Relieve us from Comic Relief

The top five reasons why Red Nose Day sucks.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

It’s coming around again – that sorry British excuse for charidddy, known as Comic Relief (1).

Since 1985, one day a year has been dedicated ‘Red Nose Day’, as comedians line up to corral people into making themselves look like prats to raise money for a good cause. And if something about it makes you feel uncomfortable, tough. The least funny edge of Comic Relief is that, whatever you think, you are expected just to laugh along.

Well, after 18 years, enough’s enough. The Complete* Red Nose Day Fundraising Kit
(‘*May contain nuts.’ Geddit? Geddit?) gives you ‘the definitive top five things you can do to make a better place’, ‘five more key cash-making ideas’, and the ‘Top Five Big Hair Fundraising Ideas’. Here are my own top five objections to Comic Relief, and top five reasons to steer well clear of anybody sporting or selling a red plastic nose in 2003.

1) The people behind it

Apart from being a graveyard for yesterday’s comedians – Lenny Henry, Ben Elton, Jo Brand, need I say more? – the real-turn off about Comic Relief is that it is led by comedians at all. The forced jollity, the jokey worthiness, the substitution of humour for anything more in-depth all contrive to make the has-been TV presenters behind the BBC’s rival charity-fest, Children in Need, at least look honest.

If Comic Relief’s good cause – to ‘help end poverty and social injustice’ in the UK and Africa – had something going for it, why would it be fronted by people whose job is to make everything into a joke? If the aim of the event were to foster engagement with social problems, and some commitment to solving them, why choose to wrap it all around the principle of inanity? Perhaps because the cause is dubious, and the last thing that anybody involved in this wants is for people to take it too seriously.

2) The people it’s aimed at

You might think Comic Relief is aimed at people like you and me – but it’s not. It’s aimed at the Comic Relief organisers’ idea of what motivates people like you and me to support a cause, and how motivated we could ever possibly be. In short, it treats us all like morons, who are prepared to do nothing except make half-hearted fools of ourselves.

The red nose idea is bad enough. This year’s wheeze is to promote red noses with ‘big hair dos’. Quite what the point of this is eluded me, until I read the ‘Top Five Big Hair Fundraising Ideas’. As a symbol of your commitment to the cause, you can get sponsored to change your hair-do for the day, to wear as many hair accessories as you can, to imitate the hairstyle of a celebrity, to ‘throw a 70s style disco where big hair and bad dancing went hand in hand’, and – more obliquely – you can ‘go down to your local hairdressers, barbers or salon and check out what they’re up to. It’ll be wild!’.

The point of picking on hair is neatly summed up by ‘The complete Red Nose Day workplace kit’. ‘[W]e thought that everyone everywhere could fool about with it without much trouble – and change the world into the bargain.’ So – pressurise people to cough up for other people not doing very much at all. This is not commitment, just moral blackmail.

3) The buttons it pushes

‘Without you Comic Relief would not be able to help…entire communities without access to water in Kenya, young girls in Liverpool forced into prostitution, children in Tanzania with no choice but to scavenge on the streets, elderly people in Cardiff living alone and in fear, widows of the Rwandan genocide living with HIV & Aids, vulnerable young people sleeping rough on the streets of London, young people who care for their disabled relatives in Edinburgh, victims of domestic abuse in Belfast and thousands and thousands and thousands of others.’

Every sentence uttered by Comic Relief publicity is geared at pushing the same well-worn, emotive buttons as every other populist UK campaign. From prostitution to street children, from AIDS to domestic abuse, the issues that it highlights are guaranteed to play well to a British audience.

People living in Africa, of course, might wonder if the biggest problem affecting their lives is domestic violence, or whether they need another safe sex campaign. Some people in the UK might even wonder if ‘elder abuse’ is one of the most pressing problems of our time. But Comic Relief clearly knows words like abuse, genocide, street children and HIV are moral epithets, designed as a cover for arguments that go unchallenged.

A critical examination of the problems of Western development policy in the third world, for example, or a recognition of the link between AIDS in Africa and the levels of basic healthcare, is much harder work and it doesn’t bring the cash rolling in.

4) The projects it funds

Comic Relief money goes straight to non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The Red Noses talk about helping people to help themselves – the truth is more like helping unelected, Western-sponsored, unaccountable groups to promote their own agenda among the people of Africa; and in Britain, helping the ubiquitous voluntary sector to pull more and more people into a relationship with the therapeutic state.

Or to put it another way – I very much doubt that Comic Relief helps people to help themselves by giving cash directly to the Liverpool prostitutes or Tanzanian street children. That would be…funny.

5) The media blackout

‘On Friday 14 March 2003 at 7pm Comic Relief takes over BBC ONE for an entire night led by the biggest names in comedy’, chortles the Red Nose Day website, before listing Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton, Vic and Bob, Adam and Joe and Lenny Henry as presenters of ‘an evening of irresistible entertainment’. So much for laughs, then.

Meanwhile, airtime and resources that could develop some decent TV are sacrificed on the altar of Comic Relief: to the point where the BBC’s flagship documentary series, Panorama, gives over an entire episode to a shameless promotion of Red Nose Day’s Fair Trade Campaign. Whatever happened to the line between factual programming and propaganda? Presumably, it’s gone the same way as the line between promoting a good cause and feeling good about yourself. As the protagonists of Red Nose Day should know only too well.

(1) See the Red Nose Day website

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Topics Politics


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