Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Red Nose Day? Or One Whole Month of Enforced Joviality – a short rant...

I was amused to read in the letters section of the Telegraph this morning a letter from someone questioning whether it is "Red Nose Day or One Whole Month of Enforced Joviality". Now this is a tricky subject for a blog as I run the risk of portraying myself not only as some joyless curmudgeon (bothered) but also as someone who is in some way questioning the undoubted benefit that the hundreds of millions of pounds that this biennial event and its ilk have brought to countless underprivileged people (at home and abroad) over the years. So I must stress at this point that I think that the work done by Comic Relief and similar organisations (and more particularly those who donate and who have undertaken some unbelievable fundraising tasks in the name of those causes) is incredible and a credit to our great nation.

Children in Need has been running since 1980 and is the granddaddy of UK Telethons, but mass fund raising was taken to another level in 1985 by Live Aid. That unforgettable day at Wembley (yes I was there along with the other 5 million people who claim to have been in the intervening 25 years) had such a massive impact not just because of the never before (or indeed since) seen array of stars who turned up and gave their time for free, but because of the seismic shift in awareness of the plight of third world countries that the event brought about. Up until then, news of famine and starvation tended to be hidden somewhere between the miners' strike and a skateboarding dog on our evening news bulletins. Sir Bob and his mates catapulted it straight into our living rooms and straight into our collective consciousness.

But in the intervening years somehow the format has become tired and the values held by those heroes of 1985 have been lost.

Over the years, whilst admittedly punctuated with some truly admirable achievements (Eddie Izzard's unbelievable 43 marathons and David Walliams swimming the channel spring to mind) both Sports Relief and Red Nose day have basically descended into a month long pratfest in which publicity seeking celebs undertake a series of cringeworthy stunts in return for which we, Sir Joe of Publicshire, are expected to cough up our hard earned wonga.

It's a bizarre concept when you think about it, isn't it? "Those crazy Geordie nutters Ant and Dec have just commandeered the TV AM sofa for Comic Relief – fetch a mop Marjorie while I find my credit card". Don't get me wrong – there have been numerous very moving and thought provoking programmes produced in the pursuit of these noble charitable causes. I have particularly enjoyed the recent Famous, Rich and in the Slums over the past couple of weeks. But there has also been a lot of dross.

Groups of Radio One DJs, X factor runners up, lower league pop stars and daytime TV soap actors are sent off on apparently arduous and dangerous treks and adventures like walking up Mount Kilimanjaro and trekking in Kenya, feats so dangerous and death defying that their tear jerking reports back to base on their battles against adversity immediately get us reaching for the Visa. Or do they? Do you honestly think that the Beeb is going allow "Wor Cheryl", the nation's sweetheart, to go climbing up a big mountain if there was any chance that she could come to harm? Of course not. She'd actually be safer climbing up a mountain in Tanzania than staying at home with her ghastly airgun toting imbecile of a then husband. And does anyone actually give a hoot if Olly Murs has got chafed inner thighs on his desert trek? I think not. Nor does he – the benefits to him of some free publicity, in a money raising context, is going to be worth the pain. Yes – his efforts will raise lots of money, but they will also do wonders for his profile. Lots of nice photos of him in his cheeky chappy pork pie titfer rubbing nappy rash cream into his naughty bits will be nicely bankable. It's a win-win.

Do I sound cynical? Yes, I probably do. But let me tell you a tale of which I was reminded as I walked to the station this evening past one of the Big Four (or however many there are now) accountants who had a MASSIVE notice in their reception window proudly declaring that they were Comic Relief's Honorary accountants and that we should all do something funny for money. And the tale is of so called corporate social responsibility and the benefits thereof.

I used to work for a law firm which decided that a corporate social responsibility programme and a diversity policy would be a good thing to invest in only when it became apparent that some of its key clients required evidence of such programmes and policies before it would give them work. And suddenly CSR and diversity became all important. At a partnership conference in a big hotel in Chicago, a diversity policy was declared the firm's top priority and as I looked round the room at the 500 or so lawyers sitting and nodding enthusiastically in agreement, I noticed a handful of female partners, a handful of partners of ethnicity, no partners who were openly gay (fantastic for diversity policies, but ruinous for career prospects) and about 480 who were breathing huge sighs of relief that the firm's commitment to a diversity policy would ensure reappointment to the legal panel of their biggest client whilst confident in their own minds that they could continue to fill their coffers without actually implementing it.

And that big client in turn will have basked in the warm glow of having off loaded its corporate social and diversity responsibilities onto its highly paid advisers whilst seeking to raise its own moral standing by proclaiming to its customers and financiers that it will only use advisers who show commitment to CSR and diversity. And so the food chain of corporate responsibility continues.

And it is not dissimilar in the context of telethons. Hugely wealthy celebrities such as Jonathan Ross (I would actually donate my house to Comic Relief if someone would behead him live on TV on Friday night) give up a couple of hours of their time for free knowing that this one night of unpaid work will pay dividends in terms of profile once the red noses have been packed away for another two years. It is a fine line between altruism and naked self promotion that is being trodden and I can't make myself comfortable with that .

Anyway - I like lists, so here are a few things that I would like to see in the context of Red Nose Day, Sports Relief, Children in Need and their ilk:-

1. Cut out the unfunny, prattish behaviour. Send Ant and Dec back to the Jungle and keep the gunge in its container.

2. Stop Walkers crisps from making their puerile novelty crisp flavours. They are not funny, and for those of us who are creatures of habit the replacement of our usual ready salted with crisps in the shape of Gary Lineker's ears or with pictures of Frank Skinner on the bag is unsettling. Make a massive donation to charity by all means, Walkers – but leave the crisps alone.

3. James Corden – I actually like you and think you have the potential to be a very good character actor. But ever since you did that amusing skit with the England Football team you have become unbearably smug and self satisfied. The episode with Patrick Stewart was Rossesque in its appallingness. Resign from A League of Their Own – you are better than that. That format died with They Think It's All Over. Freddie Flintoff needs the money as his career is at an end. Yours is just beginning. Move on before you become a one trick pony.

4. No more charity treks. One of my colleagues climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with a training regime that involved walking up four flights of stairs a day for a couple of weeks. It is not difficult. If you want to do something impressive, do something that requires a commitment of time, a step outside the fluffy comfort zone of celebrity (viz Izzard and Walliams). And a nod to Helen Skelton too – that high wire walk took more cojones than I have got. What a girl. Got a bit of a thing about her....

5. Concentrate on raising awareness. Cut the shock tactics and stop playing the guilt card. That is what I liked about Rich, Famous and Living in the Slums. It was not a montage of shocking images, but a real insight into some of the day to day issues affecting those living in the slums of Nairobi. It left you with a feeling of despair, though with a clear picture of how charitable aid could improve the plight of some of those featured. By far the best thing that has been done in the context of Comic Relief for many years. Lenny Henry – respect. Have a word with Corden and tell him how it is earned.....

6. The presenters. For pity's sake – NO MORE JONATHAN ROSS. I note that he is down to host the show between 11pm and 1am. Why? He has been sacked by the BBC and should not be allowed in the building. He is not a comic and the only relief will be when he no longer invades my living room with his foul mouthed "poo-bum-wee" brand of playground humour. The jury is out on Winkelman. The positive is that Patrick Kielty will not be making an appearance. I shall hit the mute button whenever Michael McIntyre appears.

Anyway – enough for now. Give what you can, but do it for the right reasons. This has turned out to be far more serious than I had intended. But there again it is no laughing matter....

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