Comic Relief: Red Nose Day celebrates 25 years

The first Red Nose Day in 1988 (Gryff Rhys Jones, Lenny Henry and Jonathan Ross). Picture: Contributed
The first Red Nose Day in 1988 (Gryff Rhys Jones, Lenny Henry and Jonathan Ross). Picture: Contributed
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When those fresh-faced young comedians hosted the first Red Nose Day,it unleashed a fundraising machine that a quarter of a century and £660m later is still going strong. By Lee Randall

Do not beware the Ides of March, for today marks the 25th anniversary of the first Red Nose Day. Launched in 1988 as part of Comic Relief, that first Red Nose Day raised £15 million to help people and communities in need in the UK and in Africa, and roughly 30m telly viewers watched the Young Ones on University Challenge, and Mel Smith and Kim Wilde team up to sing Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree.

The event quickly found its place in the national consciousness, alongside Britain’s other high-profile telethon event, Children In Need, although Red Nose Day differs in that it comes along every second year rather than annually.

Over the years, the laughs – and donations – have gone from strength to strength. Fundraising activities occur across Britain, but the main event is always the television appeal, which has provided many memorable highlights as it successfully mixes entertainment with fundraising without the donors having to leave their armchairs. In 1995 Dawn French famously raised £1m by snogging Hugh Grant, while wearing a version of “That Dress” – the safety-pinned Versace number famously worn by Grant’s former partner Elizabeth Hurley. That same year Tom Jones went head to head with Lenny Henry’s Theophilus P. Wildebeest, to win “Battle of the Sex Gods.”

In 1993 Red Nose Day saw Mr Bean head out on a calamity-filled blind date, but also featured documentaries that found Joanna Lumley in Eritrea and Tony Robinson in Uganda, reporting on the Aids epidemic. Four years later Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Kathy Burke made a spoof video of the Spice Girls’ single, Who Do You Think You Are, and sold a whacking 672,577 copies.

More than £35m was raised in 1999, partly in response to seeing Johnny Depp and Dawn French in a Vicar of Dibley special, and Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge performing a Kate Bush medley. The theme for 2001 was Say Pants to Poverty. Millions were raised from international sales of special Harry Potter books, Billy Connolly streaked naked around Piccadilly Circus, Jack Dee entered the Big Brother House, and Ali G interviewed Posh and Becks.

Celebrity Fame Academy debuted in 2003, the same year that Lenny Henry and Rowan Atkinson spoofed Martin Bashir’s interview with Michael Jackson. Spirit in the Sky by Gareth Gates and The Kumars reached number one and became the second-biggest single of 2003. Two years later, in 2005, the televised proceedings included Little Britain sketches featuring Sir Elton John, George Michael and Robbie Williams. And who can forget Peter Kay and Tony Christie singing Amarillo – especially since it rode the top of the charts for a further seven weeks, becoming the biggest-selling download single of 2005.

Catherine Tate’s schoolgirl, Lauren, “bovvered” Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2007, while Sir Alan Sugar fired Piers Morgan in the Comic Relief Does The Apprentice final. In 2009, Gary Barlow led a team of celebrities up Mount Kilimanjaro, to raise £3.5m. All told, Red Nose Day contributions that year topped £82.3m.

The 2011 Desert Trek found Lorraine Kelly, Scott Mills, Kara Tointon, Olly Murs, Ronnie Ancona, Dermot O’Leary, Peter White, Nadia Sawalha and Craig David on the hoof, raising £1.36m. David Walliams hosted a 24-hour panel show, and a special episode of Master Chef saw Miranda Hart, Ruby Wax and Claudia Winkleman donning aprons and heading into the kitchen.

This year Mark Watson is reprising his 25-hour stand up show, already familiar to Fringe regulars, who may have attended all or part of the Edinburgh version a few years ago. Presenters in the BBC studios on the night will include Michael McIntyre, Jonathan Ross and John Bishop.

Jonathan Ross says: “Comic Relief, on the face of it, should never really have worked. . . In 13 Red Nose Days since that first brave venture, we have raised £660m. It’s estimated that at least 40m people across Africa and the world’s poorest countries have been helped, and another 10m in the UK.”

‘It’s benefited more than 2,500 people in West Lothian’

“In 2010, Penumbra received a grant from Comic Relief to provide a new service for homeless young people in West Lothian called the West Lothian Self Harm and Homeless Project,” says Joan Simkins, spokesperson for the Scottish mental health charity.

“The aim is to provide practical and emotional support to people aged 16-25 who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness.

“The grant provides for one-to-one sessions, group work, drop-in, training, and information sessions for young people that include ‘Boys/Girls Rock’ interactive events tackling mental wellbeing and promoting discussions surrounding self harm and mental health issues with young people who are homeless. The funding has also provided one-on-one sessions throughout the West Lothian area on a weekly basis, providing person-centered sessions that encourage and support self development.

“The monies received from Comic Relief and Red Nose funding provided three years’ worth of services to an area that had no self harm specialised service for young people. Previously, they could only access generic services and were often placed on waiting lists.

“Over the last 12 months the project has benefited more than 2,500 people residing in the West Lothian area. This funding made it possible to reduce the risk of self harm and suicide among young people, while also empowering parents, carers and outside agencies to seek help, support and guidance and increase overall knowledge and understanding of the health issues of young people who are homeless or potentially homeless.”

•Penumbra is located at Norton Park, 57 Albion Road, Edinburgh, EH7 5QY., tel: 0131 475 2380 or visit