I am sympathetically sanguine about the deficiencies of Comic Relief – this is the TV extravaganza, as distinct from the charity appeal overall, or the parental hell that is finding clean pyjamas that are also red. I have very low expectations anyway of an event to which the word “extravaganza” is routinely applied.
If one person waves a prosthetic penis at another in the interests of comedy and the joke doesn’t come off, I am happy to accept that the intention was good. To complain that Russell Brand swore, or that Graham Norton brought up a saucy anecdote, is like complaining that weddings are a bit schmaltzy and scampi tastes like crisps.
Yet 2017 will go down in its annals as the year when nothing went right, not even the microphones – surely skills 101 for the world’s foremost public service broadcaster. Its failures mirror those of centrist politics so closely that any lessons we can learn from one will port quite easily to the other. So here goes: if Take That is still the nation’s unifying boy band, then we are a nation in deep crisis. It’s not the fact that they are no longer boys, nor that they were never any good in the first place. It is a wilful refusal to renew.
Mainstream pop music has never set out to change the world or grab anyone’s heart and not let go: it exists as a garland to life’s plain face. When you parade the same garland for two full decades, acknowledging its wilt and calling that irony, you are a culture on a quest for reassurance.
This is neither noble nor invigorating. Vic and Bob, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, Hugh Grant, Caroline Flint, Richard Curtis – our household names are in stasis, as if our houses were boarded up with us still inside. However you assess their merits individually, they all represent a cultural or political hygge, that bizarre Danish fetish export of clustering around a log fire with people you know. What happened to spring? What happened to green shoots? Where are the people who are as exciting as these people were, back when they were exciting? New names appear, but aren’t nurtured into familiarity.
The people don’t change because the agenda doesn’t, and the agenda can’t change because it is a study in blandness. The centre left was against bad things happening to hardworking people. Comic Relief is against all bad things: hunger, poverty, illness, death, grief, anywhere in the world. Culpritless, unfortunate disasters are paraded before us in the shape of dying babies.
Yet around this narrative the world has changed. The famines have deepened and widened: children are dying in Liberia for a different reason to the children dying in Yemen, who are dying for a different reason to the children of Syria, of South Sudan, of Somalia. The greatest ambition of most modern charity is alleviation: perhaps, if we are all nice and give money, we could fix it for fewer people to die.
But if you want to create the energy for change, you have to talk about things that are not nice. Situations of appalling hardship and tragedy are, by and large, created by real people, making real decisions. If you are too polite to mention them, it’s hard to see how you could stop them. This is, of course, less stark but no less true at the level of domestic politics: bad things are happening to hardworking people.
The apparently unstoppable rise of the right, in all once-affluent countries where living standards have fallen, is powered by its ability to name an enemy: whether immigrants or elites, someone is doing this to you. Someone is stealing your resources, and that’s why you have less. We call it the politics of hate, but it’s also the politics of answers. Centrism and charity have no enemies, or the enemies they wage war against are abstract and fateful – poverty, disease, want. Frictionless politics has no solutions. If it’s nobody’s fault, then it can’t be helped.
It is a sentimental and convenient delusion of homogeneity – we’re all middle class, we’re all in the same boat
The moment of Comic Relief that came in for the most criticism was an unfortunate segue, from a story about a malnourished child who had died by the time of the broadcast, to a skit of celebrities in front of a mound of biscuits. Described so baldly, the insensitivity is breathtaking. Yet this has always been the premise of Comic Relief: that you could talk about dire hardship one minute and have a joke the next, and the juxtaposition would be not just got-away-with-it inoffensive but deliberate and unifying: in our laughter, we show our shared humanity, and that’s what we’re going to use to mend this.
But a loop in this chain has broken. The precise mechanism by which a celebrity gets cash into the bank account of an aid agency is by asking the multitudes who are only just managing to dig deep and think of the orphans. Comic Relief, indeed, charities generally depend on the poor while lavishing their thanks on the rich, and then have a performative biannual fandango where we are one nation because we all laugh at the same jokes and like the same biscuits.
It is a sentimental and convenient delusion of homogeneity – we’re all middle class, we’re all in the same boat, we’re all rising on the same tide, we all think the same things – peddled as much by the third way as by the third sector and masking, less and less effectively, huge inequalities and vitriolic divisions. More or less all that remained of our fiction of unity was a nationwide love of Mary Berry: it is no coincidence that the final straw was a pile of baked goods.
It is not, finally, the fault of Comic Relief, nor any of its participants, that it should have fallen flat: it is a relief that these old tropes and assumptions, rickety for so long, should collapse. We’re not in Cool Britannia any more – the aspirations that built it have been frustrated or betrayed. But how much better it is to let go of them, in order to build new ones.