A Conversation with Richard Curtis Writer, Director and Co-Founder of Comic Relief.

A thoughtful quote often attributed to Margaret Mead asks that we should “…never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has…

It may feel like another motivational-poster aphorism, but occasionally it holds true in the most magnificent way.  In fact, who would have imagined that a bunch of comedians, getting together with the goal of raising “a couple of million” for charity could go on, in 30 years to have raised well-over £1 billion, and helped change the lives of over 50 million people in the UK and overseas.  That idea they fostered was Comic Relief, which in 2016/17 alone raised over £82 million in the UK, $40 million in the USA, funded 374 new projects and gave over 1382 small grants.   As well as fundraising, Comic Relief has left a legacy of global initiatives that have impacted billions of lives. The Make Poverty History campaign created a historic uplift in foreign aid and debt relief, Enough Food for Everyone has created billions in additional funding for hunger and The Robin Hood Tax campaign is aiming to create the cash needed to tackle poverty and climate change, whilst fighting income inequality.

To learn more I spoke with Richard Curtis Writer, Director and Co-Founder of Comic Relief.

[bios]Richard Curtis is a film writer and director, responsible for films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting HillBridget Jones’ Diary, Mr Bean, Love Actually, The Boat That Rocked, and most recently Trash and About Time.

In the other half of Richard’s life, he is co-founder and vice-chair of Comic Relief, which he started after visiting Ethiopia during the 1985 famine and led to the fundraising event, Red Nose Day. He has co-produced the 14 live nights for the BBC, and since 1985, the charity has made over £1.25 Billion for projects in the UK and internationally. In 2015, he helped bring Red Nose Day to the United States with the partnership of NBC and Walgreens – where it has so far raised nearly $150 million to help children in the USA and around the world.

Richard was a founding member of Make Poverty History, the campaign for the MDGs and worked both on that and on Live 8 in 2005. As part of his contribution to the MPH campaign he wrote The Girl In The Cafe for HBO and the BBC – a television drama based around the G8 summit – which won 3 Emmys. In 2015 he helped found Project Everyone to work to make the Global Goals famous and effective – and is now a UN Advocate for the SDGs.[/bios]

Q: Why has comedy become such an important way for us to discuss the world?

[Richard Curtis]:  It’s always been the job of comedy to point out hypocrisies and problems – it’s a long historical tradition that goes all the way back to Aristotle and Jonathan Swift.

I started my career on Not the Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image – the latter which was especially interesting and complicated, redefining the public arena of political satire.

Comedy has a job to be satirical and critical, and the American late night hosts have really taken this to the next level; for many people, after something happens in the news, it’s the first place they go to get a take on events.  They’ve found a way of being funny, but connecting with passions and emotions.

Q:  What sparked the idea for comic relief?

[Richard Curtis]:  As comedians, our main charity engagement for such a long time had been the tradition of the Secret Policeman’s Ball, a way of saying comedians care… they’ll be as funny as they can…. they’ll make money for a cause… but the event had close to no connection with the cause at all!  After this you got Band Aid and Live Aid –  musicians being as entertaining as they can be, and often engaged (as they are) about issues of inequality and human suffering, but even then – it felt sometimes like something was missing in the connection between the event and the cause.

When I did Comic Relief, the aim was to be as funny as possible, to get as much of an audience as possible, and leverage the fact that comedians are often seen as people’s friends, and normal people, not as intellectuals.  The moment you send Billy Connolly, Lenny Henry and Victoria Wood out somewhere to make an appeal – they are representatives of ‘normal people’ perhaps in some ways more than pop stars…. Comedians are a kind of humdrum kind of celebrity, and as such I think they’re very good at evoking empathy.

As for how Comic Relief started –  it was almost a fluke – life does not go in the direction you think it’s going to go.  Most of us bump into the person that we’re going to spend the rest of our lives with by mistake!  There’s a sort-of chaos theory in operation.   I hadn’t done anything charitable in my life really, and then I watched Live Aid and happened to go to dinner and met a girl who ran a charity and was about to go out to Ethiopia.  Something deep inside me made me say, ‘I’ll come with you –  maybe myself and some comedians can help…’  That experience of being in Ethiopia was startling.  I was there towards the end of the  famine, but I saw things of such horror that I couldn’t stand by and do nothing.  You’d have a situation where people were separated by into different corrugated iron huts –  one  would have people who were going to die that night,  the next would be people who were probably going to die –  and the last hut was people who might just survive.

I flew home with this profound sense of the simultaneity of human suffering; I’ve never been able to get over that sense that even as I’m talking to you right now, there are people who are living unbearable lives..

I just came home and tried to think of as many ways that comedy could contribute – stage shows, television shows, books, merchandise, everything that we could do, like running a business.

Q:  Why did you choose a telethon format for Comic Relief?

[Richard Curtis]: We started by doing a stage show, our own version of Secret Policeman’s Ball, and then literally at dinner afterwards in Lenny Henry’s house we all said, ‘this is crazy, we’re all TV people, we could get access to an audience of 15 million, why are we all crammed into a theatre where none of us have been for half a decade?

We went to the BBC, promised them entertainment with the caveat that there had to be fundraising.  Our thought was simple; why don’t’ we send ill-informed comedians to look at these social issues? And that turned out to be the magical idea – because people were used to experts and journalists, talking in terms of agricultural yields and geopolitics… we sent out normal people, who were very well known, to talk about human issues and human problems initially abroad, but later in the UK too.

Q: How does Comic Relief continue to grow and make impact?

[Richard Curtis]:  There are a lot of different journeys that Comic Relief has been on.  One, in terms of the amount of money that we make,  like the amount of noses we sell –  and two, the amount of TV we do.  Originally we did one 7 hour  show on one night  –  but now we have such a diverse offering – a special of the Apprentice, celebrities climbing Kilimanjaro,  all kinds of things.

We also have had a journey in terms of the grants we give; we’ve got a big team, advised and strengthened by a huge number of experts who work for free, and help us to understand how to make a difference.  We’ve been through a lot of journeys; we actually did homelessness initially and then stopped as it was being dealt with by the government, but now we’re returning to that cause once more.  There are lots of rights issues too, that initially we wouldn’t have thought about but now are turning our efforts towards.

We have to constantly evolve how we make an impact, and make sure that we’re doing what the communities we work in want us to support rather than enforcing some kind of model.  Our work has to be led by the leaders of communities telling us what will work.

Q:  What are your views on the current discourse against foreign aid?

[Richard Curtis]:  Comic Relief initially did a really good educational job in schools, I hope –  we have a whole generation of people, and even young politicians too, for whom their early sense of problems abroad was with Comic Relief – which made them realise that they could make a difference to the lives of people with very tough lives.  Education has been just as important as fundraising for us.

Then Comic Relief – alongside many other organisations became interested in campaigning, and in groups like Make Poverty History.  Certainly, I personally started to think about how we could apply public passion about these things to politics… and whilst the public have always been generally supportive of international giving, it’s like everything in life… there’s bound to be a step-back from that from time to time, particularly when things in the UK get tough.

We are at a moment in time when people need to know that yes charity begins at home, but it’s also brilliant to do it abroad.  It’d be great to help people understand and empathise about hunger in the UK but also be equally passionate about ending it abroad.

We need change with the times, work on new messaging, and to hold our nerve.  It’s our job to continue to be interesting and experimental and tell different stories, just like if you were making a TV show – you mustn’t endlessly repeat your plots.

Q:  How does celebrity adoption of causes impact campaigns and organisations like Comic Relief?

[Richard Curtis]:  People have always supported their own issues and causes, but that doesn’t preclude them from supporting others.  Right at the beginning, Lenny told me that even though he supports Comic Relief, he was going to go on supporting sickle cell disease.  What interests me is the flip side, what happens when celebrities get together and support spontaneously created campaigns.  The power of a celebrity supporting a 17-year-old girl in Southampton fighting for period poverty or against FGM can accelerate campaigns, and that’s exciting.  There’s a wonderful young woman called Josie Norton who set up Help Refugees.  She’s getting incredible celebrity support because no celebrities had thought of a way of dealing with the refugee crisis, but she’s got a clever way, and huge passion – and so they’re supporting her.

For many with a public profile, they’re realizing that they have a huge following, and can influence those followers to follow them as they to support causes set up by others.

Q:  What have been your learnings around effectively working with philanthropists?

[Richard Curtis]:  I’m particularly obsessed by communications; and if you are committed to doing charitable things, and- of course- have your primary duty to ensure money is spent well and makes a difference – I think you may also have the duty to make sure that you try to affect the general attitudes people have towards the issues too.

I have met many family-offices and foundations and have often told them – “ Be less discreet! It’s important that people see the progress that is happening, and to know the things you are doing.”

You need to start with a rock-solid foundation of good work that you completely trust, that you have researched and have the data on.  You then also need to try new things, to try new communications methods- for example, Help Refugees have a pop-up shop for refugees where you bought things but gave them straight back.   There are also very interesting large scale schemes like Housing First – which myself and Ed Sheeran have made a little appeal about for Red Nose Day.   The principle is that you take someone off the streets and immediately give them a place to live, so they’re not passing through endless tests and going through systems they can fall out of.  They immediately receive the one thing they need the most- shelter- and then build the motivation to improve their lives.

Running a charity can be a bit like running a TV station.  You’ve got to hang on to Eastenders but you’ve also got to make some new things and you’ve got to do the news and appeals well to change and excite people about the world we live in.

Q:  What has made you the proudest in your journey?

[Richard Curtis]:  I wouldn’t go on doing this if I wasn’t obsessed by every pound we raise… I help edit almost  every appeal film we do, and when I see a film about a child who hasn’t got a mosquito net, and the impact that makes- I’ll then write to Kiera Knightley and ask her to do something to help us scale the impact! So To keep going, you have to be obsessed with every pound, because even £2.50 makes a huge difference.

So I’m proud of Comic Relief, of every pound we raise.  I’m proud of Make Poverty History, and I hope our 2020 Global Goals campaigns will add to those two.  And maybe then I can retire.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.