14th March 2019

Comic Relief’s Dream Factory

So, the time is upon us once again when Britain dons those infamous red noses and does ‘something funny for money’ in aid of Comic Relief. I am well aware that I’ve already written a few things on this subject so I don’t want to walk over old territory. Beyond the vital work that Comic Relief instigates both around the world and in the UK, it also challenges and pushes boundaries on the very art of television entertainment itself which has been an influential factor in the direction of the genre. Comic Relief was founded in 1985 by Richard Curtis and Jane Tewson after visiting the Ethiopian famine and on his return began to lay the foundations of what would become a national phenomenon raising over one billion pounds.

On Christmas Day 1985 Noel Edmonds broadcast live from a refugee camp in Sudan and this became the first ever Comic Relief appeal. Yet it would be another three years before the infamous seven hour extravaganza would be upon us which would push television entertainment to areas never seen before. On the 5th February 1988 a presenting team of Jonathan Ross, Lenny Henry and Griff Rhys Jones were live from BBC Television Centre as they presided over a feast of entertainment. The world’s first purpose built television studios were created for nights like this and for almost three decades TC1 (the BBC’s biggest studio) provided the perfect setting to a night of fundraising. First opened in 1960, TC1 and indeed Television Centre was built for nights like this.

Playing host to countless TV moments, Television Centre was the beating heart of the comedy establishment. It is said that throughout the 1970’s you could always be sure to find a star behind every door and the roll call of stars who could all be present at once was mind blowing: Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Dave Allen, Bruce Forsyth – the list goes on. This hotbed of talent was conducive to cultivating inspiration from the best writers around promoting a sense of community which came over in the quality of the output. It was like a fully functioning TV factory and anyone who was anyone was there.

Yet despite its comedy pedigree, Television Centre also played host to the BBC Election Night coverage which would regularly span up to 24 hours at a time. Such a political affairs extravaganza demanded the BBC’s top broadcasting talent to steer such a mammoth programme in the right direction whilst waiting for those all important results. The first Election Night live from Television Centre was broadcast on Thursday 15th October 1964 and saw a narrow Labour victory with 44.1% of the vote. However, irrespective of the results this proved a vital step in realising the potential of live television and it wasn’t long before the Light Entertainment department concluded that whatever news and current affairs could do, they could do bigger and better.

Having witnessed the early success of BBC Children In Need find its rightful place in TC1, the BBC could boast a sense of confidence at pulling such a mammoth night off. Having this asset meant that anything was possible and throughout the years Comic Relief utilised every aspect of the centre to televisual effect. Anything seemed possible and for three decades, Comic Relief attempted to push the boundaries of entertainment for the sake of charity and took advantage of everything that TV Centre could offer. In 2003 comedian Jack Dee was raised on a poll outside the centre and got thrusted increasingly higher depending on how much money had been raised. Arguably this could not have been replicated at any other venue due to the potential procedures involved. Therefore Television Centre wasn’t only an outlet for entertainment, it frequently played a dominant role in the entertainment itself.

The last Comic Relief at Television Centre was broadcast on Friday 15th March 2013 and became one of the last programmes to come live from the famous London landmark. Over the next few years Comic Relief didn’t have its own spiritual home and events at the London Palladium and the O2 couldn’t recreate the magic of the heady days of TV Centre. It failed to recreate the feeling of watching an entertainment extravaganza unfold and was subject to the technical ability of the rented venue. Personally I feel that this was a very low point for both the BBC and charity fundraising itself and it was difficult to imagine how Comic Relief would ultimately regain its former glory.

So this Friday Comic Relief returns in yet another setting of the BBC’s Elstree studios with the aim of breaking 2017’s record of £73,026,234. The entertainment is headed up by the sequel to Richard Curtis’ seminal 1994 romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral starring the original cast and a few famous faces as we are invited to the wedding of Daniel and Carrie. Elsewhere Jennifer Saunders leads an all star cast in the spoof of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again and Richard Madden reprises his role as David Budd in a short special of The Bodyguard. On presenting duties are: Sir Lenny Henry, David Tennant, Zoe Ball, Emma Willis, Romesh Ranganathan, Paddy McGuinness and Alesha Dixon.

Whilst it is in no doubt that the heady days of BBC Television Centre are clearly over and the corporation is still struggling to replace such a dominant and potent resource, television is slowly adapting to the new broadcasting landscape. The longevity of national events including Comic Relief may hinge on the ability to locate suitable venues to allow it the freedom to do what it does best. Yet if it can maintain to raise these large amounts of money for disadvantaged people both in the UK and Africa, that’s the real winner. So keep donating and let’s make Comic Relief 2019 the biggest ever!

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