How to lead a nation by the Nose

Red Nose Day may attract the sneers of the cynics but, says Paul Vallely, Comic Relief has been a remarkable success, providing millions of people with a much-needed excuse for being silly and doing good

Comic Relief, aren't you sick of it? Is it anything more than an excuse for exhibitionism by a bunch of pitiful inadequates who think a red nose is some kind of substitute for a sense of humour? Who wants to join those pathetic Mondeo drivers whose radiators suddenly sprout a plastic proboscis in the hope of proving that, beneath their dull exteriors, they are really a wacky caring sort of character?

Suddenly there is a lot of sneering around about Red Nose Day, which holds its fifth biennial bonanza today. It is to be found not least in the quality press, whose references to the event have this year been sprinkled with condescending remarks about "red noses and righteousness" from "the usual crew of funsters". Yawn, yawn, haven't we seen all this before? Hasn't this kind of thing had its day?

Well, admittedly, donations were down last time from £27m in 1989 to £21m in 1991 and a mere £18m last time in 1993. A mere £18m. "Whose idea of failure is that," as Bob Geldof put it. Certainly not those who benefit from the long-term development projects in Africa that get two-thirds of the money - with the rest going to charities that work with the disabled, young homeless, elderly and drug dependents in the UK.

So why the cynicism? Some 72 per cent of the population took part in at least one Comic Relief activity last time, according to a Mori poll, and 71 per cent of all 15-24 year olds watched the event on TV. Nasal fatigue has set in, it seems, chiefly among older, educated men - the kind of people who tend to decide what goes into broadsheet newspapers. Mori found that more than half of older people expressed negative views, such as that it takes up too much television time, encourages people who can't afford it to give away money, or is just plain silly. Men were more likely to disapprove than women. Guardian readers were more anti than those of the Daily Mirror.

All this is an inversion of usual attitudes to the Third World. Ordinarily the tabloids and mainstream television channels aren't interested in anything that happens in developing countries. Even broadsheets and late-night BBC2 and Channel 4 documentaries tend to avoid the subject unless in the form of a major disaster. Comic Relief has turned all that on its head.

"Lenny Henry and Co get to a BBC1 audience which usually sees almost nothing about the Third World apart from the news, and that's all horror stories with the subtext that these blacks couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery," says Paddy Coulter, a former head of communications for Oxfam, and now director of the International Broadcasting Trust, a charity dedicated to improving coverage of the developing world on British television. "Comic Relief bucks that trend by focusing on people who are not victims but who are doing something for themselves."

The shift may mark another stage in the changing face of British charity. Over recent decades charitable giving has been transformed reflecting broader cultural changes. In the Fifties, when Britain was solid and conservative, insular and class-based, charities saw their function as essentially social - both in the sense of being a focus for shared companionship and in seeing their function as addressing domestic social needs. Bodies as varied as the original Queen Charlotte's Ball for debs, or the Variety Club of Great Britain for showbiz types, had this in common. With the more political internationalist vision which developed in the Sixties, and lingered on long after, charities such as Shelter and Oxfam developed a more political world view. Then in more recent times economic individualism and consumerism have given birth to looser, individualistic movements such as Live Aid.

Live Aid, for all its focus on pop music, had characteristics that were distinctly spiritual. It was also a grassroots political movement in an era of single-issue activism - the only available response to the instinctive idealistic impulse in a time when Thatcherism had dictated that there was no longer such a thing as society.

It was the defining moment for a generation. "It was a moment of empowerment," said Geldof yesterday. "It had an intensity that could never be recaptured. The hope was that people went on to do something as a result of it. That's why a Live Aid Two would have been a farce. It would just have watered down the vision." The next generation will need its own moment. And it will be different.

Will Comic Relief provide it? It has taken the mechanism Geldof created but it is doing something more practical and more old-fashioned with it. It has become an institution in a way that Bob Geldof was determined Live Aid would never be. "There are advantages in that," he says. "£18m is not an insignificant amount of money. But you risk that the flame of the idea gets snuffed out by the bureaucracy that grows up to protect it." Live Aid, he believes, is more powerful as a memory.

But Comic Relief has chosen another route. It has not gone the way of traditional development agencies, setting up a permanent organisation staffed by specialists. It has chosen to remain as an event-led phenomenon, driven by that looser individualist/consumerist ethic. This means constantly remaking itself both in its fund-raising years and in the year in-between of project allocation and educational film-making .

After every Red Nose Day lengthy autopsies on all aspects of the work are led by Jane Tewson, the head of Charity Projects which runs Comic Relief, aided by a board of trustees made up of comedy stars and top-rank accountants, lawyers and business people. Reporting to them are committees on Africa, UK projects, communications and finance, all staffed by volunteers who include leading figures in each field.

"We do not assume that there will be another Red Nose Day to follow. We examine it from first principles," she says. "Are we getting new money, rather than just taking money which people would have given to other agencies? Are we getting development issues across as well as fund-raising? Do our projects involve the disabled or Africans themselves? Are we having a long-term impact?"

Experts in development have no doubt that the answers have been largely positive. But Tewson asks two other questions: "Are we involving people in more than giving cash? Are we making charity fun?"

It is here that Comic Relief's distinct character lies. Last Nose Day, £3m was raised through telephone donations and £4m through selling Red Nose merchandise. But most cash - some £10m - was raised through the active participation of its supporters who sat in porridge, maggots and raw eggs, bathed in onion gravy, abseiled down town halls, auctioned their teacher or gunked their boss.

This is a key part of its success, according to the social psychologist Carey Cooper. "It allows people to be uninhibited and do silly things in a socially acceptable way," he says. "It allows people to relieve some of the tensions of the workplace from which, increasingly, any sense of enjoyment has gone. But the key thing is that it allows people to get involved."

This national equivalent of a university rag week is a unique combination. "A National Silly Day wouldn't work without the charitable aspect. Likewise being asked to give to the poor wouldn't work alone. What the two do together is give people a sense of control and of involvement which is lacking from the rest of their lives. It also bonds people together in their workplace in a new way. There will always be cynics who disapprove. But the rest of us are better off ignoring them."

Is that enough? Under our cool professional relationships is a more profound humanity that we want to acknowledge and celebrate. Red Nose Day may have been the antidote to Thatcherite utilitarianism. But will it be able to adapt to what lies ahead?

The changing face of British charities

Charity Year founded Income that year Today's equivalent

NSPCC 1889 £4,187/10s/5d £0.2m

Oxfam 1942 £0.1m £3.6m

(1948 - first audited year)

The Variety Club 1949 £10,000 £0.2m

Christian Aid 1959 £0.5m £5.6m

Children In Need Telethon 1980 £1.2m £2.6m

Band Aid single (first release) 1984 £8m £12.9m

Live Aid 1984 £50m £80.8m

Red Nose Day One 1988 £15m £20.2m

Red Nose Day Four 1993 £18.6m £18.8m

The five most popular ways of raising money on Red Nose Day Four were:

Dressing up

Silence

Eating odd things

Filling things up

(eg. wellies with beans,

baths with custard)

Tomato related events

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