Lenny Henry and Red Nose Day – a look back at how comedy became used for charity

lenny ethipia rnd launch.jpg

Comedian Lenny Henry with a child in Ethiopia in 1988, the year that

Red Nose Day was launched

On 8 February 1988 comedian Lenny Henry was in Ethiopia celebrating the very first Red Nose Day with a group of children. There was great reason to celebrate – 30 million viewers had tuned into the BBC show and raised a significant £15 million for charity. Since then Red Nose Day – and Comic Relief – has gone from strength to strength, helping those in need in the UK and Africa by raising both money and awareness.

Lenny Henry was there at the very beginning of Red Nose Day and is still the leading face of the campaign today as well as a trustee.

Explaining the popular appeal of Red Nose Day, Lenny Henry said: “The kids love it because they can go to school in motley, or dressed as their sister, or like a dog. They can say ‘wibble’ at the end of every sentence if they want, as long as they’re sponsored. They can wear red wigs and pyjamas. It’s the world turned upside down.”

Henry clearly recalls his trip to Ethiopia back in 1988. “In Ethiopia, I was surprised at first at how green and fertile the land was, but then shocked at how poor the people were, and I was having to put on a brave face,” said the comic. “Then I thought, ‘Wait, it’s not my job to be crying, but to be telling people at home about this. I’m a communicator.’”

Henry particularly remembers some of the individual encounters he had with local people he had visited and spoken to. “There was this wonderful image of a girl carrying a pot. She made it look effortless, even though it was so heavy I couldn’t carry it. When I tried, she laughed,” recalls the 56-year-old.

Another moment that has stuck with Henry is when he met an elderly man who was eager to return the kindness shown him by charity workers. Henry recalls: “I […] remember this very old man who’d lost most of his family and he was left looking after his great-great-grandchildren. He took me by the hand and said, ‘If you ever need any help in England, just let us know, because it’s you who are helping us now and we want to repay the favour.’ I was gobsmacked.”

Last month Comic Relief – which celebrated its 30th anniversary – was honoured at the National Television Awards for its significant charitable work at home in the UK and abroad. Quite appropriately it was Henry that collected the prize. In his acceptance speech the comic emphasised that it was a collective honour and dedicated it to "the great British public," who have helped raise millions over the years. Addressing the audience and viewers at home Henry said: "We [at] Comic Relief are truly honoured to receive this amazing award to mark all the ridiculous things we have done to raise a stack of cash over the last three decades.” He continued, "But really, this award is for the great British public who have gone to extraordinary lengths, year after year, raising millions to change lives. […] This award recognises their commitment to help others."

With this year’s Red Nose Day fast approaching, Lenny Henry has again been greatly involved in the charitable work. In November last year Henry went to Eastern Uganda to visit the Iyolwa Clinic – a health centre desperately in need of an upgrade – as part of ‘Operation Health for Comic Relief’. The Iyolwa Clinic has had no running water, no power, dangerously weak infrastructure, outdated equipment (among other problems) for a while now.

Henry in Uganda.jpg

Lenny Henry (left) with Head Clinician Francis Odokodit (right)

outside Iyolwa Clinic in Uganda

Describing the clinic, which serves approximately 20,000 people in the local community and is visited by around 1,450 patients each month, Henry said: “This clinic can only be described as awful.” He continued, “It was so dark in there I could barely see where I was going and yet babies are delivered in there every week. […] Hornets swoop down from the crumbling roof and sting the patients as they are being treated. The staff are incredible, determined and passionate, but they need help to be able to give their community the help it really needs.”

With the help of money raised by Comic Relief and Red Nose Day the clinic will be renovated by a local team of people (over five weeks) into a safe, clean, up-to-date, properly functioning health centre. Henry will return to the centre to assess the progress, which will be broadcast in a one-hour documentary on BBC1 early next month.

Part of Comic Relief and Red Nose Day’s success is undoubtedly its ability to evolve the times and ensure it remains current. For example, this year will see ten donation statues, which are cut-outs of celebrities in funny poses, erected across the country, allowing members of the public to donate £1 in seconds via Barclays contactless payment.

statues cr.jpg

Comedian Miranda Hart poses with the donation statues

Henry of course has a statue and has expressed his joy at the new method of raising funds. "Red Nose Day is founded on the idea of comedians doing silly things to raise cash. Statues of us doing silly things means we can do even more this year,” said the RND trustee. He added, "I'm so honoured that there's a statue of me going to my home town of Dudley. I really hope lots of people go and see it to donate cash."

Red Nose Day 2015 is on Friday 13 March.