Here in the UK, Comic Relief was launched live from a refugee camp in Sudan on BBC1 on Christmas Day 1985 during Noel Edmonds’ Late, Late Breakfast Show. The idea came from charity worker Jane Tewson and comedy script writer Richard Curtis after they had visited Sudan and Ethiopia.
First came the charity single in March 1986, which saw Cliff Richard team up with The Young Ones to record Living Doll. Here is Rik telling everyone about it on the Wogan show. This was probably where I and many of my school friends first heard about Comic Relief. Plus seeing features in magazines like Smash Hits and Lookin. The charity single was a big hit with us kids, we all loved The Young Ones and thought we’d never see them again after they fell off that cliff! So it was great to have them back again when this single was released.
The single was released on the 8th March 1986 and entered the UK singles chart at No. 4 on 16th March 1986 and reached No.1 the following week on the 23rd March, pushing “Chain Reaction” by Diana Ross down to No.2. The single remained at No.1 for three weeks, with around 1.5 million records being sold in total, which is slightly less than the 1959 version, which sold 1.86 million.
The Secret Policeman’s Ball, in aid of Amnesty International had previously seen the Monty Python team join forces with Beyond the Fringe in the 70’s and early 80’s and paved the way for an evening of entertainment for charity fundraising, combining comedians, music artist and well know celebrities. Bob Geldof was inspired and on 13th July 1985, Live Aid took place to raise funds for the famine in Ethiopia.
“The seed was planted at Amnesty for Bob Geldof. He saw what they were doing. He saw how entertainment could help that process and then he took the “Ball” and ran with it. Further than anybody could possibly imagine.” (Sting 2004, BBC TV)
The very first Comic Relief fund-raising performance ‘Comic Relief Utterly Utterly Live’ took place on 4th, 5th & 6th April 1986 at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London, and pre-dates Red Nose Day by two years. The cream of British comedy performed sketches and songs with some surprising musical guests.
Cliff Richard performed his Comic Relief single with The Young Ones, while Stephen Fry teamed up with Bob Geldof and Midge Ure. But perhaps the most unexpected turn of the night was a romantic duet between Rowan Atkinson and reclusive pop genius Kate Bush. Given that Bush didn’t tour for 35 years between 1979 and 2014, her appearance at the first Comic Relief show was a big deal, paving the way for many other celebrities to send themselves up in the name of charity. Read about the behind the scenes chaos in an article from Smash Hits.
All three nights were recorded, as each night the line up was slightly different. An audio recording was released on WEA, and also an Utterly Utterly Rude Video. Highlights from the performances were also shown on TV as a special edition of the BBC Omnibus programme. Which was broadcast on Friday 25th April at 10.15pm on BBC 1 and repeated later in the year during the Christmas holidays on Saturday 27th December at 11.10pm on BBC2.
Taking photographs at this historic event was Rock ‘n’ Roll photographer Steve Rapport.
All of Steve’s images can be bought as prints, visit his Instagram for more details.
Photo credit: Steve Rapport
In 1986, Chris Shields (author of Early Rik: Thoughts of a Clown) was 15, and in his 5th year of secondary school, he was very into The Young Ones, Not The Nine O’Clock News and Monty Python. Here’s what he told me about about how he got to be at the stage door:
In the March of that year, Rowan Atkinson was appearing in ‘The New Revue’ at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. I went to see it a couple of times as it was Rowan at his best. He did the whole ‘one man show’ with Angus Deayton who was unknown to me at the time (although he’d appeared in the Hee Bee Gee Bees with Philip Pope). I met Rowan at the stage door and I remember Angus leaving the theatre and no one asking for his autograph. As Rowan’s show was written by Rowan and Richard Curtis, Richard must have used Rowan’s Shaftesbury Theatre residency to his advantage as he had just set up Comic Relief.
The Young Ones ‘Living Doll’ was released on 8th March 1986 and I wrote to the address on the back of the 12 inch at 21 D’Arblay Street, London W1 as it said ‘for further information from Comic Relief’.
Chris’ letter from Comic Relief
I received the letter and went up to the Shaftesbury Theatre box office with my friend to buy tickets for the Comic Relief show. When we asked to buy tickets the box office said that they were £25 each – with no concessions for under 18s (it was for charity after all). At the time the price for front row stalls was £12.50 so £25 was a big shock to us and we couldn’t afford to go and see it. So instead we decided to go up to the Shaftesbury Theatre’s stage door on the Saturday afternoon (they put on three shows – Friday 4th April, Saturday 5th April and Sunday 6thApril).
We got to the stage door about 2pm and there were many people hanging around for autographs.
First to arrive was Rowan. Then Graham Chapman. Then Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie together. Then Ben Elton and Pamela Stephenson together. Angus Deayton arrived and once again, no one asked for his autograph, so I did as I felt a bit sorry for him! There was Billy Connolly, Christopher Ryan. Terry Gilliam (with a plank of wood for the Python sketch – cut from the TV recording). Michael Palin arrived but wouldn’t sign any autographs. Lenny Henry arrived running in at full speed and he ran past everyone ignoring us all.
There were musicians too. Midge Ure arrived with Kate Bush, Bob Geldof and Paula Yates, Joan Armatrading. Gary Glitter ran in with 6 bodyguards all surrounding him from fans – much to everyone’s hilarity (as this was before he became fashionable again – before he then became notorious).
There were others – Rory Bremner, Wanda Ventham, Kathy Staff, Philip Pope, even Neil Kinnock!
I had my video camera with me (this was before it was commonplace for people to have a camcorder). My friend took the job of cameraman as I got autographs. Believe it or not, when Rik Mayall arrived – the video tape chewed up in the machine and we were very upset afterwards that it wasn’t captured on film – Rik had been his polite self and had even pulled faces to the camera.
The organisers had a remote studio vehicle parked up the road behind the theatre and at about 4pm Ade Edmondson filmed a couple of links for the shows (dressed as Vyvian). He wouldn’t stop for autographs and ran past everybody.
And here is the video camera footage Chris and his friend captured
Take a flick through The Official Programme
Programme from the Chris Shields collection
And here is the full televised Omnibus programme, which includes different highlights to the ones that were edited and put together for the Utterly Utterly Rude Video release.
- Intro by James Hacker (Paul Eddington)
- Spitting Image, The Queen and Prince Phillip
- Lenny Henry
- Rowan Atkinson and Angus Deayton
- Pamela Stephenson and Neil Kinnock
- Ronnie Corbett
- Joan Armatrading
- Howard Jones
- Spitting Image, Bob Geldof and Paula Yates
- Stephen Fry, Midge Ure and Bob Geldof
- Spitting Image, Prince Andrew and Ferggie
- Rowan Atkinson and Kate Bush
- Rory Bremner, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe, with French and Saunders
- Rik Mayall
- The Young Ones with Cliff Richard
- Pamela Stephenson, Billy Connolly and Gary Glitter
- Thoeophlis P Wildedbeest (Lenny Henry)
- French and Saunders
- Neil (Nigel Planer)
- Ben Elton
- Christopher Ryan
- Lenny Henry and Frank Bruno
- Billy Connolly
- Midge Ure and Bob Geldof, ‘Do They Know its Christmas’
- Finale all on stage to sing ‘Do They Know its Christmas’
Please comment below or get in touch with your memories, especially if you were you lucky enough to be in the audience of one of these performances.
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