Friday, 13 March 2009

Celebrity mountain climbing

There are red noses on cars, the children have paid a pound not to wear school uniform, and lots of people are doing silly things in the street. Yes, it's Comic Relief day again. Sharing a house with two teenagers means that the raucous background to our early morning routine is Radio 1's Chris Moyles show, so this week we've been following the progress of Chris and the other celebs as they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for the cause.

Last night, we watched the BBC documentary of their exploits. It was an impressive feat, and you can't deny the courage of those who took part, or the genuineness of their commitment to the charities they were supporting. The programme forced you to view this motley collection of presenters, DJs and performers, many of whom you might previously have  dismissed as superficial or egotistical, in a somewhat different light. Moyles, for example, whose endless bloke-down-the-pub patter (and reluctance to play any actual music) normally irritates me no end, came across as genuinely funny and warmhearted, while Cheryl Cole continued her transition in the public's imagination from not-very-talented and quick-tempered reality show winner to beautiful-but-kindly big sister who can remain radiant at 15,000 feet. And who would have thought that 'our very own, the gorgeous Alesha Dixon' (copyright Brucie, 2008) had such a filthy cackle of a laugh?

At the same time, the documentary included rather too many scenes of well-dressed and well-fed celebrities visiting clinics to emote over dying children, in which the African patients and staff had mostly silent, passive parts. And the shots of the famous participants doing the obligatory 'tearing up' , as they watched similarly upsetting scenes on film, imported the shallow emotionality of the X-Factor, entirely inappropriately.

At times, I wondered what had happened to the determination of those alternative comedians who set up Comic Relief, to do things differently: to raise money in a way that didn't objectify the recipients and instead saw them as active participants in achieving social justice. Couldn't Africans have been involved in this project on a more equal footing, rather than as objects of tearful sympathy, or as the team of porters making sure that the celebrities' portaloos were erected before they reached camp? And couldn't they have found a few more black celebrities to take part (Alesha was the only one), to remove the sense of these few heroic white people going to great lengths to help all those poor black people?

As I say, none of this is to detract from the achievement of those who took part in this or other Comic Relief exploits today, or from the very real good that the money raised will do. A reminder that, away from all the celebrity gushing, Comic Relief is still funding some challenging and important work, can be found in this  article by Johann Hari.

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