Simon Hoggart

The real thing | 5 March 2011

I had prepared myself for another rant at Comic Relief, a grisly occasion on BBC1 in which every year parades of slebs preen themselves on their good works.

The real thing | 5 March 2011
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I had prepared myself for another rant at Comic Relief, a grisly occasion on BBC1 in which every year parades of slebs preen themselves on their good works. What made my teeth curl was the way some comedian would announce that the Twistelton Lions had held a pram race through the town (with the mayor dressed as a baby!) and took £1,459, a fraction of what the sleb expects for a single performance. Last year we saw Jonathan Ross congratulating all those people who had climbed Kilimanjaro, so raising one-20th of Ross’s annual salary. Couldn’t he have saved them the trouble by writing a cheque? As Jeremy Hardy used to say, if you were collecting door-to-door what would you think if someone said, ‘Yes, I’ll give £10 for cancer research. But only if you climb Ben Nevis dressed as a penguin’?

And I was going to point out that the money would be far better spent on reforming governments than on artesian wells and mosquito nets. ‘Just remember, every penny you raise will help pay for a crack squad of mercenaries to storm the presidential palace and relieve these suffering people from decades of tyranny and squalor!’ I was particularly incensed by the notion of Rich, Famous and in the Slums with Comic Relief (BBC1, Thursday), which looked like a distillation of every grim Comic Relief moment. The Radio Times picture of four slebs — Angela Rippon, Lenny Henry, Samantha Womack and a disc jockey called Reggie Yates — posing in red noses against the Kibera slum in Kenya where they were to spend a week — was particularly aggravating.

But then at a party last week I met Angela Rippon. She talked about the trip and was extremely moving. They really had been installed in this appalling slum, the largest in Africa, with the equivalent of £2 to live on. They had to earn any more cash, and in that slum there are few investment opportunities. At one point she had to choose between eating and buying a comb, and decided she could smooth her hair with her fingers and buy a carrot instead. She’d met families of eight who lived in a room one third the size of the one where we were drinking champagne. There were roaches and rats everywhere.

To earn money she worked as a teacher: ‘It was the most wonderful day of my life.’ She was deeply impressed by the pride and dignity of the slum dwellers; the way that the women kept their shacks as clean as they possibly could, and would not dream of sending their children out in clothes that were other than spotless. And she’s going back.

So I will make an exception for that programme, which was far more affecting than I’d expected, and gave a three-dimensional view of poverty that went beyond the usual pot-bellied children with fly-covered faces, and women walking miles with pots of water on their heads. We met real people, leading meaningful lives in the worst urban environment in the world. As for the rest of Comic Relief, I’ll curl up with a good book.

A wonderful treat which you could catch again on iPlayer is The Story of Variety (BBC4, Monday) presented by Michael Grade. Variety is what came between music hall and the start of the rock concert, when some promoter realised there was no point whatever in putting a comedian on before the Rolling Stones. It was as crammed with wonderful stories as a plum pudding with raisins. The digs where the only meal served was baked beans, with one chipolata if it was Christmas. ‘Crumpet digs’, where the landlady was ‘pliable’. One performer came back to find his landlady under the pianist Semprini on the kitchen table. ‘Ooh, what you must think of me!’ she said.

The terrifying Glasgow Empire: Max Miller, told he was booked there, said, ‘I’m a comedian, not a missionary.’ Ernie and Doreen Wise hated it so much they slept in their car after the last show rather than spend another night in the city. Des O’Connor was so petrified that he faked a fainting fit rather than finish his turn.

The whole show was a delight, and the kind of thing only television can do. The final episode is next week.

Now to South Riding (BBC1, Sunday). It’s a costume drama set in the 1930s. Steam engine in first scene — check. Feisty feminist arriving to shake the town up — check. Moody, morose farmer with a snorting horse and a terrible secret — check. Hypocritical, god-bothering councillor — check. Deserving girl forced to leave school to look after family — check. Macabre hunting accident — check. Steamy sex scenes added by the scriptwriter Andrew Davies — check. And wonderfully acted. What’s not to like? I love it.