Sport Relief is an interesting concept. Someone must have thought ‘sports personalities are treated like celebrities these days, why not use them to do Comic Relief again without risking over-exposure’. The problem with this luvvie-PR approach is that the majority of sports personalities (although that phrase in itself is often an oxymoron) have less sense of humour than a set of goalposts.
The kind of selfless determination and motivation that’s required to get to the top in sport is almost, by definition, less receptive to many kinds of humour, particularly British self-deprecation. This is no doubt more true in individual events where there’s less social interaction than in teams. Also, the time needed to train and practice, particularly as a young person, means that many athletes are less likely to have spent time watching comedy on television.
This was comically apparent during James Corden’s ‘Smithy’ section on ‘Sports Relief’ last night. While I watch ‘Gavin and Stacey’ I wouldn’t class myself as a huge fan: it seems to be this year’s ‘Little Britain’ and seems to be similarly pumped up by the BBC hype machine, perhaps as evidence that not everything on BBC3 is total garbage. The appeal of the programme seems to come more from the engaging performances of Matthew Horne and the lovely Joanna Page (one of the recipients of Jonathan Ross’s loathsome lustings) plus good support from Alison Steadman and the ubiquitous Rob Brydon. The characters played by Corden and Ruth Jones seem to me to undermine the rest of programme.
Corden’s ‘Smithy’ character seems to be positioned by comedy opinion formers, such as Comic Relief, as a sort of mouthy, loveable slob England-supporting, sports following couch potato — sort of Loadsamoney with sport replacing the dosh. ‘Sport Relief’ showed a performance he must have done as a warm-up for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year last December which was a bit peculiar.
He started with a mock acceptance as Coach of the Year, then did a mock acceptance speech which veered at times into a serious rant and then followed, as if in apology, with a hammed up ‘let’s make Britain great’ conclusion. What was striking about the performance was that he picked on some of the sports celebrities in the audience in traditional stand-up fashion — and the looks on some of their faces were of absolute thunder which said clear as day ‘I am a living legend. You can’t take the piss out of me.’
Fabio Capello probably didn’t know what the hell was going on so he laughed amiably throughout. Similarly, genuinely laid-back personalities like Ryan Giggs knew to laugh along at the (not very funny) suggestion he was about 45 by now. Also, politicians like Lord Coe knew that the worst thing to do in these circumstances was to look peeved or offended — though the Ovett remark seemed quite close to the bone. However, Freddie Flintoff’s face was a picture when Corden ridiculed his nickname and his injury record (pointing out that his drinking arm was always in good order). Kelly Holmes also seemed to be aggrieved when he said running 800m was nothing compared with Paula Radcliffe’s marathons — but Radcliffe suddenly looked rather serious when, in the most amusing of his jokes, Corden asked if anyone had shown her where the toilet was. I guess that some of these people wouldn’t have had a clue who this fat, scruffy oik in a tracksuit was — especially as he’d yet to join comedy royalty because this segment was recorded before he’d had the honour of having his show transmitted as a Christmas Day special
What was most striking, however, was when he went into tub-thumping, jingoistic mode — ‘We Can Win the World Cup, We Can Win Wimbledon’ and followed it up with a combination of sporting cliches about winning. The audience, having been fairly puzzled by the stand-up comedy, then got to its feet and cheered him to the rafters. While this was, no doubt, edited for effect, I’m sure that Corden was ridiculing himself (or his character) at this stage — a point that seemed to be lost on most of the audience. Steve Redgrave, sorry Sir Steve Redgrave, stood there wiping away a tear from his eye which, while it may have been staged, seemed to me to be the sort of reaction he’d make if that sort of speech was given straight. I suppose these sporting celebrities shouldn’t be criticised for reacting in this way — if they had the brains of comedians then we’d never win anything. (It reminds me of Clive Woodward’s, sorry Sir Clive, selection of records on ‘Desert Island Discs’ — it was the most unsubtle, two-dimensional list but, more than anything it was functional — uplifting, ‘euphoric’ anthems like ‘The Greatest Day’ by Take That or ‘Life is A Rollercoaster’ by Ronan Keating plus pumping, adrenaline releasing stuff of the sort they play on BBC Sport programmes incessantly by Eminem or Chicane. I guess his desert island life would be permanent reminiscing of the glory days of the world cup.)
Watching the thing a second time it seems that it was more edited than it may have appeared originally and certain personalities will have been prompted that they were going to get the Smithy treatment and may even have been told to try and keep a straight face (Kelly Holmes for example). Nevertheless, most of the expressions looked quite transparently horrified that this tubby comedian could get on stage and say things that, taken out of the flimsy ironic context of supposedly been in character, were actually pretty insulting.
However, that re-inforces the paradox of Sport Relief — a comedy vehicle that features some of the straightest and least amusing people possible — although there was a fair amount of blokeish, dressing room humour in evidence when Lineker, Hansen and Lawrenson did Masterchef — sausage and mash, steak and chips and spaghetti a la carbonara — and all cooked quite well — such is the competitive nature of these people. I tend to think these fund raisers, laudable as they are for raising money, tend to be designed as a useful spin-off for celebrities to gauge their relative standing. Christine Bleakley got promoted to hosting a section this year, as did James Corden — so obviously they’re on the up. Obviously they’ll have taken the places of some fading personalities whose phones no longer ring with offers as much as they did when they were on the way up.
One person for whom I have unreserved admiration is Eddie Izzard. I watched the final ‘Marathon Man’ programme, which followed the end of his incredible 43 marathons in 51 days. I had expected him to have prepared thoroughly for such a masochistic challenge but I was amazed to see that he cut a very unathletic character, even with something of a pot belly after more than half the marathons. Even were he to have lost weight his heavy physique is not really one of a distance runner.
I do a bit of running myself but I’ve never gone near anything like marathon distance. The furthest I’ve done is the half-marathon, which is gruelling enough, and, at my pace, meant over two hours of continuous running. I lost a toenail for several months after that and was fatigued for a couple of days — even after having worked up to it for a few weeks. Eddie Izzard apparently only trained for five weeks and so ran at a pace that meant his marathons were taking around five hours — even ten hours in some cases when he was almost literally dead on his feet. To run for ten hours along roads and then do it all again the next day must take the most incredible willpower. I’m not a huge fan of his comedy but I can see how he must have had the determination to make a successful career (he returned to locations in Edinburgh where he’d started as a street perfomer during the programme). Of all the celebrity challenges that are performed for these fundraising events, Izzard’s must be metaphorically, if not athletically, way ahead of the field.