined is enough. That is the joke. Right there. Look. Two names instead of one! Mwhahahahahahahaha!

Graham Norton explains Things Are Just Getting Started

Norton explains how Things Are Just Getting Started

Hence Comic Relief “does” The Apprentice; Catherine Tate “meets” Little Britain; Armstrong and Miller “meet” Mitchell and Webb; Harry and Paul “meet” Dragon’s Den; Ronnie Corbett “does” The Sarah Jane Adventures (even though all his bits were filmed separately from the rest of the cast); French and Saunders “do” Mamma Mia (“as you’ve never seen it before!”)…

The number of forced couplings was greater than ever, and consequently fused new compounds of joylessness in the brain of the viewer. In each case form was valued above content. The act of being seen to be doing something was raised above that of actually doing…something. Anything.

But hey, it’s Comic Relief, where isn’t being seen to do something the only thing that matters? Nobody’s bothered about groundbreaking telly! They just want a short-term injection of laughter juice to lubricate their wallets – right? Cue Horne and Corden, whom the BBC is currently spraying everywhere like that foam they use to put out fires at petrol stations. Nobody remembers the flipping thing anyway. Apart from Peter Kay, of course, “Comic Relief’s most famous video”.

A marriage of, and which belongs in the, convenience

A marriage of, and which belongs in the, convenience

Such an argument might hold water were it not for the way that at the same time as rustling up fag packet conceits of uber-expediency the programme tries to place so much store on legacy at every possible moment.

You’re implicitly encouraged to think back to previous Comic Reliefs by the references to “record-breaking totals”, old fundraising films and archive trips by Connolly, Henry et al, and the deluge of iconography that resonates through 21 years of red noses, wet sponges, custard pies, bathtubs of baked beans and men dressed as nuns towing cars.

In short they try to have it both ways. They want to make you treat it all as a one-off tin-rattle, but also as an unfolding initiative that has already achieved x number of tangible goals and hopes to nail y number in the future. And it just doesn’t work. Nothing is satisfactorily reconciled. The night becomes just another telethon with grisly mock-sincerity and ghastly unfunny set-pieces.

Maybe that was the worst aspect of all about this year. The fact that it was just another fundraiser. That its personality has been dissolved into an uber-weak solution of salt tears and unctuous sentimentality. That this has become a celebration of negatives, not positives, where:

1. Nothing spontaneous is permitted.

2. Nobody is allowed to run onto stage hooting and causing havoc.

3. Nobody must essay an amusing cameo during one of the pop acts, lest you disturb the likes of The Script and their rent-a-Bono front man dedicating an appalling version of David Bowie’s Heroes to “everybody we’ve helped tonight; you [the audience] are their heroes.”

4. Nobody must deviate from their markings on the stage, despite the roving cameras.

5. Nobody must deviate from their autocue, even if that means uttering phrases like “It’s television, but not as you know it, because it’s slightly better” (McCall); “an hour and a half of the best TV ever”  (Winkleman); “it’s wrong to single people out” (Winkleman, before doing just that); and “look out for a guest appearance by Geoffrey Palmer in this first sketch” (Carr; Palmer was the very first face you saw).

6. Nobody is allowed to refer to previous, better, Comic Relief nights, except when talking about Peter Kay.

Patrick Kielty, "a great supporter of Comic Relief"

Patrick Kielty; he's "a great supporter of Comic Relief"

Naturally there has to be some order to proceedings. You wouldn’t want, say, shots of empty seats, or the camera to catch a member of the audience leaving to go to the toilet, or a film about the impact of alcoholic parents upon their children to be followed directly by a sketch about the impact of alcoholic parents upon their children.

Except you got all of them here. The most inflexible, fiercely-controlled Comic Relief Night failed to even sort out a sensitive running order or common sense camera cues.

£57 million was raised, most of it before the night began. And still they couldn’t find the money for one decent sketch. Good on the mystery donor who gave £6m. They were the only one to emerge from the occasion with any fucking dignity.


3 Responses to “Comic Relief Night”

  1. Simon on March 28th, 2009 1:10 pm

    Totally agree

    I still remember the 1st comic relief with J Ross, L Henry & G R Jones as the presenters for the whole night. It was chaotic, it was (seemingly) unscripted & it was fun.

    But as the above article states this has all become very po faced, hard to tell comic relief from children in need.


  2. gatchamandave on April 1st, 2009 4:44 pm

    Spontaneity is denied because if it crept it then the audience might start acting spontaneously itself. For a start it might start pondering how much these people get paid every other day of the year, why the division between,say, news and comedy is being blurred and just why is Peter Kay NOT doing it this year if he’s so important to the whole shebang.

    This has become truly controlled tv – the old days when a group of factory workers turned up with a big cardboard cheque that they’d raised are gone ( partly thanks to Gervaise turning that into a sign of the saddo ). Now the public are kept resolutely off-screen so that the luvvies, the media giants and the singer-songwriter-coverv-ersion “celebrities” can all intermingle, slap themselves on the back and avoid being answerable to anyone more pointed than David Mitchell.

    30 years ago Jerry Lewis kept his career on life-support doing this sort of thing until people could no longer stand the hypocrisy. Hopefully for some of this lot, notably Ross trying to rebuild his career and public image after his income details leaked, the same will happen.

  3. ljones on April 15th, 2009 8:21 pm

    I can quite agree with what’s been said above. And this style of show has become some sort of advert for the celebrities (including ‘those who are hot from [ incert worthless talent show name here ]‘).

    But that isn’t all. The format IHMO for this type of show (including CIN) was dead even 10 years ago. Right now it’s festering away in the corner, almost in a zombified state.

    I’m wondering if this show will keep on doing a ‘noel’s house party’ (thinking of the last few episodes) and keep on coming back worse and worse before somone does the decent thing and kills it.