The Big Night In review – telethon triumphs over the lockdown

BBC One’s star-filled charity appeal needed imagination and technical skill to get round distancing rules

Socially distanced presenters, a skeleton crew, no live audience and automated phonelines only – this is national telethonning, lockdown-style. Comic Relief and Children in Need have joined forces to create The Big Night In on BBC One and raise money for the charities and projects who need more support than ever as Covid-19 strains resources everywhere.

First shift is taken, as is traditional, by Lenny Henry and Davina McCall – joined, not too closely of course, by Matt Baker this time – whose recreation of normality for the viewer in what must, in the studio, be an absolutely bizarre set-up is unimpeachable proof of their professional talents.

Paddy McGuinness, Lenny Henry, Zoe Ball, Davina McCall and Matt Baker.
Clockwise from left: Paddy McGuinness, Lenny Henry, Zoe Ball, Davina McCall and Matt Baker. Photograph: The Big Night In/BBC Children In Need/Comic Relief/PA

The formula is the same – an almost magazine-y mix of celebrity sketches, songs, short films about the charities funded and individuals supported by donations, segments showing fundraising stunts by the public, and shout-outs to the various commercial partners – but the content is, of necessity, different. Everything must be subordinated to the need to stay isolated.

Ruth Jones and Matt Lucas phone in for The Big Night In.
Ruth Jones and Matt Lucas phone in for The Big Night In. Photograph: BBC Children in Need/Comic Relief via Getty Images

The technical nightmare behind such feats as the BBC Orchestra accompanying Matt Lucas singing Baked Potato from their separate homes doesn’t bear thinking about, but who can think about anything when Baked Potato is on?

Singers and celebrities film themselves in their own homes, so at one point you can feel like you’re on a Zoom call with Dave Grohl and Dua Lipa as they chat, which is almost equally cheering.

Dua Lipa (top left), Dave Grohl (right), Grace Carter and drummer Ben Johnston of Biffy Clyro.
Dua Lipa (top left), Dave Grohl (right), Grace Carter and drummer Ben Johnston of Biffy Clyro. Photograph: BBC Radio/PA

Filming sports stars in their own gardens trying to score goals/bat/putt as appropriate after the spin challenge was a stroke of genius. And sketches found a variety of solutions that by and large worked well. David Tennant as the luckless teacher embroiled in a distance learning lesson with Catherine Tate’s ‘Am I Bovvered’ Lauren is a highlight (she is worried about his underlying condition – “Being Scottish” – and wears a facemask because “your kilt won’t protect you – the virus doesn’t respect borders, sir!”), as is Miranda Hart linking clips of her sitcom in character as Miranda on lockdown.

Teacher and pupil: David Tennant and Catherine Tate, appearing on the BBC's The Big Night In.
Teacher and pupil: David Tennant and Catherine Tate. Photograph: BBC Children in Need/Comic Relief via Getty Images

Special props, I think, must go to Prince William who showed some unexpectedly decent comic chops in a Blackadder skit with – who else? – Stephen Fry that led us into the 8pm Clap For Carers slot.

Even with so few in the studio – and no audience – the show’s energy didn’t flag, and bonhomie was generated in measures at least as great as in ordinary times. If there was a problem, it had nothing to do with the endeavour itself with the increasing consciousness raised by extraordinary times.

All the goodwill in the world, I suspect, would not be enough to dispel the unease that rose when the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, appeared to announce proudly that the government would match whatever was raised tonight – as if it wasn’t almost entirely to blame for the struggles of charities trying to supply basic needs that should be state-funded as of right.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak
Chancellor Rishi Sunak offered to match donations to The Big Night In. Photograph: Comic Relief/BBC Children in Need/Comic Relief via Getty Images

Similarly, the sight of Apple CEO Tim Cook waiving download royalties to the Times Like These single (plus donation), and the participation of Gary Barlow as one of the many celebrities discovered a few years ago to have signed up to an aggressive tax avoidance scheme, raised questions about how best the haves might serve the have-nots that are harder to ignore than they were before.

Asking those questions doesn’t diminish the efforts and achievements of The Big Night In in any way. But they are pertinent. In an ideal world, such endeavours would fund the icing on an already generously proportioned cake due to be evenly sliced amongst all. It shouldn’t constitute the cake.

But until that day comes, thank you Lenny, Davina, Matt, Zoe Ball, Paddy McGuinness, Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, the cast of EastEnders, Jack Whitehall and everyone else. Baked Potato too, of course.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Comic Relief raises over £34m as stars parody The Traitors and Eurovision
Hosts of BBC fundraiser include AJ Odudu and Paddy McGuinness but Lenny Henry is absent for first time

Tobi Thomas

18, Mar, 2023 @11:38 AM

Article image
Comic Relief under fire ahead of BBC Panorama investigation

Charity's lawyers warn of 'enormous damage' as supporters including Frankie Boyle and Al Murray launch Twitter attacks. By John Plunkett and Jason Deans

John Plunkett and Jason Deans

10, Dec, 2013 @9:15 PM

Article image
Stacey Dooley 'would do the same' after Comic Relief row
Broadcaster says she has not spoken to MP David Lammy since ‘white saviour’ storm

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

24, May, 2019 @8:31 AM

Article image
Red Nose Day raises £8m less than 2017, as viewing figures fall
The BBC’s Comic Relief broadcast drew 600,000 fewer viewers than the last event

Jim Waterson Media editor

17, Mar, 2019 @4:20 PM

Article image
Coronavirus: looking for good news – Run for Heroes and an opera-singing doctor
Running fundraiser for NHS and frontline workers raises over £1m and the BBC announces a star-studded Big Night In

Jessica Murray

13, Apr, 2020 @5:43 PM

Article image
Comic Relief: cast doubts and cynicism aside and stick a red nose on
It doesn’t matter if you don’t like Love Actually, French and Saunders in Carpool Karaoke or Greg Davies shouting in a hot tub – just stick your hand in your pocket

Sam Wollaston

24, Mar, 2017 @11:18 PM

Article image
Comic Relief to review investments after row over BBC Panorama report

Charity says it will 'do the right thing' as it admits for first time it still has funds invested in tobacco, arms and alcohol companies. By John Plunkett

John Plunkett

10, Dec, 2013 @4:18 PM

Article image
Strictly dances off with Saturday night viewing figures
BBC competition attracts audience of 9.4 million compared to an all-time low of 4.8 million for its rival, ITV’s X Factor

Graham Ruddick Media editor

25, Sep, 2017 @7:09 PM

Article image
Lenny Henry criticises TV streamers’ commissioning tactics
Comedian says BBC approach is better as the focus is on the story being pitched rather than whether it will sell

Lucy Knight

29, May, 2022 @4:19 PM

Article image
Strictly Come Dancing triumphs in Christmas Day TV ratings battle
BBC1 claims first and second most popular programmes as more than 7.2m tune in for dance show and 6.3m watch Bake Off

Esther Addley

26, Dec, 2016 @1:45 PM