Thursday, 14 March 2013


Thursday, 14 March 2013
Welcome to a new recurring feature called ARGUMENTELLY. It's a portmanteau of "argument" and "telly", geddit? The concept is simple: each edition showcases an argument for and against something relating to television. I will invite guest bloggers to write one side of any chosen argument, but the longevity of this feature depends on the level of response and quality of submissions.

Having read each opinion on a topic, you can then vote for the one you most agree with. The results will be made available in an embedded poll, which will close after six days to decide the winner. I also encourage continued debate in the comments area below each article, but please keep it civilised.

So, without further ado, here's journalist Iain Hepburn blowing a big raspberry in the general direction of Comic Relief:

Lenny Henry's sad face
'Chronic Belief'
by Iain Hepburn of

Listen, let's get something clear straight off the bat. I'm not here to criticise Comic Relief as an organisation. It'd be churlish to find fault with a charitable body which has, to date, raised more than £600 million for good causes both in the UK, and overseas.

No, instead this is about the TV show. The Night of Comic Relief itself. Red Nose Day. Clear? Good. Red Nose Day used to be an anarchic, quirky, unpredictable event which both utilised and celebrated comedy. The 21st-century version seems to have lost some of its magic. For me, that's down to the obsession with impinging other formats onto the show. Specifically reality formats. Celebrity Big Brother, in 2001, was something different. It worked as an adjunct to the main show as it was largely stand alone with the bulk of the episodes were shown by Channel 4. Since then we've had a ridiculous myriad of "Comic Relief does X" mini-formats crammed into the show. From salvaging Fame Academy to co-opting The Apprentice... it's bordering on Reality Relief, with a couple of sketches chucked in to fill the gaps between musical appearances or Davina McCall gurning while waving her arse in a spray-on red dress.

Each time Comic Relief devotes a chunk of running time to something that isn't comic or relief work, such as these interminable reality segments, it feels like the premise is being watered down. Each "The Choir does Comic Relief" takes it away from being a night of comedy fundraising and into the realms of being just another telethon. It's not like Comic Relief isn't above spoofing reality shows itself. One of the best skits in recent years was a Popstars spoof with Rowan Atkinson as a pseudo Nigel Lythgoe, the likes of Lenny Henry and Simon Pegg as contenders, and Peter Serafinowicz doing an absolutely nailed-on send-up of Darius Danesh. Nowadays Comic Relief feels more likely to have the X Factor singers do the charity single as it does skewer their fame-whoring. It's pandering, rather than provoking.

Television changes, and there's an easy temptation to resort to that old fall-back of the memory cheating. But Comic Relief definitely seems to have lost its edge. And I don't just mean since 1989, either. The idea of the League of Gentlemen doing an edgy stand-up routine live in front of a clearly confused audience seems a million miles away from the slick presentation we have now. The early Comic Reliefs had a real sense of danger about them, even when doing something as cosy as Jasper Carrott and his car insurance claim routines, or Ken Dodd not shutting up, or Frankie Howerd shambolically reading news headlines. Part of that sense of anarchy was due to a feeling that everyone was pitching in. Remember 1997's Prime Cracker? A brilliant fusion of ITV's big two crime dramas, that roped in Pete Postlethwaite, which Granada made look and feel every bit as gritty and real as regular episodes.

Nowadays, your best hope is a compilation of TV Burp clips, or Sasha Baron-Cohen appearing in character just in time to advertise his new DVD. We should pause at this moment of the criticism to say hello to Ricky Gervais, by the way. The last time Comic Relief felt genuinely like it was doing something different was the Blankety Blank sketch, a clever if slightly slack skit that felt almost like a throwback to the days of Phil Collins having a giant boot dropped on him, or Emma Thompson singing the phone number while dressed as a nun.

Last time's Smitty sketch--character that's overstayed his welcome by several years--with the ludicrous number of celebrity cameos was clearly attempting to be the big 'moment'. Yet it struggled to come near the laugh-out-loud levels of Lord Hailsham's "The Belgians?" from Mastermember. Corden's skit was one of the highlights of 2011's show? Thin pickings these days.

Ultimately, the problem is that Comic Relief doesn't feel that funny. It's become such a slick, polished product that it utterly lacks the sense of watching something special, something different. For a show that comes round just once every two years, which seems unforgivable. It could be Sport Relief, Children in Need, The Lottery Show. It isn't dangerous, it isn't required viewing. It's just another telethon. Now, did anyone catch Griff Rhys Jones' credit card number again?

Richard Curtis's happy face
'Comic Relieved'
by Dan Owen

How can you really hate Red Nose Day? You might as well down trousers and fart in Richard Curtis' face while burning your Lenny Henry in Pieces DVD. Or have you done the latter already? It's easy to say Comic Relief was better in the old days, but is that really the case? We were all younger in the past (funny that), and under-35s were likely experiencing its "funny-meets-fundraising" format for first time. British comedy was arguably in a stronger position a few decades ago, too, with Red Nose Day stalwarts like Rowan Atkinson in their post-Blackadder prime. But things change and the show has to adapt around the talent and spoof-opportunities available, so you can't blame Comic Relief if it keeps turning to the creators of Gavin & Stacey for sketches... or has to keep bringing back Dawn French as the Vicar of Dibley.

Maybe Comic Relief has simply grown up and moved with the mainstream mood? You used to buy a red nose from Tesco, sheepishly purchase Hale & Pace's "The Stonk" on cassette tape, spend a day at school tied to a friend's leg, then watch the telethon while fast-forwarding through reports from Ethiopia. But these days? These days Comic Relief's Red Nose Day is an ambitious and multifaceted beast: entire gangs of celebs are herded up mountains, trek across deserts, or paddle down dangerous rivers; famous people participate in endurance challenges (like, um, presenting a radio show for 52-hours straight). You don't have to feel too embarrassed buying the tie-in "novelty record", either, because it's usually performed by a credible pop act. Or One Direction. But if you still want a bit of early-'90s zaniness, it exists courtesy of Peter Kay—who started a Harlem Shake-style viral years before it was popular with "Is this the Way to Amarillo?". Okay, that song drove us crackers after six months, but it also featured comedy legend Ronnie Corbett falling off a treadmill, which gives it a free pass in my book.

The signature Red Noses even come in three varieties these days, and you can buy cool merchandise like Stella McCartney-designed T-shirts. J.K Rowling even wrote a few Harry Potter-related books with proceeds going to charity. They even abbreviate Red Nose Day to RND now... um, because that's cool. The kids love acronyms: LOL! So do adults: WMD! By the time Red Nose Day actually arrives you're probably "comic relieved" it's nearly over.

Is the Red Nose Day telethon so bad in the '00s? I quite like the revolving door of presenting duos, and you're still guaranteed some funny sketches to keep you watching. For the 25th anniversary of RND, Ricky Gervais even returns as The Office's David Brent. RND isn't as anarchic and dangerous as it once was, or felt, but is a bit of professionalism a bad thing for an event like this? I now actually enjoy the "serious bits" that break up the daftness (until they're repeated after 11pm), because Comic Relief has upped its game with the quality of its film-making. In 2011, RND's viewership stood at 10.2 million, which made it the third most popular RND since 2003 (11.7m) and 2005 (10.9m). Considering we're now deep into the multi-channel age, where viewers can be distracted by so many things online, that's an amazing achievement. If most people genuinely preferred how RND was presented in the '80s and '90s, wouldn't this be reflected in the BBC's ratings?

What do you think?

You've read the opposing arguments above, but which do you agree with? Cast vote below and perhaps leave a comment with your own thoughts. The inaugural Argumentelly winner will be decided next Thursday.

(Please pledge money to Comic Relief by visiting their official website, and maybe even watch the live telethon tomorrow from 7pm on BBC1. Thank you.)

Disclaimer: opinions expressed do not always reflect the true thoughts of respective authors, but can exist to inspire debate in readers. Did you have a debating society at school, where you were asked to advocate destroying rainforests or head-butting puppies? It's like that.