Like most folk, I think Red Nose Day seems a pretty good thing. I know that those who conceived it are good folk. I don’t really stop to wonder if the money raised on the night displaces donations elsewhere in a zero-sum competition between big NGOs. I just think the folk on the telly and all over the UK are doing something decent, and at the same time putting less well-off states at the top of the news agenda for one brief moment each year or two.
This year, though, something went wrong.
Someone decided it would be effective if we saw black children dying live on camera. And the way the evening was structured, their deaths seemed to be presented to signify a hopelessness which can only be fixed by comic Relief and an orgy of on-camera self-congratulation. And we saw way too much of white people going to Africa to cry about these dying children – at one point even waving a magic wand to fix it for a few lucky kids like they’d got a golden ticket by being in the right place at the right time for the cameras.
Africa is a completely amazing continent with all kinds of magic and horror going on. There’s a lot we, as better off folk in a rich economy, can do to help some African states. But none of that involves ignoring the great work that some African governments and people are doing for themselves; none of it involves different standards for snuff movies involving children depending upon their race; and none of it involves white people in London creating strategies for what will work best for Africans.
David Lammy was on Radio 4 this morning complaining about much of this (postscript – here’s his Guardian piece on the subject). There was a guy from Comic Relief explaining that he ‘was listening’ to David. I looked at the Comic Relief website to confirm a hunch and indeed every executive on the website (CEO and all Directors) is white. This is the norm with international development work based in enormously racially diverse London. Oh, and here’s the BBC’s all-white executive team. Why? You’d have to ask the white executives.
To be harsh but fair, last night was awful. Rowan Atkinson turned in the only skilled and vaguely funny performance – the scripts seemed like they’d been knocked-off on fag packets the night before by people whose minds weren’t on the job. Fair enough, a studio full of normally funny people being nice doesn’t make for great comedy. But even that considered, it was pretty dire.
Worst of all, though, was the presentation of Africa by white people. And before you write to the internet to tell me that Lenny Henry is black, his presence hosting the show is actually illustrative of the whole problem. It feels like it’s his job to show us all that it isn’t really just all about sad white people crying about Africa. That’s not his fault – he’s a super chap and he’s gone great work over the years. It’s just the way it is.
Maybe Red Nose Day can be revived for next time. But maybe it has just run its course. If it’s the former, it’ll need more effort from the performers, but also a lot more black folk – hell, maybe even some actual Africans – employed within the Comic Relief chain of command. Maybe that could set a trend in the international development sector?