Seriously funny

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Red Nose Day, now a national institution, is launching its 10th event. Jonathan Croall reports

In the beginning was Michael Buerk and famine in Ethiopia. And the news he brought from there begat Band Aid and Live Aid and Comic Relief. And they saw that it was bad, and told the world, so that it could be made good.

Since that day in October 1984, when those stark images of the terrible famine that killed 800,000 people in Eritrea, Tigray and Wollo in northern Ethiopia were relayed round the world, pricking the nation's conscience about the developing world has become a huge industry in the UK. Millions of pounds have been raised by charitable bodies in an effort to alleviate the appalling conditions suffered by the poorest and most vulnerable communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America. People have put their hands deep in their pockets and made a difference, saving thousands of lives.

Yet 21 years on the situation seems as desperate as ever, especially for children. The latest global figures make bleak reading:

* one in six children is severely hungry, one in seven has no health care, one in five has no safe water;

* 1.6 million children were killed in conflicts during the 1990s;

* more than 120m children, the majority of them girls, receive no primary schooling;

* 180m children are involved in the worst forms of child labour;

* by 2010 more than 18m children in Africa will have lost one or both parents to HIVAids.

In recent years, television has been a key weapon in waking up governments to this situation, and raising awareness as well as money. The medium was first used for a BBC Children's Hour Christmas appeal in 1955, with Sooty and Harry Corbett as presenters. In the 1960s, the Blue Peter programme began to do its bit to encourage young children to raise money for good causes. The BBC appeal was first broadcast as a telethon in 1980, and Children in Need soon became a regular event in the calendar. The telethon format was adopted by other charities, most notably Comic Relief, now 20 years old and gearing up for its 10th Red Nose Day on March 11.

Comic Relief was launched from the Safawa refugee camp in Sudan on Christmas Day, 1985. Its roots were in the alternative comedy scene, with film producer Richard Curtis and comedians Rik Mayall, Ben Elton, Lenny Henry, Stephen Fry, Dawn French, Rowan Atkinson and Billy Connolly among the celebrities in the early years. From the start the aim was to put the fun into fund-raising, principally through events such as Red Nose Day, now staged every two years.

The various campaign slogans - "The Invasion of the Comic Tomatoes", "Say Pants to Poverty", "The Big Hair Do", "Everybody Inc" - reflect the jokey, populist style that has become its trademark. The results of Comic Relief's efforts have been hugely impressive. In 1988, 20m people took part in the first Red Nose Day, raising nearly pound;16m; by 2003 the figure had jumped to pound;61.5m, and the total raised now stands at more than pound;337m. In addition, two televised sporting events held under the banner of Sport Relief, which is run in association with BBC Sport, have raised a further pound;30m.

Because the costs of running the charity are met in cash or in kind by various organisations, including the government, corporate donors and individual suppliers, Comic Relief claims that every pound donated by the public goes directly to fight poverty and social injustice.

Comic Relief's education manager, Jonathan Smith, says: "Over the years attitudes have changed as international development has exploded. It's no longer about applying a sticking plaster, it's about long-term development, helping people to help themselves and turn their lives around. We also want to put over positive images of Africa, so it's empathy, not sympathy, the leg up rather than the handout."

Since it began, Comic Relief has given out more than 6,000 grants totalling about pound;210m. Before the money is distributed, all applications have to go through an assessment, carried out by teams of assessors and trustees. More than 1,400 grants worth nearly pound;170m have gone to projects in 40 African countries.

One long-term scheme is Kuapa Kokoo, a group of Ghanian farmers who produce the cocoa beans for a Comic Relief fairtrade chocolate bar, for which they receive a fair price that enables them to become self-reliant. Money has also gone to a variety of health, education, disability and family projects, many funded in conjunction with other charities such as Save the Children, Oxfam, the Refugee Council and Christian Aid.

While Africa receives 60 per cent of the money raised on Red Nose Day, the other 40 per cent goes to support projects working with the poorest, most vulnerable or marginalised groups in the UK. More than 4,600 grants have provided pound;75m to help people struggling to overcome poverty, disadvantage or injustice. At first the emphasis was on supporting homeless or disabled people, and trying to get rid of their victim image. More recently, money has been given to projects helping victims of domestic violence (which one in four women experience in some form), teenagers with drugs or alcohol problems, and socially stigmatised groups such as refugees and asylum-seekers.

The charity's Local Communities Programme, which creates employment as well as providing much-needed services and facilities, is impressively diverse.

Projects supported include community libraries with internet access for those who don't have computers, food co-ops in poorer areas where people can buy quality fruit and vegetables at affordable prices, social activities for isolated older people, and after-school homework clubs.

Sport can be a great unifier, and the launching of Sport Relief in 2002 added a new dimension to the work. The money raised has typically been given to sports-based projects, bringing young people together in areas where there is racial, religious or territorial tension, in the hope of building bridges and breaking down barriers. Children are a key target audience for Comic Relief's fund-raising. It's estimated that about 90 per cent of schools have taken part at some time in Red Nose Day, which is now almost as much an institution in schools as sports day. In 2003 a record 1.1m red noses were sold through schools, and pound;7.1m was raised.

The continuing involvement of top comedians and pop stars has helped to maintain the widespread appeal of the campaigns with children and young people. "If you have their iconic heroes presenting the material in an engaging way, you get their attention," says Kevin Cahill, Comic Relief's chief executive.

Comics who have stood up recently to "make them laugh and make them listen" include Steve Coogan, Jack Dee, Jo Brand, Nick Hancock and Ricky Gervais, while among the pop stars who have strutted their stuff for the cause are Boyzone, the Spice Girls, Robbie Williams, Westlife, Kylie Minogue and the Corrs.

Children and teachers have gone to town with a wealth of imaginative, zany fund-raising activities; teachers say this carnival atmosphere breaks down barriers without causing discipline problems, and helps them put over the serious message to children more effectively. Some hold a special assembly on the subject, in front of a sea of red noses, others give one or two lessons highlighting the themes of the campaign, while a few give a whole day to it.

These activities can be supported by resources from Comic Relief, full of imaginative ideas for games, role-playing and workshop activities. Jonathan Smith says: "Some teachers have always taught global citizenship, but our campaign and resources helps others to do so. Many wouldn't normally cover poverty in Africa, but this gives them a good excuse."

The Red Nose activity tends to peak at key stages 2 and 3, with primary schools generally proving more creative than secondary, although in the latter the introduction of citizenship into the curriculum has seen the amount of activity increase. A survey of those taking part in 2003 showed, perhaps predictably, that the schools that raised the most money were those that did the most teaching on development issues, and had the best understanding of citizenship concepts.

Comic Relief is also involved with other charities in a worldwide anti-poverty movement, mounted to mark the 20th anniversary of Band Aid and Live Aid, and designed to "Make Poverty History". Among the millennium development goals adopted by the United Nations in 2000 was a promise that all children would get quality primary education by 2015, but the movement claims that unless change comes much faster than at present, this is just a pipe dream.

Through the Comic Relief campaign, "Send My Friend to School", children will be encouraged to send messages to world leaders coming to Scotland in July for the G8 summit during the UK's six-month presidency of the European Union. The aim is to highlight the plight of the 100m children worldwide who still receive no schooling.

Fighting for social justice is a constant theme in Comic Relief's work, and this year a significant proportion of the money raised will be devoted to countering what has been described as the UK's last taboo, elder abuse.

This label draws attention to the one out of every 10 older people who are believed to be victims of emotional, psychological, financial or sexual abuse, or to suffer neglect.

For the first time, the charity will use drama to raise awareness: Dad, a play about elderly parents becoming dependent on their children, written by Lucy Gannon and starring Richard Briers, Kevin Whately and Sinead Cusack, will be broadcast on BBC1 towards the end of February. Richard Curtis, co-founder of Comic Relief and still one of its driving forces, says: "This is a very tough subject to deal with, but we hope the film will give people the chance to really understand and think about the abuse that strikes a huge number of older people, both in their homes and in care."

Charitable appeals on television are now part of our daily lives. They have not been without their critics: there has been talk of "compassion fatigue", mutterings about "celebrity frolics", and concerns about "semi-pornographic images" of starving children. Competition between charities has become fierce, forcing them to employ advertising agencies to raise their profile, something which some people view with distaste. "In our early days it was all very free form," Kevin Cahill says. "Now it's all become highly professionalised."

Yet most people remain steadfast in their support for the kind of work done by Comic Relief. Its achievement over 20 years is to have used entertainment to raise millions of pounds, and to have spent it in a way that inspires trust and confidence in those who have given it, and hope and courage in those who have benefited from receiving it. It is hard to imagine a world without it.

Red Nose Day is on March 11. This year's slogan is "Big Hair and Beyond -transform the way you look for a day to change someone's life forever". Shortly before the campaign is launched next month, Comic Relief is sending a free pack to all schools in the UK.

Focusing again on Africa, it consists of booklets, posters, and a fundraising guide. There's also an excellent video, featuring stories about African children deprived of schooling, and the projects that are giving them and their families hope for a better life


1988 pound;15.8m

1989 pound;26.9m

1991 pound;20.3m

1993 pound;18.1m

1995 pound;22.0m

1997 pound;27.1m

1999 pound;35.0m

2001 pound;61.0m

2003 pound;61.5m

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