What happens when comedy is of crucial importance

The Comedian Lenny Henry has been an Open University student for four years. Tomorrow night he presents 'It's Your Comic Relief', an OU/BBC1 programme for Red Nose Day
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Why is comedy such a powerful fundraising tool?

Why is comedy such a powerful fundraising tool?

If I'm going to communicate with an audience, they remember something I said with a bit of a twinkle in the eye better than boring old facts. There is a lot of really heartbreaking and moving documentary stuff on the night, and if we can make people laugh in between it cushions the effect of some of the harder stuff.

This is Red Nose Day's 10th anniversary, but there's still a lot of poverty out there. Has it really made a difference?

Comic Relief and Red Nose Day have made an immense difference. They've empowered the public, given them the ideas and tools to raise money off their own backs. It is fantastic when I come to Africa and see the grain banks, the new wells that have been built, the children being inoculated and terraced mountains that have been funded by Comic Relief. There are huge problems in Africa like HIV and AIDS, but a drip of water can erode a rock and I think Comic Relief is becoming a very strong and mighty drip. We've got to keep going until the rock dissolves, and it will dissolve, but it's going to take a long time, so people have to stay committed.

Work for Comic Relief has taken you to some pretty depressing places. How do you cope?

In Addis Ababa this time round I went to a place called Debre Zeit where I watched this wonderful care worker called Fanti visiting people suffering from HIV. Even though these people were in immense pain, there was a lot of dignity involved. And what's wonderful is that Comic Relief, by funding people like Fanti, is doing something to help. Watching this girl cook and sweep out a tiny little space, it gives you a bit of humanity. It really humbled me. When someone criticises you in the street, or you do a terrible show, none of it can shake the feeling that you've helped someone clean up somebody, put ointment on their sores, and it keeps you grounded. That's what Comic Relief's done for me.

You're studying English literature with The Open University. Why English literature? And why The Open University?

All of the people I admire in showbiz are very, very smart. Quite a lot of them have been to university and benefited from it. It's helped me to understand that good work is not an accident. The best writers like Flaubert and George Eliot took a long time to plan their work and The Open University has shown me that if you take the time to plan your work and structure it properly, you can do well. The challenge of producing an essay every month or so keeps me on my toes. I like all the reading, even the 19th-century novels which sort of drove me mad in the beginning.

Do you have any ambitions for the future?

I'd like to write something on my own and the only way that I'm going to do that is if I have confidence and faith in my own ability. I've always worked with other writers. I've got friends like Victoria Wood and Richard Curtis who are pretty much the top of their game because they can write in a solitary way and produce immense pieces of work. There's nothing wrong with collaborating, but I'd love to write something on my own and know it was good before I gave it to someone else to read. I think The Open University is helping me to judge my work, in a way that writing something and giving it to someone to read for me doesn't.

'It's Your Comic Relief' is on BBC1 tomorrow Wednesday 2 March at 7pm

Teaching the parts where others can't

The Open University is a lead partner in an international programme to tackle the desperate shortage of teachers in Africa, where 44 million children of primary school age have no schooling. Three million more teachers are needed to meet a Millennium Goal of having every child in basic education by 2015.

The Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA) programme, a three-year research and development project with funding from the DfES and the Ferguson Trust, launches this year. An international consortium led by the OU and involving the BBC World Service Trust will develop resources, methods and advice for primary teachers, initially in South Africa and Tanzania but quickly extending to other countries. TESSA will be primarily an African project; most of the research and development will take place there with "OU in Africa" specialists supporting where needed. The resources using the latest technology will be versioned into local contexts and multilingual formats.

OU Education Professor Bob Moon, leading the project, says: "Britain is taking a lead in 2005 to spur the global community into addressing the problems of African poverty and opportunities for good health and education. TESSA is one contribution to this and we welcome offers of help and support." For more details contact r.e.moon@open.ac.uk

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