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Laughing in the face of tragedy – 25 years of Comic Relief

2013 February 2
by Paul Vallely
                                                          PHOTO Comic Relief

The photographs are only just recognisable. All along the corridor in the offices of Comic Relief are portraits charting the 25 year history of the charity. Those from the earliest years show a wrinkle-free Griff Rhys Jones, Stephen Fry like some callow undergraduate, Jonathan Ross still looking wholesome and Lenny Henry before he got fat and then thin again.

“When the BBC first agreed to do a programme for the first Red Nose Day,” says its founder the screenwriter, Richard Curtis, “I rang Frank Muir and asked him to present all seven hours. Quite understandably he said ‘No’ so I fell back on three people I knew – Lenny, Jonathan and Griff.” Curtis in those days was a scriptwriter on the tv sketch show Not the Nine O’clock News.

Since then Curtis has gone on to write tv comedies like Blackadder, Mr Bean and The Vicar of Dibley as well as movies like Notting Hill and Love Actually. Comic Relief, whose headquarters nestle between those of MI6 and Special Branch on London’s Albert Embankment, has become a national institution of a different kind. Over the past quarter of a century it has raised over £800 million which have been spent in over 15,000 projects in 70 countries.

It has come a long way since 1985 when Curtis – shocked by the famine in Ethiopia in which a million people died and inspired by the fundraising efforts of the pop stars of Live Aid – set out for Africa to see if there was anything similar he and his fellow comics could do to help.

His proposal was treated with great scepticism. “I remember thinking it was an absolutely dreadful idea,” says Paddy Coulter, who as head of media at Oxfam, was asked to organise the trip. “It seemed to be an abomination to be sending anything out other than food.”

“People had got used to the idea that pop stars could raise money for Africa – after initially asking ‘what do pop stars know about poverty’,” says Curtis. “But comics had a further hurdle: ‘What could silly people have to say about something so serious? Are you sure it’s suitable to be making jokes in the face of the tragedy of the causes’.”

Curtis found the answer in the grim triage system of a refugee camp in Ethiopia. “There were three huge tents – one was people certain to die, one where they might survive, and with a good chance of survival,” he recalls. In the second tent they were weighing a child in a pair of pants suspended from a set of scales. “She was so thin that both her legs went through one leg-hole and she landed on the floor in a heap – and all the other kids laughed.”

For Curtis it was a moment of epiphany. “I thought if they don’t find it disrespectful to laugh in a situation like that then I’m certainly not going to find it disrespectful to use laughter to raise money to help them.”

That laughter in the face of tragedy was the moment that Comic Relief was born. But a more interesting question is why it has continued. Why has comedy had staying power where pop aid hasn’t? Does laughter just put people in a good mood so they are then relaxed about giving money – or does it do something more profound in touching some deeper sense of common humanity?

Curtis dodges the philosophy and opts for psychology: “Part of it may be the opposite of human sympathy. If you think a person who’s asking you for money is over-earnest, deeply political and po-faced, you will probably disengage,” he suggests. “But by surrounding this stuff with comedy you are saying: ‘Look, the people who are asking you for money are no different from you. They find the same stuff funny. They are irreverent, disrespectful and foolish like you’. So you are willing to have a look at what they are saying.”

And though what they are saying can be silly it can also be insightful. “Comedians work in a world of words; they are people of ideas,” says Comic Relief’s chief executive Kevin Cahill, who once worked at the National Theatre. “They observe the world and think about things. They make unusual links.  I generally find them sharp and interested in getting under the skin of an issue.” He recalls Billy Connolly’s riposte to the idea of compassion fatigue: “I’ve got love fatigue. I’ve run out of love. I only have so much and I’ve used it all up”.

All this has not been without its critics. Comic Relief has been called a smug pratfest and more. Dissenters say it is just a vehicle for washed-up celebrities trying to revive flagging careers. Or that it perpetuates the idea that Africa is populated only by starving black babies.

Curtis is dismissive: “My experience tell me it’s nonsense. One Direction, who have done the Comic Relief single this year, are the biggest boyband in the world; they don’t need more publicity. James Corden doesn’t need the extra work. They are just acting out of common human decency.” And a sense of financial realism. “If I’d given away every penny I’d earned it obviously wouldn’t add up to what I can help bring in on one night of Comic Relief.”

He prefers to let the comics themselves address such criticisms, as Ricky Gervais did with the sketch in 2007 when he codded up an African slum in a BBC studio or in 2011 when he and Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington satirised the taxi-driver mentality of critics who seek to dress up their meanness over aid with ill-informed pseudo-rationalisations.

The risk is, of course – as satirical comic creations have revealed since the days of Alf Garnett, and later Harry Enfield’s obnoxious Cockney plasterer Loadsamoney – that there are those who fail to detect the irony. But Curtis is sanguine about that: “If you ask a comedian like Ricky what they want to do, and what they want to do is slightly dangerous, you have to go with it. We have said No to a couple of things. I can’t say what they are, but we have. But I think we’d lose our constituency among the comedians if we routinely said ‘No, we’d rather you did something tame and gentle’.”

Development purists have a different line of attack. Comic Relief has been criticised for presenting material which perpetuates patronising stereotypes about starving Africans and promoting a dependency relationship between rich and poor.  Curtis sees a need for parallel approaches. Understanding about development is a journey, he believes. But if that ends with a complex understanding of the interactions of good governance, unjust trade structures and economic growth it begins in a much simpler place – which may be an 11-year-old girl reading a tweet from a 19-year-old  One Direction singer on his first shocked visit to an African slum.

“The people who decide how the Comic Relief money is spent are terribly sophisticated and are aware of what the groups we support need to do to make sure that permanent change happens,” he says. “But it’s also important that we have stuff on the TV that enables people to make the first step on the ladder and see that a malaria net costs £5 and that it can save someone’s life. It’s important that amidst all the complicated issues that there is still the person-to-person thing.”

One of Comic Relief’s distinctive characteristics is that it requests individuals to participate rather than just give money. Just a third of the money raised comes from donations at the Red Nose Day telethon. Another third comes from the sale of red noses and other merchandise. But the remainder is from activities supporters undertake in the five weeks of the run-up to Red Nose Day, which takes place every other year, alternating with Sport Relief. “Do something funny for money” is its motto.

That, Curtis believes, is what gives Comic Relief its distinctive character. “If you involve people in an activity they become more engaged with the issue,” he says. “The idea of ‘putting the fun into fundraising’ is not a concept that people in other countries understand. But the English sense of humour – with that business of always laughing in adversity – means we don’t see any contradiction between those things.”

In that sense Comic Relief is a testament to the eccentricity of the British. Office staff dye their hair red to go to work. Students collect in the streets in their pyjamas. Kids at school shave off the Head’s beard – 21,000 schools participated in the last Red Nose Day. With all this licensed misrule Comic Relief has unlocked a different way of doing things.

“Now we’ve got the generational thing,” Curtis concludes. Today when he asks young stars to contribute he finds he is pushing at an open door. “They all remembered doing Red Nose Day at school and loved the day of anarchy it brought.” And each year new comedians bring new perspectives and new audiences to the event. “I started out the father of the event and now I feel like the grandfather”.

Twenty five years on he feels, he says without grandiloquence, that Comic Relief might just turn out to have been on the right side of history. “The good news from Africa is not just the changes that Comic Relief has been directly party to. There’s a sense of extraordinary progress in a lot of areas in the continent. I do think there’s a real feeling that we might have been part of a generation that has played a part in getting rid of massive injustices in African economies, and in education and in the defeat of disease, to the point where Africa can thrive on its own.

“We’ve just sent Bill Nighy to a place where we were told people are seeing bad conditions like we haven’t seen for a decade. And, oddly, I thought that’s rather wonderful; once you’d go pretty much anywhere in Africa and find situations like that. But now it’s a matter of comment when you do. Perhaps in another 25 years there might not still be a need for Comic Relief. Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if that were the case?”

an edited version of this appeared in The Independent on Sunday

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