Do we need Comic Relief?

It's 10 years since we were first exhorted to stick silly pieces of red plastic on our noses and cars. Peter Popham asks ...
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Comic Relief celebrates 10 years of existence today, with a special Omnibus programme of highlights from stunts and documentaries from its first decade. These include the Paul Daniels magic trick that didn't work, the time Ken Dodd wouldn't stop cracking jokes and had to be dragged bodily from the stage by Lenny Henry and Griff Rhys Jones, and the occasions when Jonathan Ross and Alan Yentob were drenched in brightly coloured gunge.

Ha bloody ha. There's a lot more where that came from. The good news about Comic Relief is that these days it comes round only once every two years. The bad news is that there is less than one year to go before the next edition. We know what to expect: as Griff Rhys Jones comments in tonight's programme, "It can become a bit of an elephant's graveyard where old comics come to die." But the worst news of all is that 10 years ago it wasn't acknowledged as a riotously unfunny one-off and smothered at birth.

Instead, the red nose has become a national institution, and as with other things of that sort - like the RSPCA or the monarchy in their prime - it is considered incredibly bad form to criticise or cavil or indicate the slightest misgiving about the thrust of what they do. This is charity, after all, the war against famine and war and all that. It is rich men giving their time for nothing, for excellent causes. How could anyone be so flinty-hearted as to find fault with it? You mean you'd be happier for those kids to die out there?

My first beef is that, given the fantastic amounts of television time, the masses of stunts, the reams of rave coverage in the papers, they actually do so little for those heart-wrenching children: it is a remarkably inefficient charity. It is true that the founding spirit, Jane Tewson, devised a way of securing sponsorship for office and other expenses so that the charity runs itself, a sort of perpetual motion machine, which allows 100 per cent of donations (plus interest) to go for charitable work, a nice sensation for the givers. But the amount of television hours, Land Rover miles, videotape cassettes, gallons of gunge and Wellington boots full of baked beans per donated quid is ludicrously large.

With far less razzmatazz, Oxfam raises four times more per year than Comic Relief's pounds 10m, Save the Children three times more. The impulse behind the organisation was, in the words of one of the founders, to "get beyond the rattling tin". Ten years on, the brutal fact is that rattling tins - or the even more anachronistic device of church collecting plates, which helped to raise pounds 96.2m for the Church Commissioners - are enormously more successful.

OK, it's inefficient, but at least it's funny, right? Wrong. Once in a field of mashed potato it will tweak the funny bone. It's nice, on tonight's Omnibus, to be reminded of the Young Ones accompanying Cliff Richard singing "Living Doll". Rhys Jones and Henry don't need to do much more than stand there to make you giggle. But can someone please explain to me what is remotely amusing about a man carrying single peanuts from one end of his garden to the other, with his hands tied to his feet? What is it about this stunt that is more than just a sorry suburban version of one of the torments of Tantalus? When a man goes on a sponsored pogo-stick hop wearing Wellington boots filled with mashed potatoes, should we laugh or weep? In normal circumstances we would smile indulgently, shrug and pass on. But oh no, this is Comic Relief, so not only must we laugh but right afterwards dig deep into our pockets, too.

When Comic Relief's supporters get theoretical, they talk about the commercialisation of charity, as if Comic Relief were boldly showing the way for others to follow. But as already mentioned, it is not a remotely efficient use of resources: if this were a business and they had to pay for their publicity out of the profits, Comic Relief would have gone bust years ago.

If it's not an efficient form of fund-raising, one has to ask, what exactly is it all about? Why does it stagger on from year to year, raising steadily less each year, but still commanding huge amounts of television time and acres of newsprint?

To ask this question is to raise all sorts of bogeymen that are troublesome to deal with, the most fundamental of which is, what is it with the British and charity? Why does charity-giving remain, even in the shadow of the National Lottery, such a peculiarly compulsive activity for us?

Elsewhere people give to causes with which they have important sentimental or religious or blood connections: Jews give to charities in Israel, Buddhists in Japan give for Buddhists in Cambodia, Christians give for missionary work and so on. We as a nation, however, give in a completely disinterested way, to whoever at any particular moment wrings our heartstrings the hardest.

Perhaps this is because we are uniquely meritorious; more likely, in my view, it is one of the last unconscious hangovers from the glorious days of our empire. No longer are huge areas of the globe coloured red, but at least our charitable giving continues to pour into many of the places we once ruled and plundered.

It is a delayed guilty conscience, an attempt at compensation. But in its effect it is inevitably more. The big charities unavoidably function in Africa's impoverished countries with political effect, as quasi-imperialistic entities: in their mission to save lives, they interfere, they distort, they wield powerful influence, unconnected to the domestic political process.

None of this do we care to see: beyond the emaciated bodies and outstretched hands we do not care to look, either to see further into the political histories of the countries where these dreadful things happen, or into our own hearts to see what it is that really motivates us. Behind our kindness and goodness there is stubborn ignorance: we have no wish to know more than that we have willed good, and that good has been done. And with its foolish antics and doggy insistence on being liked, Comic Relief is the purest expression of this.

Of the celebrities who ruminate on their work for Comic Relief on tonight's Omnibus programme, only Victoria Wood came close to getting it right. "I didn't want to do it at all," she confesses of her trip to Ethiopia, of which a documentary film was made.

"I had reservations about going to a place about which I was very ignorant, and looking as if I knew something. ... If you're not very careful, you look as if you're saying, 'The people here have a very sad, poor life and they need nice British people to sort their lives out for them.' "

As it was, she did just fine: she flew to Ethiopia, she emoted, viewers learnt a meaningless smidgen more about the country, and coughed up an insignificant amount of money for the Good Cause. And no one was any the wiser as to what it was all about.

What do you think?

Do you need Comic Relief? Every Monday you can give the Do We Need...? subject of the week the come-on-down or the thumbs down. Send your verdict on Comic Relief, in no more than 100 words, to Do We Need...? The Independent, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL or fax 0171-293 2182 no later than Friday morning and we will print the best comments on a need-to-know basis.

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