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Seven reasons why I didn’t like Comic Relief 2013

The_new_Archbishop_of_Comedy_Rowan_Atkinson_delivers_a_special_Red_Nose_Day_appealIt seems as though Comic Relief has an unrivalled opportunity to capture the public imagination, and particularly that of children, and mobilise them to address the issues of world poverty. Over its 25 years, it has raised over £800 million, and so has had a real impact on the areas in which it has worked. So how could anyone possibly object?

Well, sitting through the programme on Friday evening gave me lots of reasons.

1. I really disliked the serious moments, when we were given a camera’s-eye view of adults and children suffering and dying. I understand that the purpose was to shake us up with the reality in many parts of the world, and confront us with that reality, but after the second or third episode it felt to me almost pornographic.

2. I also disliked the focus on how upset the celebrities were to be there. There were times when their feelings seemed more significant than the people they were with. More importantly, watching people experiencing this bears no relation to seeing it for yourself.

I remember a few years ago talking to a student at St John’s from Africa. He didn’t look very happy, so I asked him what was wrong. ‘The harvest has failed, and my family back home have nothing to eat.’ That experience has stayed with me more powerfully than anything I have seen on the small screen.

3. Once more, it seemed as though we were given a single picture of poverty in general, and Africa in particular—that it was a continent full of poor and helpless people who need our aid. This is just one small part of this remarkable, vibrant world, and such a picture does not do it justice.

4. In Facebook discussion, someone posed the question: ‘How can we still be needing to do this, 25 years on?’ I firmly believe that programmes like this obscure the answer, rather than offering it. The problem with global poverty is not that we don’t make donations—it is that we are part of an unjust, iniquitous trade system driven by consumerism, branding, multinationals and free market economics. This system not only sustains global inequality, but drives extraordinary levels of inequality within countries, in all parts of the world.

Programmes which say to us: ‘Give us £10, but don’t change your lifestyle’ exacerbate the problem, rather than solving it.

5. I’m afraid to say I also disliked Comic Relief’s sense of self-importance. Sure, the £800m raised over 25 years is a lot of money—it is the amount Oxfam generates every other year. Yet where does this, and other aid and education charities, get the same kind of profile on the BBC? Where was the recognition of the many Christian agencies involved here? Which leads me to…

6. Why the utter cynicism towards Christian faith as part of the ‘entertainment’? Rowan Atkinson’s Archbishop sketch was the sort of sad, cynical, unfunny sketch we got used to in the 1980s (for those of us around then!). The really sad thing is that, in Justin Welby, we have an Archbishop with experience of the Majority World, and a concern for justice, who would (I am sure) have been happy to contribute in his own right. And where were the Christian comedians?

7. And why the constant, endless, sexual innuendo, especially before the 9 pm watershed. I’m not the only one to be concerned about this; see Krish Kandia‘s comment. You might want to be in touch with the BBC yourself; he tells you how.

As someone commented to me, the most offensive thing is the continuing existence of hunger and poverty, when globally we continue to throw away between 30% and 50% of our food, and in the West we play our part.

Let’s do something about it—but why not let that thing be well informed, genuinely family-friendly, untainted by cynicism, and recognising the work that others do.

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14 Responses to Seven reasons why I didn’t like Comic Relief 2013

  1. Dom March 16, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

    In many ways, I agree with you. Yet I still donated. Why? Because yes, the system is faulty. Yes, this is an on-going problem with capitalism, consumerism, and the aching chasm between wealthy and poor. But I think there is value in the sticking plaster, even though it isn’t a cure for the wound.

    In relation to your seven points:
    1) – Agreed, although I would say voyeuristic rather than pornographic. Either way, it feels exploitative. Having said that, how else to drive home to people the very real need?
    2) – Absolutely agree with you. Typical celebrity culture: we are shown what to feel (and how to express it) by these modern icons.
    3) – Absolutely agree. By emphasising the problems we increase our own sense of ‘saviour syndrome’ and cultural self-worth: we can save these poor unfortunates! It’s a kind of nascent imperialism.
    4) – Amen. Let’s seek change. But let’s not forget the poor, the hungry, the mourning, and the homeless who are still there in the meantime
    5) – Yep.
    6) – Yep. Seriously. The Rowan Atkinson stuff was so poor – I don’t mind the church being lampooned, but this was cheap shots taken by lazy writers and a comic actor who really should know better. What’s more, it was odd that, in a programme about charity, Christianity was mocked so harshly…
    7) – Yep. Jack was watching it with us so it was even more difficult to cope with.

  2. Tim Nevell March 16, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    Yep, seven good reasons. Although I didn’t see the presentation, I can well believe your summary, and your comments seem justified. With regard to point 4, I notice that we have just completed Fairtrade Fortnight – seeking to promote awareness and lifestyle that can REALLY make a long-term and relevant difference.

  3. Sharon Evans March 16, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    I kind of agree with you on some points…but surely every little bit helps…every single act of kindness is important? When we donate ‘some’ money to Comic Relief, then we’ll sit and have a discussion about other relief programmes such as malarianomore.co.uk and the iniquitous imbalance of global wealth…as one family we can’t solve the problems of the world, we are a drop in the ocean, but I’d rather do a simple small thing, than nothing. I agree re the Rowan Atkinson sketch too…on one level, daft…on another it could be seen as offensive to Christians…but aren’t we, and isn’t our God bigger than this? it’s hardly on the scale of suffering for our faith, is it? I refuse to knock the way our culture behaves when it knows no better. I’ll gladly turn the other cheek to some ‘stupid’ comedy if it means that one more child gets clean water, a malaria net or a TB vaccine…if one more mother sees her child grow beyond five years old. It’s worth it. I’ll give another tenner to Comic Relief if it means my neighbour, who rarely thinks of malaria nets, will do the same. And what I give, think and believe in private is between me and God, who will take the knocks the world dishes out from one evening of Comic Relief. As long as the money goes where it’s needed, I won’t criticise the way it’s given…or which celebrity endorses it, or which boyband member cries over the poverty they see – who am I to question how much or how little their eyes are opened to suffering and poverty? This is our culture. If it takes TV, celebrities, Comic Relief or Rowan Atkinson to raise the awareness of suffering in Africa…then so be it.

  4. Ellie March 16, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    Thanks Ian – this is really helpful and also challenging response. Thanks for making me think and clarifying some of my fuzzy thoughts.

  5. lesley March 16, 2013 at 6:15 pm #

    What’s the point in saving lives through vaccinations and drugs before you address the food and poverty status?
    These people need to be able to plant and grow their own food, have better shelter, water and sanitation and then we can concentrate on prolonging life and increasing the population

  6. Ian Paul March 16, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    Sharon, sure, but I think the real giveaway is when you say ‘Who am I to question? This is our culture.’ It is our culture which I think is behind the problems of poverty—the culture that allows celebrities to ‘feel’ for it, the culture which disconnects a feeling of compassion from actual changes in lifestyle. We now live in an age with more ‘feeling’ than ever and more incapable of challenging unjust structures of power than ever.

  7. Ruth Bull March 16, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    Response – sent to BBC Complaints…
    Despite supporting the overall ethos of Comic Relief, as a family we were very disappointed by last night’s coverage. It had every opportunity to be good family viewing that opened the way to good discussion, but the innuendo and sexual content was inappropriate before the watershed, and unnecessary after it! As a British Citizen born in Zimbabwe, and brought up in a multi-cultural environment, and having lived in Turkey with my husband and children, I found the programme culturally insensitive and patronising. Celebrities crying as they entered the humble abodes of natives who were welcoming them showed complete ignorance of the host culture. Watching family after family in their most torturous painful moments was intrusive and voyeuristic. Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean- funny. Trying to emulate the new and rather inspiring Justin Wellby – disasterous and disrespectful – to say “don’t bother praying – it doesn’t work” is not only inaccurate, but dismisses the work and motivation of many Christian charities that have been operating globally to eradicate poverty, illness and lack of education for many years – centuries even before comic relief was dreamed up. Deeply saddened.

  8. Steve March 17, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    I first want to say thank you for this article, It is great to open this kind of discussion and you make some very valid and important points. I didn’t watch a lot of the show just the first coupe of hours, donated and then went to bed… It’s not really all that funny is it, and my much funnier book was calling me. So please don’t take my reply as a personal criticism but rather one persons point of view…

    1. Pornographic… Really? That’s an incredibly emotive word to use. – I’d go so far as to say you are guilty of what you are criticising. On the point though, I at least am guilty of switching off to this sort of programming, ‘we’ve seen it all before’ so maybe we need to have our emotions pricked if our minds are not reacting?

    2. It’s a few hours on TV, we need someone to tell the story, in brief and engage us, the audience, immediately. I guess celebs are used because they will pull greater viewing figures then an aid worker or ‘expert’ (that’s a whole other argument). I think it would be fare more gratuitous to have the lingering close-ups of grieving family members or dead bodies.

    Most of us, I would guess, don’t have a friend from the third world so this is as close as we (or at least I’m) going to get. And as you say we do need to hear real (now) stories to get the message to sink in.

    3. I distinctly remember, in the short time I watched, seeing/hearing several times that there was many positive vibrant stories, but the aim of the show was to raise a lot of money in a short time so obviously seeing what the money will stop/help is more important than what previous efforts have achieved.

    4. I totally agree that the solution is firmly in the area of a global/political/change of conscience. But I don’t think Comic Relief detracts from this. Fundraising initiatives like this are about the immediate need. Yes we SHOULD be lobbying our politicians and supporting the day-in-day-out work being done, but much of that takes months/years and those people we see on the VT’s need the cash now.

    5. It was a BBC Comic Relief show; the aim being to raise money, talking about other charities and organisations would be superfluous. I agree that more profile for the work of others should be on TV (and again this is a reason to lobby the BBC) but why just Christian? Many groups do great work for those who are suffering, religious and secular. I believe that for us, as Christians, to only herald Christian work is further alienating us from the wider public we are trying to get to engage with the issues (not to mention our attitude to evangelism).

    6. Totally agree with that cynical sketch, but I also think the use of the Muslim lady in Peter Kay’s was way out of line also. The issue here is that the BBC and other TV producers believe that religion is a butt for jokes. I have no problem with jokes about Christians, I make a lot myself, but the issue is that the joke should be at a silly thing the religious person does not that the person has a belief. As far as I could tell, the only reason Peter Kay’s wife was in the sketch was because she was a Muslim. She did nothing funny when I was watching so we we’re, I guess, supposed to laugh at her being a Muslim… That to me was worse even than the ‘Prayers don’t work’ line which I hated!

    7. Totally agree with the comment on overuse of sexual innuendo.

    And I agree with the point on our ‘throw away’ society, I’m just not sure that it’s the remit of comic relief to tackle this.

    Sorry for the essay but I’m in a typing mood.

  9. Ian Paul March 17, 2013 at 10:18 am #

    Ruth, thanks for sharing these observations. I felt the same as you–walking into someone’s home, and the celebrity saying ‘You live…in THIS?’ It really showcased ignorance and cultural insensitivity. What is really surprising is this level of insensitivity when we are now such a multi-cultural society. In most cities you only have to walk a few streets to encounter another culture…

    Steve (are you a Steve I know..?) thanks for your comments. Just to pick up on one thing, which someone else commented, my use of ‘pornographic.’ Pornography seems to me to have two distinctive features: it allows you to watch something that you are not actually involved in; and it makes you think you are participating when in fact you are not. It felt to me as though this is exactly what was happening with these videos.

    You comment that most people don’t have friends in these contexts. And yet many schools do have exchanges (two of our kids are hoping to go to Ghana with theirs, and my daughter is going to Burma for her year out), and if not these are not difficult to set up. We live in a world of global tourism, yet many people don’t engage with the context they visit. It is my practice always to learn something about the countries I am visiting (even for a weekend conference) and try and learn some vocabulary from the local language. It is this kind of real encounter I would like to see encouraged.

  10. John March 17, 2013 at 10:40 am #

    With all these telethons I am rather fed-up with rich people telling poor people like me to donate their money. Yes I believe in charity and most people in the UK are much richer than most people in Africa, but if the presenters got their celeb. friends to donate a percentage of their annual incomes you’d probably raise just as much. It annoys me when such a fuss is made over reaching a couple of million pounds – just an average bonus for many CEO’s or bankers.

    It is also cheap tv and cheap advertising for the ‘partner’ companies (I am not knocking the genuine well-meaning efforts of their staff who raise the money). I would rather Sainsburys paid their farmers and other suppliers a fair price for their products.

  11. Michael Croft March 17, 2013 at 11:17 pm #

    I came across your post through a friend’s Facebook so forgive me I don’t really know your back story or the influences on your comment. Therefore I do not feel able to be critical or negative about your observations as such and, indeed, I have some sympathy for a number of the points you make and I commend you for speaking up. I am troubled however. I confess I have not worked In Africa and note your comments focus on that continent and Comic Relief’s work there. However I have worked in to challenging inner city parishes in the UK and I have worked with significant numbers of folks living challenging lives (to put it mildly). I ran significant projects attracting funding and interest and generating measurable results. I fear those more likely than others to throw stones and offer negative critiques were Christians. Might i suggest those who want to offer chides and negative critiques might not only tell us but demonstrate another way. So might I ask detractors to consider and to share what they are doing to see Christ and to be Christ in the midst of the abandoned and the abused and the profane. It is surely from wisdom that comes from reflecting on encountering and sharing abandonment that we find the grace and wisdom to inform our criticism and our cynicism.

  12. Ian Paul March 18, 2013 at 6:54 am #

    Michael–thanks for contributing. Good point, well made–thank you.

  13. Liberte Harries January 17, 2017 at 11:12 pm #

    OK!! I know I’m late, but I’ve only just found it!! I don’t like it either to me it’s in many ways it is a form of blackmail!!! We give every month, and if all did that then there would be no need for this type of programme… however as most don’t I suppose this would justify the ‘blackmail ‘! Not only at it will give a form of self satisfied feelings of ” I gave to comic relief..aren’t I good” I think it is also rather self serving with all the so called celebs.. if they are that concerned about the poor etc, then why is something not done on a reg basis. I saw a programme on Lenny (sorry SIR) Lenny Henry and he cried as he had had to spend the night in some shack with 2 children. He was so horrified that he made instant arrangements for the 2 boys to have their own house alsmost the following day.. it cost £1200, & he paid for it….. this came out on tv. I wondered at the time if this would cause any sort of resentment in their community, what about all the other shack dwellers? I don’t expect an answer as I realise it is so late. But I just felt I had to add my twopen’th

  14. Mark Kirby March 25, 2017 at 9:56 am #

    I agree with a lot of what you say here, especially about the condescension and lampooning of faith, especially on the subject of charitable giving. I was involved for a few years ago with one of the faith-based aid agencies and was struck by a number of things. First, they spend a lot of time campaigning on the underlying causes of poverty but struggle to get people to support them financially. Several have major donor schemes specifically for this reason, because they can more fully explain what the money will be used for and that the outcomes are not necessarily easy to measure. I was also struck by how segmentalised giving patterns can be, partly being a Christian and having lived with giving as simply something that you do, happily and routinely. For many, TV events like this are the only occasion that they give (not a universal truth – before anyone comments – but true of many). It wouldn’t hurt for the BBC to look afresh at the format and see if they can’t find a way of making the underlying complexities accessible and understandable. But at the same time, I don’t begrudge £70mn being raised to help those most in need.

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