Comic Relief producer Colin Hopkins tells HuffPost UK there’s double the pressure to nail this year’s live show.
“The charities have been really really impacted by Covid, so the need for money is even more, and the need for the nation to have a laugh is even more,” he says.
Comic Relief was founded by Richard Curtis in 1985, and in the 30-plus years since, has evolved to become a beloved biennial televisual event, celebrated for how it encourages celebrities to let their hair down in the name of raising cash for charity.
Many of its star turns revisit nostalgic hits from the past, such as Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley doing Ab Fab, or Dawn French reprising The Vicar of Dibley, which she is doing again this year.
Here, Comic Relief producers Colin Hopkins and Sophie Rogers share some of their favourite tales from the last 35 years and share a little preview of this year’s event too.
This year, people want to escape the everyday more than ever
“We’re coming at a really nice place where the world is coming back to normal a little bit,” Sophie says.
The sketches will reflect the pandemic, such as a “star-studded Zoom meeting,” but others will help audiences forget it as well.
“We have to embrace the pandemic and take the light with the heavy,” Sophie adds. “The campaign line this year is ‘funny is power’. People want to escape a bit from the everyday and have a laugh.”
Before the show goes out, producers sometimes fear they’ll have too many celebrities to fit in
“You hope that all of those you ask for come in,” says Colin of the annual scramble for the best celebrity guests. “But you also hope they don’t all come in, because you can’t afford it in the running order, so it’s a bit of a gamble,” he explains.
“If they all come off, we’re in trouble - but it’s a brilliant problem to have because we’re not going to fit it all in.”
Sometimes the script has to be changed hours before presenters read it out live on air
Big news events can alter the scheduling for the live show, meaning sections need to be cut at the last minute.
Reflecting on one particularly stressful year, Colin says: “There were a couple of big incidents around the world and three hours before launch we were in what was The Star Bar at Television Centre, ripping up the script, rewriting, reordering. So yeah, you just have to go in and hope that nothing major happens.”
If sketches run over and there’s a time shortage, certain things absolutely cannot be cut and must always be prioritised: “You can’t ever drop an appeal film or a corporate thank you,” insists Colin. “Going through the running order, trimming words from a script because we’re one or two minutes over. That’s our biggest challenge.”
“‘Cut that joke! Rewrite! Go go go!’””
When time’s running short, it’s up to Sophie to get the script in shape in the nick of time. “There’s normally one point of the show there’s a frantic rewrite on autocue because we’ve had someone on for an interview or someone that’s done a challenge has chatted a minute longer than we’ve expected,” says Sophie. “I have Colin in my ear: ‘Cut that joke! Rewrite! Go go go!’”
Filming goes on late into the night (it once went until 2.30am in the morning)
“Russell Brand was hosting and it must have been about 2.30 in the morning and my parents had come up from Dorset to watch and they’re still sat in the audience,” Colin remembers.
“We were in the BBC Club afterwards and by the time we got there and had one drink, the sun was starting to come up and I looked up at the TV and you could see the clip show [part of the live broadcast] still going out!”
There’s a good reason to stay live on air for as long as possible: “The theory is the longer we’re on air the more money we’ll raise,” Colin says. “If there’s money to be raised, we’ll always try and make it.”
One of Colin’s favourite memories was working with the ‘incredible’ Professor Stephen Hawking
Professor Hawking collaborated on a Little Britain sketch with David Walliams in 2015 and Colin fondly remembers how enthusiastic the scientist was about the appearance.
“It was incredible - we got to meet Professor Hawking, who has an amazing sense of humour. Myself and David Walliams every now and again reflect back on it and go, ‘Wow, we got to spend some time with this great man’. He nailed it. Totally got into the spirit of it.
“He came back with script notes, saying ‘I think it’d be funnier if I said this.’ To be given a script note by Professor Hawking was incredible.”
The Love Actually And Four Weddings sketches were ‘touch and go’ as to whether they’d happen or not
One of the issues is waiting for movie companies to say it’s okay for them to rip off classic movies on the live show. “But luckily we’ve had Richard Curtis to drive that,” says Colin.
Producers had to write a script for Ed Sheeran at the final minute
“It wasn’t going to happen for ages, but then one day the publicist came back and said, ‘let’s talk, he wants to do it’, so we were like, ‘quick, we better put a script together,’” remembers Colin.
“The idea [for the sketch] came from us being told we couldn’t do one idea so it forced us in a different direction,” says Colin. “Where we landed is probably much bigger and better than where we started and that quite often happens as well.”
It’s hit and miss when it comes to getting stars to recreate their most iconic characters
While some stars use Comic Relief as an excuse to look back on their creations, others won’t bring back famous characters, Sophie reveals.
“Some of them go, ‘I’ve got this idea and this is the perfect time to do it.’ Others go, ‘I’ve left that in this era.’
“We did an Ab Fab special for Sport Relief. It was just the right timing. Jennifer and Joanna were brilliant with it but I don’t think they’ve reprised those characters for us since.”
The Vicar Of Dibley sketch is a perfect example of right place, right time…
“It’s just the warmth of her character,” reflects Colin on Dibley’s return this year.
Earlier this year Dawn French reprised her role as the vicar alongside co-star James Fleet in a series of Lockdown Specials. And for Comic Relief, Dawn’s donned the dog collar once again.
“There are so many comedic characters out there, some are quite acerbic, whereas The Vicar Of Dibley is a really assured strong woman who has got a heart of gold and is surrounded by lovely innocent characters,” Colin says.
“I think that’s why people like it, it’s like a big hot bath watching an episode of Dibley. Because people want to be comforted and have a bit of familiarity, I think that’s probably why it’s had its renaissance.”
Comic Relief airs on BBC One this Friday at 7pm.