Tom Sutcliffe: How telethons can offer some relief...

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In 1077, Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, reached the gates of the Castle of Canossa in Italy after a penitential journey across the Alps. He was there to seek forgiveness from Pope Gregory, with whom he'd had a bit of a spat over the investiture of Bishops, and he wasn't going to take any risks that his repentence would go unnoticed. According to legend, he stood in the snow barefoot wearing a hair shirt, and he had to wait for three days before the Pope finally softened. The event is usually recounted as a story of Imperial humiliation, an encounter in which Henry simply had to swallow his pride and bow to a greater authority. But I've sometimes wondered whether he didn't secretly find it an invigorating and enlarging experience. Even allowing for the quibbles of those who suggest that the Holy Roman spin doctors went into overdrive about the Emperor's abasement, there is something grandly spectacular about this gesture. It is not the kind of contrition available to the common man. And yet at the same time it asserted the Emperor's identity with the humblest of his subjects.

These days Henry IV might achieve something similar by taking part in a telethon instead, an event which might not immediately look penitential on the surface, but which has more than a little in common with the Emperor's theatre of remorse. I don't mean to suggest, incidentally, that telethons and television fund-raisers – like the Sport Relief broadcast on BBC One tonight – are just cynical exercises in brand management. That's a callow argument which fails to take account of the fact that good intentions almost always have to express themselves through less than perfect vehicles. In fact, it usually involves an inverted snobbery, too – the implication being that charitable effort and charitable appeal are only truly worthwhile if conducted by people who nobody's ever heard of.

But that some kind of expiation is going on – on both sides of the screen – is surely unavoidable. Telethons have their hair shirts in the form of sponsored ordeals of self-mortification, such as John Bishop's Sport Relief Hell or David Walliams' Big Swim; and they have their ceremonies of humility, whether it's television newsreaders dragging up to perform a dance routine or star performers gamely mocking the talents that made them famous. Nobody's yet walked barefoot across the Alps to raise money, but I wouldn't bet against it.

Since the first telethon, a 1949 cancer fund-raiser hosted by the American comedian Milton Berle, they've been very successful too, in every sense. Television companies, to be a little cynical myself for a moment, aren't famously devoted to broadcast events that lose them viewers and the growth of telethons testifies to the fact that audiences find a satisfaction in these things which isn't explicable simply in terms of the special entertainments laid on within them. Indeed, telethons can be so successful that it can become a problem in itself. In 2010 a French single-issue telethon (raising money for muscular dystrophy research) was accused by other charities of sucking the well of public generosity dry, provoking an official inquiry into whether it should be scrapped. And one source of that success is our sense as an audience that we should be better than we are – that we need to submit ourselves to something that is defined as excessive and out of the ordinary.

How else to explain the fact that telethons persistently survive the toughest segues in show-business – those awkward moments when we're required to shift in just seconds from the lives of homeless children to some contrived moment of hilarity involving a sitcom star? Only a sense that it's positively virtuous to watch could account for it. And between what telethons offer to those who take part in them (famously an opportunity "to give back") and what they offer to us, there's an odd kind of recognition that mostly the wrong kind of values are in place. For all the jollity (most telethons are almost hysterically cheerful affairs), it's a kind of confession. So, do watch tonight, and be as generous as you can afford to be, and try to think for longer than the inserts last about the causes for which money is being raised. But take a bit of time, too, to wonder at this odd cultural phenomenon – a meeting point between entertainment and remorse at how easily entertained we are.

The main title offenders, named and shamed

The art of titling is sometimes overlooked, though if you need to understand why it matters all you need do is imagine that F Scott Fitzgerald had gone with one of his alternatives to The Great Gatsby – Trimalchio of West Egg. I guess the titles of television programmes matter much less, given how ephemeral most of them are, but I've still found myself irritated by the recent degradation of the craft, particularly (for some reason) on the BBC. The real blight here is Colonic Inflation, in which a perfectly good title is handcuffed to a proper name, just in case the prospective viewer misses the fact that someone famous is involved. So you get Raymond Blanc: the Very Hungry Frenchman or Timothy Spall: All at Sea. That's how the infection started, but then the spread of the colon allowed for other dismaying developments. In the past, the title Panorama was assumed to be an affidavit in itself and a subtitle supplied more information. Now the strand always takes second billing, as in Britain's Crimes of Passion: Panorama (though at least that's not as comically pretentious as, say, Two Jews on a Cruise: a Wonderland Film). And the colon also seems to have licensed a chronic indecisiveness in titlers. Take Junior Doctors: Your Life in Their Hands, for example, or Racing with the Hamiltons: Nic in the Driving Seat. The latter was so long that it nearly achieved the television titlers' equivalent of a four-minute mile, which is a Radio Times three-decker. Still, given the tick-all-the-boxes neediness of much recent BBC titling it won't be long. In the meantime, a pat on the back for Empire. I don't know how Paxman stopped them calling it Jeremy Paxman's Empire: When a Quarter of the World Was Pink, but I'm glad he prevailed.

Fancy a little classical music?

It's a tricky business using very famous bits of classical music in a film, since you can't be sure that the pre-established associations people have with any particular passage will fit your intentions. And if you can be sure, then it's almost certainly a cliché already (or you'll be in danger of finding yourself accused of a purloined emotional depth). So the Dardenne brothers took something of a risk in using a very famous passage from Beethoven's Emperor Concerto in their film The Kid with a Bike, which won the Jury prize at last year's Cannes festival. Their solution was an ingenious one: they hardly use any of it at all; just a snatch a couple of bars long, which is simultaneously instantly recognisable and tantalisingly incomplete. The same handful of notes occurs several times in the film at bridge moments – and something about the flagrant coerciveness of its appearance (it is virtually like a title card reading "This Bit Is Important") rescues it from crassness. But it did get me wondering whether it can claim to be the shortest quotation from a serious musical composition in cinema. Anyone know of anything briefer?

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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