Has Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day finally peaked?

Has Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day finally peaked?

Since its inception in 1988, Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day has been a mainstay in the calendars of most British households.

In theory, Richard Curtis’s original idea of using comedy to highlight issues around extreme poverty seems crass, ill-fitting, even inappropriate and yet over the years it has become one of the biggest fundraising platforms in Britain, raising money for projects both in the UK and overseas. At its peak, Comic Relief raised £108.4 million in 2011 and collectively has raised over £1.3 billion since the late 1980’s.

In the run up to its air date this year (15 March 2019) Comic Relief received public criticism from Labour MP David Lammy, following the release of promotional material featuring UK documentary maker Stacey Dooley’s Comic Relief trip to Uganda.

Image courtesy of Stacey Dooley’s Instagram – @SJDooley


Lammy’s main point was that Comic Relief is perpetuating stereotypical images and dynamics by continuing to utilise celebrity trips to African countries where the focus is more on the celebrity than the supposed recipients of Comic Relief funds.

In 2017 Lammy wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian where he said, “Africa may have changed beyond recognition, but over the generations knowledge and attitudes in Britain haven’t… It still blurs the 54 separate, sovereign nations into a single reservoir of poverty, grief and suffering. One billion African people are filtered into just two categories: either corrupt politicians replete with Savile Row suits and Swiss bank accounts, or poverty-stricken mothers swarmed by flies, their childrens’ stomachs swollen by hunger.”

The dependency/‘white saviour’ paradigm is intrinsic to the Comic Relief model. Lammy and those that agree with him feel Comic Relief has a responsibility to ‘do better.’ Lammy further stated in 2017, “Comic Relief’s biennial guilt trip perpetuates these stereotypes and fails to move the debate on in a constructive way… Comic Relief should be helping to establish an image of African people as equals to be respected rather than helpless victims to be pitied. So rather than western celebrities acting as our tour guides to Band Aid Africa, why not let those who live there speak about the continent they know?”

Dooley’s subsequent and somewhat defensive response to Lammy’s February 2019 tweet seems to have missed his point entirely.

Of course, the white in ‘white saviour’ isn’t necessarily tied to race just as the South in Global South isn’t necessarily tied to the geographic south. As indicated in his response to Dooley below, the ‘white saviour’ complex Lammy is lamenting stems from a dependency model that shows African countries as unable to help themselves, therefore being totally reliant on external help.

In defence of Dooley, Comic Relief issued a statement insisting, “We are really grateful that Stacey Dooley, an award-winning and internationally acclaimed documentary-maker, agreed to go to Uganda to discover more about projects the British people have funded there and make no apologies for this. She has filmed and reported on challenging issues all over the world, helping to put a much-needed spotlight on issues that affect people’s lives daily. In her film, people working with or supported by Comic Relief projects tell their own stories in their own words. We have previously asked David Lammy if he would like to work with us to make a film in Africa and he has not responded. The offer is still open.”

In 2018, Sport Relief and Comic Relief vowed to make changes to their film style following backlash of an Ed Sheeran trip to Liberia in 2017. Comic Relief chief executive Liz Warner said: “This year, we are putting people at the heart of the films. We haven’t sent celebrities, for the night of TV, to Africa. People are telling their stories in their own voices, and we are using local heroes.” It seems that perhaps in 2019 Comic Relief has reverted back to the Sheeran style film.

Of that Sheeran trip, Afua Hirsch wrote in The Guardian, “It’s the right sentiment, but well-intentioned remarks fail to arouse viewers’ empathy when the video has the opposite effect. By showing starving and sick children at their most vulnerable and exposed, it goes against the idea that their dignity is worth as much as his children’s, and creates an artificial distinction between “us” and “them”. Here we are, the resourceful and benevolent agents of change; and they are the passive others in need of our charity.”

Both Hirsch and Lammy have underlined the pervasive colonial narrative that tends to be present within this paradigm. Hirsch stated, “The colonial perspective – in which we regard the developing world as a place to plunder, while simultaneously congratulating ourselves on our humanitarian concern for its people – has us in an enduring psychosis. This skews our judgment, allowing us to commit these extreme acts of othering, even when – as is clearly the case with these well-intentioned celebrities – we are trying to help.”

Subsequent media coverage of this year’s Red Nose Day is now also blaming Lammy’s comments for the fact that £8 million less was raised this year than in 2017.

Additional controversy of 2019’s Red Nose Day that has been mentioned as an aside to the Lammy/Dooley drama is Comic Relief’s apparent cancellation of a segment on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) for fear that it too would come across as ‘white saviour’-esque because it involved reality star Dani Dyer. Third Force News reported that Dyer was filmed visiting a project in Sierra Leone and urged viewers to give £10 or £20, adding: “That is girl power. I love that. I need a little bit of this group at home.” They also added that, “Nimco Ali, a campaigner who helped outlaw the practice in Britain, warned Emma Freud, director of Red Nose Day, that the film could backfire.”

Perhaps 2020 will see a new dawn for Comic Relief’s principles and practices, instead of more of the same. However, another Rusty Radiator award is potentially all that’s on the horizon for the foreseeable future.

Image courtesy of Stacey Dooley’s Instagram – @SJDooley


  1. Elle

    Good article on a tricky issue! I always used to watch Comic Relief when I was growing up, and really enjoyed it. Now that I’m older I feel uneasy about it, particularly the implication that if one British person digs the spare change of their pockets one day, it will save 10 lives. I think it overstates the impact of direct aid, ignores structural change and somehow exaggerates the gulf between people and economies… so I totally agree with the points you included here, and feel equally sceptical that Comic Relief will redeem itself.

      1. Elle

        Thanks Laura, will give it a read now… it’s been interesting to see the story covered from so many angles, from Stacey Dooley & David Lammy themselves, then Barbara Ellen on the Guardian, then on Tobias’s blog, then yours, and now I’m off to read another angle in the article you’ve linked…

  2. Albin

    Thank you for a good post! This is indeed a tricky matter, which therefore is very important to discuss. However I want to take it one step further and think about the effect of events like comic relief. On the one hand it gives people a chance to donate for a cause they believe in (although there are many problems with that, as you mention). On the other hand when a society turns to only this type of charity, governments might actually decrease their willingness to use taxes for aid. This is something one can see in Sweden from time to time.

    Nevertheless, I agree with you on all the points you make, and I just wanted to add this perspective as well!

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