Emma Freud looks back on 25 years of Red Nose Day

"Comic Relief money has changed and saved thousands of lives - I've met some of those 'lives' and it's a miraculous experience"

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Emma Freud looks back on 25 years of Red Nose Day
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Emma Freud

It’s the 25th birthday of Red Nose Day. I’m obviously not old enough to have been there from the start (I literally look 21), but I have somehow been involved for 23 of those years, so I have a bit of perspective on it.

Things weren’t always as they are now. In the early days it was utter chaos: the first broadcast live from Africa was directed by Helen Fielding who was then, I think, a researcher on Multicoloured Swap Shop. Dennis Norden was asked to present the entire seven-hour show. (He declined..) When Rik Mayall went on Wogan to publicise the first Comic Relief single (Living Doll by Cliff and The Young Ones) he rushed over to Richard Curtis and whispered in a panic, “Quick, remind me, which is the country where they’re starving?”

Since I first walked into the offices of Comic Relief as an overkeen volunteer, a lot has changed. Back in the 90s, the issue around Red Nose Day was that the premise was wrong. Was it ethical to use comedy to raise money for such a serious issue? I remember driving around the country in 1991 doing an interview marathon and answering that question 40 times in one day.

My answer was that when co-founder Richard Curtis first went to Africa during the famine of 1984/85 he visited an Ethiopian refugee camp. Every morning they would weigh the children in a blue plastic sling-scale to assess who was in most trouble – and one morning he saw a child being weighed who was so malnourished that she fell through the leg-hole of the sling onto the ground. All the other children in the tent started to laugh and Richard thought that if those children were still able to laugh despite living in that terrible camp, then surely he could use laughter back in the UK to raise money.

Since then, I’ve visited slums so grim that they are beyond description. I’ve met homeless children who sleep in sewer pipes for warmth. I’ve talked to women in the UK who have been in abusive relationships for whom a Comic Relief-funded refuge was their only way out. And I have watched our grants team channel funding into areas where it will tackle the root causes of the problems and encourage independence; where it won’t be wasted, or stolen, or used by the wrong people for the wrong ends. None of the people I’ve ever met have said, "I think the way you raised the money was inappropriate."

Comic ReliefTwenty-five years on from that first broadcast, we’ve raised £600 million across 13 Red Nose Days – but what have we changed? Well, there are three answers here. Thanks to us, a big group of kids in Ghana who had never heard of One Direction got to meet Harry Styles last month. Comic Relief money has changed and saved thousands and thousands of lives – I’ve met some of those “lives” and it’s a miraculous experience. But we’ve also been part of a bigger story: Africans in every part of society are changing their own lives.

Since 2000, the number of people in Africa dying from malaria has dropped by a third. The malaria nets you helped buy and distribute have been part of that story. The number of women dying in childbirth has fallen by a third – which means that every year, 150,000 more women live to be mothers. The midwives you helped us train have been part of that story. The wells you’ve paid for mean millions more now have safe drinking water. And 52 million more children are in school than in 2000. You’ve helped Africans build some of those schools and you’ve equipped them with books and teachers.

It’s been an astonishing journey and I have so many highs and lows. The battle to get texting charges dropped, watching harrowing rushes of fundraising films, recording voiceovers for our documentaries through tears, and raising over £1,000 through having a sponsored labour on the four Red Nose Days when I was pregnant.

But my greatest memory is of standing in a slum in Addis Ababa with a lady who had moved out of her cardboard home into a corrugated iron shed, thanks to the money someone gave on Red Nose Day, believing they could make a difference. She hugged us and said, “I think I am now the happiest person in the world”. The person who gave the money had been right. If it might have been you, thank you – and keep on believing.

The One Show celebrates 25 years of Red Nose Day tonight, 7pm BBC1

Emma Freud and her partner, screenwriter Richard Curtis, received an OBE and CBE respectively for their work on Comic Relief 

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