Postscript: Comic Relief 2017

This year’s charity telethon featured a large TVO contingent amongst its bevy of stars, and raised over £71m for great causes around the world. But it was also a highly divisive evening for audiences. Our editor in chief, Paul Holmes, shares his thoughts on some of the things that worked, and a couple of the things that didn’t…

© BBC / Jonathan Ford

The tabloids are having a field day. “Viewers slam ‘totally unfunny’ Comic Relief” says one particularly loathsome publication. And right now, this year’s Red Nose Day, which was already under intense scrutiny following recent revelations about past stock-trading in the name of Comic Relief’s furthering of profits to aid good causes, is under threat of being overshadowed by controversy over pre-watershed swearing, rude gags, and technical nightmares that almost halted the show in its tracks.

So let’s get one thing up front here: Red Nose Day raised over £71m this year. And as further donations come in over the coming weeks, that figure is sure to rise, but right now, it’s the lowest ‘on the night’ total this decade by a considerable margin. This could be down to a number of factors: general austerity following the collapse of the pound’s value last year; the lack of a bonafide Comic Relief single in the last few weeks raking in cash at supermarket checkouts; even falling ratings for television as a whole causing fewer people to be watching.

But the press are going to blame a series of issues – both real and perceived – about the Comic Relief telethon, that will undoubtedly overshadow the hard work that every single person put in to the appeal, and more importantly, the incredibly difficult work that charity workers around the world are doing because of that funding. Lives are being saved every minute of every day because of Comic Relief, and £71m is not a figure to be dismissed so easily.

© Comic Relief / Nick Briggs

Nevertheless, it would be remiss of us to not address the comedic aspect of this year’s appeal, particularly when so many of our regulars were involved, and when some of them certainly fared better than others.

From our perspective, the most successful parts of the night were the pre-filmed inserts, which the various teams had time to refine in advance, starting with James Corden’s trek around the streets of Los Angeles with mature boy band Take That, and moving on to feature the most hotly anticipated sketch of the evening – a belated mini-sequel to Love Actually featuring many of the film’s original cast, and some genuinely heartwarming moments, particularly featuring Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s reunion and Hugh Grant’s sensational speech as the film’s fictional, bust-a-movin’ PM.

Factor in sketches of varying quality from David Walliams, This County and People Like Us and you had all the makings of a standard, successful Red Nose Day evening of entertainment. Even if the idea of watching even 12 seconds of Mrs Browns Boys is intolerable for this particular writer, it’s clearly a popular show and it helps rake in the cash, so by all means, provide an adequate toilet break for those who don’t like it, and a reason to donate for those who do.

© BBC

For TVO, these pre-filmed sequences also included a deliciously well observed piece written by and starring Laurence Rickard alongside Rebecca Front, Russell Brand and Frankie Boyle, in which Laurence played a professional heckler undergoing counselling in a bid to make it through a comedy show without opening his trap.

A fabulous conceit, the sketch demonstrated all the hallmarks of a great Comic Relief moment, but also stood alone as a great piece of comedy in its own right, so much so that it’s a great shame it was tucked away in the infamous BBC Two half-hour that hardly anyone ever remembers to turn over for. {WATCH IT HERE}

© BBC

The same could be said for the long-awaited Philomena Cunk take on charity, in which Diane Morgan spoke to Comic Relief founder Richard Curtis to ask him all about chugging and rom-coms and potentially auctioning off celebrity body parts in a way that only Philomena Cunk can get away with.

As usual, there were so many acutely observed lines that it’ll take several rewatches to fully appreciate all of them, and we’re sure that a full series for Cunk has to be just around the corner by now.

Less successful perhaps was a brief, but baffling piece narrated by Alan Partridge, which looked at some classic fundraising from members of the public. Harking back, perhaps, to the very early commentary pieces on The Day Today, the sketch wasn’t bereft of laughs (the line about a bath of baked beans giving you a slag’s tan being particularly fun), but without the opportunity to see Alan, it was nevertheless his weakest contribution to Comic Relief, as previous pieces from Steve Coogan have set the bar stupendously high.

© Comic Relief / Gary Moyes

And yet, it was in the live segments of the night in which the end results fell short, and often through no fault of the performers. Early in the night, for example, came an appearance by Matt Berry and Tim Downie, who were joined by Lenny Henry for a bizarre Toast of London sketch that, though genuinely funny for fans of the show, was utterly lost on the studio audience, and a large number of people tuning in for the ‘early’ part of the show.

The piece perhaps relied too heavily on the audience being aware of the trappings of the sublime sitcom, which, given its an award-winning, three-series and counting sort of production, isn’t entirely implausible, but the sketch also illustrated the first signs that something was amiss with the studio segments. If the audience were laughing, then the people watching at home couldn’t hear them, and that had the effect of making genuinely funny lines sound as if they’d fallen flat. {WATCH IT HERE}

© Comic Relief / Gary Moyes

A similar phenomenon affected the Reeves & Mortimer sequence later in the night. The pair, who had so subtly revived their cult ‘Car Door’ sketch during the big introduction film (which also featured a singing Katy Brand, folks), chose to appear as The Stott Brothers in a one-off edition of We Ask the Questions. It’s a format that consistently works for the duo, having been trialled in The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer before becoming a regular feature on Bang Bang It’s Reeves & Mortimer, and with the Stotts appearing in the recent Vic & Bob live shows, it was only natural they’d hit the ground running with it here.

And yet somehow, the audience just didn’t seem to get it – actively talking loudly throughout instead of engaging with the comedy. It may have been the choice of ‘guest’, as the sequence always worked best when their interviewee played ball, and Susanna Reid didn’t seem that keen. As the odd joke backfired, it became clear that even the genuinely hilarious ones were being lost on the mainstream audience who didn’t know what to expect, and it was all over in no time at all.

The studio audience seemed much more excited by more tacky conceits for entertainment, from a panel show piece called Your Mum in which four celebrities and their mothers answered ‘taboo’ questions about themselves; to a truly bizarre televised attempt at Radio One’s Innuendo Bingo which basically consisted of two men spitting water on each other whilst laughing at clips of innocent phrases that sound rude.

© Comic Relief / Tom Dymond

Suffering an even stranger fate was the much-hyped Smack the Pony revival which reunited Doon Mackichan with Sally Phillips and Fiona Allen for a smattering of new material. Doon, who was actually on stage in the West End at the time, only appeared in pre-filmed inserts in front of an audience (presumably earlier that day during rehearsals), and this left only brief moments to film ‘live’, so no sooner had it begun, they were rather abruptly gone again, leaving a very funny, but very short sequence of mini-skits behind.

Thankfully, the trio later confirmed they are working on new ideas, which means audiences might actually get to properly see them together again – which, given there was only a brief moment on the night in which all three performers were on screen together, is even more welcome than ever before, even if, once again, the studio audience wasn’t quite sure of what to make of it.

And listen, we’re not suggesting these were the only things that didn’t seem to appeal to this audience. Comedy legends French & Saunders had a running sketch in which Dawn French pretended to be James Corden, driving about while Jennifer Saunders put on a silly outfit and pretended to be a singer whose songs she didn’t know the words to. It didn’t really work the first time around, but came back for two more attempts at the same joke, and nobody seemed to be sure exactly why.

© Comic Relief / Alex Walker

Things began to improve during Graham Norton’s post-news segment, in which he interviewed an increasingly large number of guests on an incredibly overlong sofa. TVO regulars Jessica HynesMatt LucasAisling Bea and Doon Mackichan were amongst those briefly grilled, and while the segment was plagued with technical hiccups, Norton’s skill as a host kept things as smooth as possible under the cirumstances, even when “guest” Lenny Henry decided he’d had enough of the audience chatter and asked people to stop talking.

© Comic Relief / Tom Dymond

But the real disaster struck just as Russell Brand’s stand-up hour was hitting its stride. Presenting the excellent Brett Domino Trio, technical hitches led to an intervention and an enforced restart of their set, which was then curtailed to go to an appeal film, and then jump-started back to life afterwards. Needless to say, the frustration on the pair’s faces was felt by all who know just how great they usually are.

As proceedings continued, Lou Sanders made a fleeting but typically madcap appearance with a short stand-up routine, and Nish Kumar won the audience over one more time after a slightly subdued response to several of the previous acts. The night was about to come to a close when, at the reveal of the grand total raised, the live feed broke down and had to be restarted, prompting a further flood of dismissive tweets and adding fuel to the fire of those who claimed the night was a total disaster.

© Comic Relief / Tom Dymond

However, here’s the rub. An awful lot of people complained about the telethon this year, but they forget the monumental task of even producing ten minutes of live television, let alone seven hours worth. Comic Relief has, like most events of its nature, always had difficult moments, technical hitches and sketches that fall flat with the in-studio audience. The glorious Cardinal Burns were forced in front of a stony-faced audience a few years ago, while The Mighty Boosh’s infamous performance in the middle of the night back in 2007 is something they’d all most likely want to forget.

But what must be stressed above all else is that, for most of its lifespan, Comic Relief was produced from the safe haven of BBC Television Centre. The smooth operation for most of its lifespan was down to having a team of professionals on board who knew their environment as well as their equipment and skillset, and the three complemented each other perfectly.

© Comic Relief / Tom Dymond

What the team behind Comic Relief 2017 had to contend with – including the incredible talent of producer Lisa Clark (Shooting Stars, House of Fools, Catterick, Spaced etc) – is essentially undertaking a seven hour long ‘Outside Broadcast’ with around a dozen presenters, regular jumps to package pieces, setpieces to arrange, and the impracticality of technical limitations in front of a worn out studio audience. It is, quite frankly, a miracle the show was made at all, and the fact that it still raised £71m and provided some great television in amongst some cringeworthy moments means it was still a job well done.

And honestly – live TV goes wrong all the time. How many viral videos have you personally watched that only exist because the inability to stop and start again allows for all manner of monumental cock-ups to slip through the net? Comic Relief, and its stablemate Children in Need are full of them over the years, so while this year’s event feels a bit more ramshackle right now, it’s likely that in the grand scheme of things there are far bigger mistakes in their collective archives.

Will there be a need to review proceedings for the next event in 2019? Perhaps. The in-studio sketches didn’t quite work out, and were quite possibly on at the wrong time for the wrong crowd. There were concepts that were started but then abandoned too soon, and others that went on for far too long. There were technical hitches which could perhaps be prevented by utilising a real television studio instead of a sub-section of a live venue… surely MediaCityUK has space in Sunny Salford?

© Comic Relief / Lucille Flood

And what’s the point of a clip show like the one presented with great aplomb by Noel Fielding and Jonathan Ross at the end of the night if it not only illustrates just how good Comic Relief can be, but also jumps through snippets of performances as if it has been edited by someone with the shortest attention span of all time? Dammit, it’s been 20 years since David Bowie’s gloriously silly Requiem for a Laughing Gnome and Steve Coogan’s duet with Bjork on Short Term Affair were aired on television – would it kill them to let the clips air in their entirety considering it’s been years since the last DVD or VHS release of classic moments and not everything has made it to the official Comic Relief web presences yet?

But ultimately, Comic Relief 2017 provided laughs aplenty (even if not always for the right reasons), and raised a shedload of cash for great causes, and everyone involved should be proud that they took part. Yes, there were bits that didn’t work. Yes, the new official Comic Relief Single from Ed Sheeran and ‘Korrupt FM’ is diabolical. Yes, poor Brett Domino has every right to be upset about the awful handling of their set. But the night still raised money that will be saving lives very soon, so really, everything negative we – or anyone else – can say is just criticism, and that energy would be better spent donating.

So here’s the link. In big letters to make sure nobody who has got this far misses it.

bbc.co.uk/rednoseday

Go give ’em what you can. Because they’ve earned it, and good people out there deserve it.

For clips from Comic Relief 2017, visit the charity’s official YouTube presence. If you like what you see, then please donate what you can spare.

1 Comment on Postscript: Comic Relief 2017

  1. Jon sheridan // March 27, 2017 at 5:48 pm // Reply

    I’ve watched the Reeves and Mortimer sketch again to try to find the funny lines you alluded to. There were none. They were execrable.

    Like

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