Richard Curtis: It's shocking just how easy it can be to save a life

 

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I've been working on Comic Relief and Sport Relief for 27 years now and still feel the same passion for it as I did at the start, when I wandered around Ethiopia in the middle of the famine in 1985 wondering whether I could think of anything I could do to help.

I still feel the same daily shock at how easy it can be to make a change in other people's lives – and the same daily horror at how mere geography lets us live contentedly every day in a world where people are actually starving to death. And the same daily delight at how wonderfully generous people can be with their money and their time and their talents to help.

But also, right from the start, there's been an element of chaos to it all. I remember in 1985, the night I arrived at Wollo in Ethiopia, from where Michael Buerk made his famous broadcast six months earlier, I was staying in a room with no door, and I thought I had better not leave my camera out, because it was so important that I took pictures the next day. So I put the camera into the bed with me – and during the night rolled on top of it, and broke it.

The next day, I saw the most terrible sights of my life and was encouraged by the camp workers there to take pictures, so I had some harsh, proper evidence to show people back home. I didn't have the nerve to say I had broken my camera – so I nervously pretended to take the pictures anyway. I spent the day, standing in front of a thousand malnourished children, pushing a broken button, saying "thank you", and moving on, ashamed.

And since then, for all the wonderful things that have happened with Sport and Comic Relief, there has always been a share of debacles. I offer these up to encourage you if you've got some fabulous fund-raising thing organised, and it doesn't really work out. I know exactly how you feel. Just press on – it may still end up going better than you had expected. Here's a random Top 5.

The Vegetable Play

Fundraising in schools has always been absolutely key to our success – and, one year, we came up with the cracking idea of writing a little play that every school in the country could perform on Red Nose Day. Fresh off the back of writing Four Weddings and a Funeral, I was pretty sure I was the man for the job.

I wrote a 15-minute epic, in which children had to dress as various vegetables – and there was a very good moral at the end about social justice and parsnips or something. Throbbing with expectation and the excitement of creating a dramatic phenomenon, we sent out 22,000 copies of the play to the UK's schools.

Final research revealed that, in the end, eight schools performed it. We never found out the total money raised. But it wasn't a lot. Something in the region of £50. Or a bit less.

The Building Nose

They were huge, they were to be tied to buildings. We were so confident they would raise money, we sold them for £1,000, thinking we'd make a massive profit. We didn't. There were planning issues. There were why-the-hell-would-we-stick-a big-bit-of –ugly-red-plastic-on-to-our-beautiful-building issues. In the end, we just broke even. We didn't do it again the next year.

Clive Anderson

I love Clive, and he always helps us when he can. The biggest thing he ever did for Red Nose Day was a radical live link from Channel 4 to go out at 11pm on Red Nose Night. At the end of a pre-recorded episode of Whose Line is It Anyway?, he said, "I'm now heading over to BBC 1. If you turn over now, I'll walk on to the set of Comic Relief", setting up this radical, breakthrough moment. It was the first time this sort of thing had ever happened between channels.

But when it came to the night itself, things got complicated, and, at about 11.10pm, I remember walking past a slightly puzzled-looking Clive sitting quietly in the wings. "Shouldn't I be going on quite soon?" he asked politely. "Yes," I reassured him, "Thank you so much for coming."

Five minutes later, while I hid in Jonathan Ross's dressing room, I sent an assistant to tell him that his taxi had arrived to take him home.

The Running Order Cataclysm

Probably the worst mishap was one Night of TV when the running order timings went wrong. The running order is the holy grail of our show, with careful timings of every link and every piece of pre-recorded material meticulously planned. Somehow, I ended up with a running order that had "zero" attributed to all of the pre-records, so, as I discovered about 20 minutes after the show started, we had five hours of material to squeeze into three hours of the show before the News.

The first pair of presenters, meant to finish at 8pm, finished at 8.45pm. It was a tough moment when I had to tell Zoe Ball and Johnny Vaughn that their carefully rehearsed, hour-long presenting section was now a 15-minute cameo – basically a big entrance, two quick links and an emotional farewell. They eventually bounced off at 9.15pm – and that was where the real trouble started. Presenting the final, pre-News hour were Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, who tend to expand a bit when they're having fun and like to ignore the autocue which is meant to tell them what to say.

The crucial thing about organising the Night is that, in the 10 minutes before the News, we show some very emotional appeal film which gives people time and motivation to donate during the News. French and Saunders were just beginning quite a long bit of glorious improvised fooling around when we hit 9.50pm. I knew that every amusing, improvised moment was now costing lives. I remember clearly getting a large piece of paper and writing on it, in big felt-pen, the word "FAINT!" Dawn saw it out of the corner of her eye – and fainted. Jennifer looked puzzled, looked to the autocue – and saw "And now a film from Kenya". She said it, and we were back on track. And Dawn was still pretending to be dead.

The Goat

During the first year's filming in Africa, Griff Rhys-Jones recorded a passionate appeal in Sudan holding a goat, explaining how the public's money could pay for "goats like this one" which were absolutely crucial in the battle to restock herds. In turn, these goats would revivify a local economy and a lifestyle ravaged by drought. We broadcast the film many times that year, not knowing that after filming, a friendly Sudanese guide had informed him that the animal he had been holding was actually a sheep.

I haven't mentioned Billy Connolly grappling naked with an alcoholic in the foyer of the Piccadilly Theatre, Patrick Kielty getting arrested in India, the spectacularly unpopular touring Millennium Gnome, or the colour-changing car noses that didn't change colour. I apologise for them all – and all the other well-meaning disasters.

I'm sorry, Trevor, that you got put on a plane that flew back into a war zone and found yourself sitting on a suitcase in the middle of a fire-fight in Somalia.

But for all that, the ups and the downs, we have fundamentally stayed on track. I'd encourage everyone to watch Sport Relief tonight – it feels like it's going to be one of our best ever shows – and if you've got any cash to spare, please ring it in.

Lives are still in the balance every day, home and abroad, and Comic Relief has got 20 years of experience spending it where it makes the most difference, whether it is paying for a child in Sierra Leone to get a vaccine or a woman in Sunderland to get away from a house of domestic violence.

Your call can actually save a life. You won't really know what you've done – but sometime in the next year, somewhere a father will be holding in his arms a child who has recovered from malaria, and it will have been your fingers casually pushing the Donate button tonight that did it.

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