Comic Relief has woven itself into the cultural fabric of the U.K. by hosting it publicly anticipated telethon event each year, alternating between Sport Relief and Red Nose Day. While the charity has cumulatively raised over a billion pounds for various domestic and international projects through their two biggest fundraising campaigns, it can also be held accountable for a white-saviour-like depiction of the people it intends to help.
Red Nose Day and Sport Relief are key proponents of U.K. pop culture, with the first appearance of James Corden’s well-known Carpool Karaoke sketch, in which he sang songs and exchanged banter with George Michael, having being broadcasted in 2011, and a famous sketch starring Dawn French kissing Hugh Grant being aired in 1995 — two iconic television moments. Red Nose Day and Sport Relief might be charity events, but their significance to most people remains their role in pop culture.
Although celebrity endorsements are what compel many viewers to donate to a cause that they otherwise would not have chosen to become involved with, Comic Relief tends to wrongfully place celebrities at the centre of local narratives. The Radi-Aid awards criticised a 2017 Red Nose Day film starring Ed Sheeran, in which he offers to pay for a young Liberian boy’s hotel room, as “poverty tourism”, while MP David Lammy has said that Sport Relief “should be helping to establish the people of Africa as equals to be respected, not as victims to be pitied” and further accused Comic Relief of “[tattooing] images of poverty in Africa to our national psyche” and “not showing the full reality of life on the continent”. Comic Relief’s fundraising approaches can be commended for its success. Equally, the patronising, homogeneous illustration of the African continent painted on our TV screens every year indicates that the movement needs to reevaluate its approach to sensitivity.
However, Comic Relief’s chief executive Liz Warner stated that the charity intended to rethink how it involved celebrities in its films. While she said that having celebrities at the centre of Comic Relief campaigns was in the DNA of the charity, she also said that this year, Comic Relief was going to be “putting people at the heart of films” and have people “telling stories in their own voices”, starring “local heroes”. This can be seen as a remarkable step by Comic Relief towards more tactful and ethical forms of fundraising.
Regardless of the funds Comic Relief raises and the implications of the content it creates each year, it is important to identify how the primary appeal of Comic Relief telethons to most viewers is the role that celebrities play in the campaigns, with the causes they are supporting ultimately playing a close second fiddle.
Image: James Flood via BBC / Sport Relief