Red Nose Day

There are times when I miss  living in a small country.

In a small country, where everyone (until the past decade or so) watched the same four channels on TV, things happen that are truly nationwide.

On November 11, pretty much everyone is wearing a poppy (although increasingly debating about what colour and whether newsreaders should wear them) and everyone observes the silence at 11.11 AM.

If there is a two-minute silence for some other great tragedy you’re much more likely to have heard about it and notice it being observed on the various media (although this may have changed since I left in 1994 and the media explosion happened) than I find is the case in the large and federated USA.

As with living in a small town, living in each other’s pockets can get a bit annoying but I still miss it. Especially on days when the whole country gives itself over to raising money for good causes, like Children in Need or today. Red Nose Day.

Red Nose Day is officially called Comic Relief and is not related to the US Comic Relief effort (is that still going?). The first Red Nose Day must have been in 1985 or thereabouts. It was a day when everyone was encouraged to do something silly (wearing a red nose, for example) and raise money for charities (60% of the money goes to Africa and 40% stays in the UK). The comics took over at least one channel on TV, and celebrity and silly events abounded all over the country.

I remember the excitement in our school as Red Nose Day approached. People came around the classes selling plastic red noses for a pound apiece and we had permission to wear them and do silly things that Friday (I’m sure it was a Friday).

After a couple of years it had become an institution and people were competing to find the silliest things to do. We started with paying to come to school in normal clothes, but it degenerated into clown costumes and pie throwing contests and all kinds of things.

Naturally, a couple of years after that the backlash against the enforced sillliness started, but the day seems to have held up after all these years, and the comedians who were involved in the beginning have stayed around and been joined by a new crop of comics whose names I recognise from the gossip columns but know not as performers, having been out of the country for a while

Interestingly, a lot of the original stand-up comics I remember from the big day have gone all serious and are doing all sorts of interesting things now. Billy Connelly is acting in Oscar-nominated films, Adrian Edmonson (he of The Young Ones) is apparently starring in Holby City, a spin-off of the UK’s pre-ER emergency room drama, and Hugh Laurie is, well, you know.

I miss events like Red Nose Day, and I think I’ve figured out why.

Britain is a small country but an old one, with a long and contentious history. It is a country that has congealed gradually over the centuries, sometimes joining by conquest sometimes by alliance, but usually uniting groups of people who have historically been enemies and who continue to hold grudges and annoy each other right down to the present day. It’s not just the Scots, Irish and Welsh still resenting the English for all those acts of “union” that ultimately became a government centered in the part of the country that is almost as far as you can get from all those former kingdoms. It’s people from the Gaelic-speaking regions thinking the English-speakers look down on them; it’s the Geordie’s hating folks from Sunderland; and then there are the religious complications. We’re a nation made of different nations and localities, and there’s not much we agree on, overall.

Sure, we have the monarch as our rallying-point for patriotism, but get any four Brits together and you’ll get four different opinions on whether or not the monarch is to be revered, reviled, ignored or abolished. With the fact that our national anthem revolves around the said monarch and that our flag superimposes the flags of formerly-sovereign territories on top of each other, annoying the regional ‘nationalists’, and it becomes very hard to find a way of expressing unity. Add to that our absolute horror or tooting our own horns, and you get a country very different from the US, where children pledge allegience to the flag at nursery school, where people are proud of their flag, and where the folks will disingenuously tell you that theirs is “the best country in the world”, completely failing to realise that they have just insulted the home of everyone else in the world.

But what we DO have in our small island(s) nation, are things like Red Nose Day, which bind us together and give us a chance to show the Best of British, and give us something to really be proud of, instead of trying to talk about what people should be proud of.

I know, the ramblings of a rose-tinted ex-pat, and I don’t have to live with the enforced silliness that will be annoying so many Brits today.

But trust me, a little enforced silliness in the cause of charity one day a year (that you can ignore without being called a traitor to your country) is infinitely preferable to flag-waving jingoism, as a way to be proud of yourselves.

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