Can Comic Relief survive without Lenny Henry?

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Comedy’s most famous red nose is about to fade to grey

January 31, 2024 1:57 pm(Updated 2:29 pm)

Comedy’s most famous red nose is about to fade to grey. Lenny Henry has announced he’ll be stepping down as host of Comic Relief following this year’s telethon, broadcasting from Salford on 15 March. After four decades as the face of the fundraiser, he told the BBC, “It’s time to hand over the reins” to the next generation of comedians. He’ll still be involved, “doing documentaries and announcements and things”, but that’s it. His red nose is headed for semi-retirement.

The 65-year-old thinks the kids are ready to take over. “There’s all these new, wonderful comedians with podcasts and nine million followers and those guys or women should be hosting Comic Relief,” he said. But how ready is that generation as Henry prepares to take his curtain call?

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 10: Presenters for the NIght of TV 1989 launched Red Nose Day 1989 on the Terry Wogan Show. (Clockwise from left: Mike Smith, Stephen Fry, Robbie Coltrane, Hugh Lauries, Lenny Henry, Dawn French and Griff Rhys-Jones.) Wogan is holding a pair of Red Nose Boxer shorts that were sold by Burtons on March 10, 1989 in London, England. (Photo by Comic Relief/Comic Relief via Getty Images)
Presenters for the Night of TV 1989 launching Red Nose Day in 1989 on the Terry Wogan Show. (Photo: Comic Relief/Comic Relief via Getty Images)

Without Henry, will Comic Relief even be Comic Relief? Few comedians – or presenters of any sort – have his gift for balancing hilarity and empathy. That talent is essential for Comic Relief, where the correct tone is all important. Henry’s ability to step graciously from a mischievous zinger to a heartfelt plea for viewers to open their wallets is rare: he’s an earnest and thoughtful individual who just happens to be riotously funny. That unique skill has proved critical across the history of Comic Relief. Filling his singular clown shoes will be a challenge.

Henry is also open to hearing criticism – another rarity in his ego-fuelled business. That willingness to take on board uncomfortable truths was on display several years ago amid claims the charity was promoting a neo-colonial “white saviour” image of Africa.

The row revolved around a Comic Relief film in 2017, in which Ed Sheeran was depicted as “rescuing” a homeless child in Liberia, and another two years later, featuring documentary maker Stacey Dooley visiting Uganda, where she cradled a baby. A white woman bringing her missionary zeal to “poor” Africans – some viewers wondered whether the image was from 2019 or 100 years earlier.

The Sheeran film was condemned as “poverty tourism” by the Radi-Aid organisation, which awarded it the “Rusty Radiator” gong for “fundraising campaigns focused on stereotypes”. Meanwhile, Dooley and Comic Relief were criticised by Labour MP David Lammy for perpetuating a “colonial” perspective towards Africa.

LONDON - JANUARY 31: Lenny Henry and Richard Curtis, take part in Red Nose Day 2011 sketch, on 31 January, 2011 in London. (Photo by Comic Relief/Getty Images)
Lenny Henry and Richard Curtis in a Red Nose Day sketch in 2011 (Photo: Comic Relief/Getty Images)

“The world does not need any more white saviours. As I’ve said before, this just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes,” he tweeted. “Comic Relief has a huge platform and privilege and it is the first and major way children learn about Africa. If they only show Africans as helpless victims to be pitied, children miss the broader picture of huge progress in Africa.”

Dooley reacted sharply to the criticism on her social media feed. “David, is the issue with me being white? (Genuine question) …because if that’s the case, you could always go over there and try raise awareness?,” she wrote on Twitter.

Henry, by contrast, took the comments on board. He displayed a quality all too rare in public life – a willingness to grapple with nuance and to understand that issues can be complex and contradictory.

“He wasn’t saying anything that we disagree with,” he said of Lammy’s criticism in a 2019 interview with the Guardian. “We could have done without it on the day of Comic Relief, but we’ve always been aware of the lack of diversity behind the scenes… David was commenting about all the broadcast media. He just happened to pick on us because Comic Relief was out, and the optics – sometimes – aren’t good.”

In 2020, it was announced that Comic Relief would stop sending celebrities to Africa, and instead it would recruit local film-makers with a “more authentic perspective” to explore the issues Comic Relief aims to eradicate.

LONDON, ENGLAND: Lenny Henry and The Spice Girls Mel B, Mel C, Emma Bunton, Geri Halliwell and Victoria Beckham attend the launch of Red Nose Day 1997 at the London Planetarium ahead of the Comic Relief telethon on March 14, 1997. The Planetarium's dome was dressed as a giant red nose for the occasion. (Photo by George Bodnar/Comic Relief via Getty Images)
Lenny Henry and the Spice Girls at the launch of Red Nose Day 1997 (Photo: George Bodnar/Comic Relief via Getty Images)

Henry has been a driving force behind Comic Relief and Red Nose Day from the outset. The charity’s origins lie in a 1985 visit to Ethiopia by Blackadder writer Richard Curtis (who would go on to become lord of rom-coms with films like Notting Hill and Love, Actually). Back in London, he spoke to Henry about what he had seen and the pair resolved to do something.

They put on an event in London in 1986 – Comic Relief Presents Utterly Utterly Live. Later, celebrating its three successful nights at Shaftesbury Theatre, Henry suggested they take the fundraiser to the next level.

“Richard has observed some terrible things [in Ethiopia],” Henry would recall. “Walking into a room where everybody was dead, walking into another room where everybody was half-dead. He was profoundly affected by it. He wanted to do something. Richard invited all these people to come and perform. We raised a couple of million quid. We were all really chuffed with that. We were at my house having drinks – I said, ‘It should be on all night… we should all do sketches and bits… Not a telethon… a ‘comic-con’. Suddenly, we were in a room writing letters to the great and good saying, ‘Will you be involved in Comic Relief?’”

The first live Comic Relief took place in 1988, presented by Henry, Griff Rhys Jones and Jonathan Ross. Except for last year– when he was appearing in Othello at West Yorkshire Playhouse – Henry has fronted every one of the broadcasts.

But now Comic Relief will have to adjust to life without him. A big event such as Red Nose Day is never just about one person – as Henry knew when he and Curtis were frantically writing to other comedians in 1986, asking them to come be involved. So he understands he isn’t essential. Still, more than any other performer, he embodies the spirit of Comic Relief – that potent blend of earnestness and irreverence. He will be missed.

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