An orgy of sanctimonious celebs

ARE YOU feeling warm? Are you feeling caring? In this very special week, are you reflecting that, whether you're black or white, a famous celebrity or just an ordinary person, you are part of one great human family? As you watch your favourite personalities engage in a TV sketch and then, after an appropriate "but seriously though" moment, move on to some heartwrenching footage from the front-line of misery, will you smile through your tears, reach for your credit card, and feel better about yourself until next year's Comic Relief show hits the road?

Because everyone else will be. All the people who matter are showing that they care this week. Literally scores of famous people are donating their time for free. Some have even travelled to Africa to take part in a televised celebrity relay tour. And there have been some beautiful acts of kindness in the business sector. Sainsbury's, the "Red Nose Store", are selling special doughnuts for 99p, of which 5p goes to charity. Colgate have teamed up with the Daily Express to run a (toothy!) Smile of the Year competition, and are distributing "Brush Up with Colgate for Comic Relief" leaflets. Then there's a Body Shop Kissing Kit, a red nose Parker pen, while Pritt Stick are sponsoring a card design kit for kiddies to make their own Mother's Day cards. The giving just goes on and on.

It goes without saying that the People's Party are in the vanguard of celebrity carers. Gordon Brown, the gentle Chancellor, has already posed for a Comic Relief photo-opportunity and it would be no surprise to see him present the Budget wearing a red nose of caring.

No one could deny that this great charity event is doing excellent work for those who participate. Comedians, politicians and soap opera actors can boost their often flagging careers with a public display of those two essential attributes for the modern celebrity: a social conscience and a sense of humour. Large businesses, many of whom have a less than spotless record of philanthropy, can flog their products with the help of free publicity from a compliant press. The BBC can fill up programme space with embarrassingly feeble material. It also, importantly and undeniably, provides a massive boost for worthwhile charities - pounds 138m over the past 14 years.

But is there not something creepily sentimental and self-indulgent about this great annual orgy of public, institutionalised giving? Night after night, we are subjected to show-us-you-care bullying from comedians, the very people who should stand back from the herd and distrust the Diana effect. How unsettling it is to find yesterday's alternative comedians trilling and cooing at one another from the heart of Celebrityland.

First giving becomes part of show business; soon it becomes all show, complete with well-lit documentary film and a backing track from Robbie Williams. Ever since Billy Connolly blubbed in front of the Live Aid cameras, having watched a film of starving Africans to the sweet but utterly irrelevant strains of a number by The Cars, the connection between gloopy pop songs and real suffering has become acceptable. Today, even grown-ups like Richard Curtis can, without a second thought, introduce a Desert- Island favourite by the country chanteuse Iris Dement with some well-meaning, lachrymose thoughts about Third World suffering.

It is as if Hollywood effects must be deployed to remind us how to feel, as if we endlessly need to be reassured of how generous and giving and kind we have all become. "You are a truly amazing bunch of people," Lenny Henry tells us in thanks for raising "a largiferous pounds 27m" last year. But are we that amazing, really? Take a look at the endless TV documentaries that record and batten upon the various types of selfishness, cruelty, vanity and betrayal at the heart of modern society. Consider the behaviour of tabloid journalists, mocking and persecuting the celebrity victim of the moment on behalf of readers who have become suffering junkies, hooked on human pain. See the behaviour of hosts, guests and audiences on daytime TV shows: they cry - crying's obligatory - but does the crushing, all- exclusive obsession with self honestly represent a more caring society than that of 10, 20 or 30 years ago?

Of course, we should give. We should try to ignore such ghastly stunts as Ruby Wax pretending to be a souffle in a sketch with Gary Rhodes; close our ears to the smooth, sincere tones of Stephen Fry; and indulge the zany antics of lovable Lenny. But perhaps it's time to stop wearing our hearts on our sleeves, our red noses on our faces, quite so smugly. Because deep down, we all know that this week's a show biz thing.

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