Comic Relief: Thatcher’s most surprising legacy?

When Comic Relief was launched by Noel Edmunds on Christmas Day 1985, few could have expected that it would have been so successful. Almost twenty years later, Comic Relief has raised over £600 million for charities that help some of the poorest people in the world.

The charity was founded by comedy writer Richard Curtis and comedian Lenny Henry in direct response to the Ethiopian famine of 1985. The first broadcast show in 1988 was a struggle at times. As Henry told The Daily Telegraph earlier this year, the presenters of the first show had to battle with a faulty autocue, a magician whose magic didn’t work and Frankie Howerd’s inability to stop talking. Perhaps most difficult was the contrast between the comedy and heart-wrenching poverty. The presenters would have to link between a comedy sketch and a film about poverty, while comedians had difficulty working a crowd which had just watched a film of somebody’s death.Comic Relief was founded by the alternative comedians of the 1980s. This was a comedy movement which contrasted itself against the established comedians of the 1970s and 1980s. The alternative comedians tended to be left-wing and rebelled against the largely right-wing comedy establishment. The alternative comedians included Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French.

It is also important to place Comic Relief in its political context. It emerged shortly after the Miners’ Strike, when Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her powers. The comedians that founded Comic Relief were not natural bed fellows of Thatcher; indeed it might be argued that the biennial Red Nose Day appeal was inspired by a belief that the Conservative Government would not do enough to stop poverty. But nonetheless, Comic Relief’s approach to fundraising perfectly the captures the Thatcherite spirit of the 1980s.

Thatcher had a ‘do it yourself’ ethos. She did not believe that the Government should provide every service that we use. For example, one of her first privatisations was that of British Telecom. Rather than have a state provided telephone service, she opened up the market to private competition. While she believed that this would increase standards and reduce prices, she also felt that people should be able to take responsibility for the services that they use. By turning individuals into consumers, rather than passive recipients of state generosity, those individuals have a greater control over their own lives.

It is this belief that drove much of Thatcher’s policy decisions. For example, the decision to increase homeownership through council house sales was designed to give individuals a stake in society. Thatcher spoke regularly about a property-owning democracy, and the idea here is that voters are not distant from the nation or their communities. Instead, voters are full participants in the economy and they own part of it. The same ambition also led, with less success, Thatcher to encourage more middle and low income individuals to buy shares in businesses.

This is the ethos of the big charity appeals of the 1980s. The founders of Comic Relief did not take for granted that the state would step in eradicate poverty. Instead, they took responsibility for resolving the problem. Rather than the state simply giving money to the appeal, it has raised hundreds of millions of pounds from ordinary people.

Alongside Comic Relief, there was also Live Aid in 1985 and Children in Need began its large televised appeals in 1980. All of these are attempts appeal directly to the people to support charitable causes. The founders of these appeals cut out the state and took the responsibility upon their selves.

Bob Geldof famously described Thatcher as a punk. She lashed out at the establishment around her; whether it was the Tory wets, the trade unions, vested interests in local government, the civil service or even the monarchy. So perhaps it is not surprising that she should have so much in common with the alternative comedy movement which rebelled against the established comedians of the day.

Thatcher notoriously had a virtually non-existent sense of humour. Anyone who has seen her appearance in Yes, Minister can attest to that. But that just makes it even more surprising, that her influence should be felt so sharply on BBC One this Friday.