For whose benefit?

Michael Monkhouse on charity gigs

So we're approaching October. Summer's over, Edinburgh's over, what is there for a comedy buff to look forward to?

Then a new Secret Policeman's Ball rears its head. Tells us it's going to be held on Saturday and we’d better be there. Boasts that Amnesty International benefits have been going on since 1976 and features a line-up that makes Saturday Night Live look like The Good Life. Orders us to laugh, part with our hard-earned dosh, and start, um, Caring About Stuff…

I'm not quite sure what. I'm too busy thinking about benefit gigs as a whole. Remembering Alexei Sayle snapping: ‘I don't participate in anything that's only there to boost your career. Like Comic Relief.’

Now I'm no cynic, but the guy has a point. He normally does. There's something slimy, repulsive and hypocritical about comics all getting together, patting each other on the back, and basically using the world's problems as an excuse for exposure.

Take the first time Comic Relief cropped up, way back in the mid-Eighties. Where Spitting Image - the very show that pilloried We Are The World as We're Scared of Bob - dutifully offered their wares. Where Ronnie Corbett - hardly the Mark Thomas of the Eighties - saw an opportunity to sidle in alongside the new generation. Where Ben Elton - once manic Motormouth, now sadly lurching into cosy Man From Auntie persona - knocked off a routine that'd make one of his groansome West End musicals look positively daring…

Years later he'd be back, kicking off with: ‘Welcome to another Comic Relief. Still concerned with poverty. Still concerned with suffering. But the Red Nose has got funny arms this year, so at least something's changed.’ Oh tee hee hee… While all the time the do-gooders were presided over by Angus Deaton, ex-brains behind Radio Active, the show that once pilloried Band Aid as Band Wagon.

And instead of making an obvious point about going full-circle, let's remember Band Aid itself. Which The Smiths - one of the few Eighties bands anyone still cares about - refused to play. I know it made lots of money for a highly deserving cause, but it also gave Phil Collins (the writer of Another Day in Paradise who nonetheless kicks homeless bums off his billion-dollar estate) the chance to croon twice. Now no one deserves that. Just as no one deserves the sight of Madonna poncing around for starving kids in Africa.

Ultimately, I'm reminded of Loadsamoney himself, Harry Enfield, and his spot-on DJ pastiche who 'wanted to do lots of work for charidee… But they wouldn't accept my fee.'

So why do we still accept these charity gigs? Is it boredom? Guilt? Self-congratulation?

Well maybe it's because they're wonderful. The only time multi-millionaires get off their collective backsides and do something useful instead of showing off about how cool they are and how much money they've got and we ain't. Because just for once people can come together and have a great time and contribute to things that actually matter.

Are you seriously trying to say you won't help Africa because you're scared you'll make Ronnie Corbett look cool again? Or that you won't dedicate a quid to Amnesty because you don't want a rubbish song at number one? Now let's get our priorities right.

And let's remember the prime rule of comedy, which is to make people happy. That's why we love Laurel and Hardy but write university theses about Charlie Chaplin. That's why we still watch Fawlty Towers but ignore Terry And June. It's also why we should be supporting comedians who don't just spout right-on claptrap about the government, but put their money where their mouth is. Be honest, would you get up one fine morning and donate your wonga to charity if there wasn't some cool show to go along and watch at the end of it?

So just for once, I'll beg to differ with Alexei. And choose Ronnie.

The Secret Policeman’s Ball is at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on Saturday night, and will air on Channel 4 at a later date.

Published: 30 Sep 2008

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