Lenny Henry: Comic Relief is the world turned upside down

To begin with, it was intended as a talking point: why were people, conventionally clothed, wearing a bright red plastic proboscis?

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It’s a quarter of a century ago now, but Lenny Henry remembers the day well. “A bit of a jolly,” he calls it. He was in bed, with Griff Rhys Jones on one side and Jonathan Ross on the other. They were performing a homage to Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. The show was to raise money for the fledgling charity Comic Relief on its first ever televised appeal show, and this was the last item of the night. It got tense and difficult.

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The previously uncharted waters between high comedy and deep seriousness were choppy. But they made it. Out went the show and in came the money, a million pounds of it. After the jolly, the lolly. This was 5 February 1988; Red Nose Day was born.

Since then this biennial highlight of Comic Relief’s calendar – it alternates with Sport Relief – has matured in the public perception from a benign piece of TV tin-rattling by famous people to a charity juggernaut that estimates to have helped 48 million people through its numerous projects so far. Never has licensed silliness had a more serious agenda.

Red Nose Day has become a prominent, eccentric feature on charity’s often sober face, as has its symbol. To begin with, it was intended as a talking point: why were people, conventionally clothed, wearing a bright red plastic proboscis? It became commonplace, one day every other spring, for pin-striped men on the Waterloo and City Line to be wearing one matter-of-factly.

The Nose itself has evolved. In 1988 it was your bog-standard plain red plastic; nine years on you could get the Shaggy Nose, covered in red fur; 1999 saw the Big Red Hooter, which made a noise when squeezed; and so on, to this year’s dino-nose with toes. Just as The Nose has become bolder, so has The Day, which, because of its practical purpose, has become a far more dynamic Festival of Foolery than 1 April.

As Lenny Henry says: “The kids love it because they can go to school in motley, or dressed as their sister, or like a dog. They can say ‘wibble’ at the end of every sentence if they want, as long as they’re sponsored. They can wear red wigs and pyjamas. It’s the world turned upside down.”

Even more conspicuously, The Day sees the telethon marching into the TV schedules and clearing almost everything out except the major news spots.

It sees its own programmes lampooned, its own celebrities gunged. Nothing is sacred except the raising of money, whereby every donated pound goes towards charitable projects while all the operating costs are met through sponsorship or interest from funds.

Comic Relief – as opposed to Red Nose Day – began in 1985 and was launched live on Christmas Day on Noel Edmonds’s Late Late Breakfast Show from a refugee camp in Sudan. Three of the vital figures in its founding were less famous, although one of these, Michael Buerk, had just become a painfully familiar face on TV through his reporting on the catastrophic famine in Ethiopia; another, Richard Curtis, was establishing a reputation as co-writer, with Ben Elton, of Blackadder.

The third, Jane Tewson, was comparatively obscure, as she has remained. A dyslexic who had left school unqualified but then attended Oxford University lectures while working as a cleaner in the city, Tewson had founded a London homelessness charity at the age of 23.

Without them, says Henry, Comic Relief and hence Red Nose Day, would never have happened. Buerk had inspired a new breed of charity. “Of course Bob Geldof became a very public face with Live Aid; he was very powerful, intelligent and articulate and he showed us that just because you are a pop singer doesn’t mean you are a fool. But without Michael Buerk’s images, he wouldn’t have been moved to do what he did.”

As for Curtis, since then renowned for such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, Henry regards him as little less than a saint. Though from very different backgrounds – Curtis was educated at Harrow and Oxford, and Henry is from a working-class West Midlands family – the two have remained close these past 25 years. Henry is godfather to one of Curtis’s sons. Together with Tewson, Curtis founded Comic Relief and he has kept it running ever since.

“He is a like a giant heart on legs,” he says. “He happens to be one of the funniest guys in the country, in the world in fact, but he also has an enormous amount of compassion. He’s a busy, highly successful man, but he gives up a huge amount of time, one year in two, to this work. He can’t, but he does. Anyone he asks to work with him is delighted for the chance.”

And goodness, hasn’t he asked them. You see the familiar names recurring across the years: French, Saunders, Henry, Ross, Rhys Jones; then the newer ones coming in through the 90s and Noughties: Norton, Evans, McCall, O’Leary, then James Corden, Catherine Tate, Miranda Hart, John Bishop, Jack Whitehall; on and on, to One Direction’s single this year.

Henry has vivid memories of his own first trip to Ethiopia that first year – still a young man, still moved by a naïve sense of mission, still ready to “be a scout”. He had been to Kenya, in 1984, but that was for the very different purpose of honey-mooning with his now ex-wife Dawn French. “In Ethiopia, I was surprised at first at how green and fertile the land was, but then shocked at how poor the people were, and I was having to put on a brave face.

“Then I thought, ‘Wait, it’s not my job to be crying, but to be telling people at home about this. I’m a communicator.’ We went to orphanages and we talked to the kids there about losing their families. They were very young, some of them, and they couldn’t speak, they were so traumatised. I guessed what they were thinking: there’s this film crew showing up and a big fellow asking us about our feelings and all they knew was that one minute their parents had been there and the next one not.

“Nothing had to be faked. There was this wonderful image of a girl carrying a pot. She made it look effortless, even though it was so heavy I couldn’t carry it. When I tried, she laughed, and that was real. I also remember this very old man who’d lost most of his family and he was left looking after his great-great-grandchildren. He took me by the hand and said, ‘If you ever need any help in England, just let us know, because it’s you who are helping us now and we want to repay the favour.’ I was gobsmacked.”

This touches on the problems a charity courts when it places hilarity so close to heartbreak, particularly at peak viewing time. Henry acknowledges this but reckons that the use of presenters has just about done away with the clunky gear changes between the serious and the funny. “They are a buffer,” he says. “They allow the comedians to get on with the business of being comical.”

These new times seem a world away from the old. There were bad ones as well as good. He remembers one occasion when everything that could go wrong did. As if to reinforce the sense of failure that the sketch still holds, he recalls that Eddie the Eagle was in it. “Something to do with his arm being pulled up and down and milk coming out of his elbow. Paul Daniels was a genius but even he couldn’t make it work.

“We are better at it now. No more moments when you think: ‘Here we have Frankie Howerd not really understanding the concept of a cue,’ and then into a very sad film.”

As for Lenny Henry’s own sense of compassion, he credits two people. One is Robert Luff, the impresario who died in 2009 at the age of 94. He was best known for presenting the stage productions of The Black and White Minstrel Show. A very young Lenny Henry was in a touring version of that show and Luff became his agent in 1975. “A wonderful man,” says Henry. “Very generous. He always used to tell me the importance of giving something back.”

The other one is his mother Winifred. She had come from Jamaica in the early 1950s and Lenny was her first child to be born in Britain. “From a very early age she instilled into me the idea that you don’t just pass by people who needed help. She would give away money, cakes, clothing, anything if she thought someone really needed it. She was one of these people who see the world as a street.”

Then he mentions two more – a pair of familiar names. When it comes to Red Nose Day, he says, you can’t ignore them. They started off the whole business of kidnapping celebrities for other purposes. “Think of the glory of all those newsreaders singing There Is Nothing like a Dame. Angela Rippon and the rest of them.”

Oh yes, Eric and Ernie.

“Eric and Ernie. They were the ones who said: ‘You know the people who you thought did that thing? Well, they do this too.’”

As does Lenny Henry himself, currently starring in a touring stage production of Fences by the US playwright August Wilson. He plays a bin man who used to be a baseball player. He says you should take a handkerchief but the tears won’t be the laughing kind.

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Comic Relief: Funny for Money is on Friday at 7:00pm on BBC1