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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.