First Night: Sport Relief, BBC1

The night of light entertainment that never leaves a dry eye in the house

It was exactly 21 minutes into Sport Relief 2012 that I began to feel that familiar pinprick at the back of the eyes, the gentle welling above the cheekbones. Billie Piper had travelled to Norfolk to visit a mother and three daughters still grieving from the loss of their father in a motorbike crash at the age of 29.

The singer-turned-actress struggled to keep her composure as the mother sobbed uncontrollably, explaining how the girls simply could not understand why they were not able to kiss their dad goodbye one more time. I was watching this from the comfort and security of my own sofa, cuddling up with my own two daughters so I was a soft target.

Fathers up and down the land must have reached for the phone. But no matter how determined you are to ride out this annual fantasia of light entertainment, monosyllabic Premier League footballers and good causes, it will get you sooner or later. I’m glad my seven-year-old daughter did not stay up to view the horrific realities of life in the shanties of Sierra Leone. There a weeping father can only watch and pray as his young son battles – and loses – against the mass killer that is malaria. It makes you angry – but that is the point.

Even if you’re one of the viewers who don’t buy into celebrity, we as a nation need to bear prime-time witness at least once a year. It is easy to knock Mr and Mrs Gary Lineker’s righteous fury at the indignities of the rag-pickers of Bangladesh, or Lorraine Kelly’s tears at poor old Jose from Peru, condemned to spend his life making bricks rather than pursuing his dreams to be a doctor. But this is the reality for many poor people around the world.

The trick for the BBC, with its limitless access to top-notch talent, including Miranda Hart, is to sugar the pill with enough music and laughs to make the experience enjoyable yet keeping it hard-hitting enough to persuade us to part with our cash. Smugness, of course, is the enemy. But there is precious little of that in the sight of Theo Walcott trying oh-so-hard to whip up a better omelette than goalkeeper Robert Green. So, too, the determination of Frank Skinner to overcome a water phobia and negotiate a length of the pool.

The millions of pounds raised by Sport Relief each year, and the enthusiasm with which the project is embraced are proof that at moments like these, the corporation gets the balance just about right.