Co-founder says Comic Relief will probably move away from celebrity films

In the wake of the 'white saviour' row, Richard Curtis tells a committee of MPs that in future the charity will be 'very careful to give voices to people abroad'

Richard Curtis at the hearing
Richard Curtis at the hearing

Comic Relief is likely to stop its practice of sending celebrities to make films in developing countries after the "white saviour" row, its co-founder has said.

Richard Curtis, who is also vice chair of the charity, told MPs at a hearing of the International Development Select Committee this week that in future he imagined its work "will not be based on celebrities going abroad".

The charity would instead be "very careful to give voices to people abroad", said Curtis.

Asked by committee member Paul Scully, the Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam, for his response to accusations made in February by the Tottenham MP David Lammy that Comic Relief was perpetuating a "white saviour" stereotype in its use of celebrities to front appeal films from Africa, Curtis said it was a complex issue.

"We’re doing all we can to raise the maximum amount of money for our projects internationally, and particularly our projects in Africa, and we listen to the leaders of those projects who want us to have as much money as possible.

"But if it is felt that Comic Relief is so influential in terms of image that you start to send out the wrong image, and that people who live in this country with African backgrounds feel as though they are in some way demeaned or negatively affected by Comic Relief, we really have to listen to that."

Comic Relief was, he said, constantly looking for new ways to tell stories.

"Traditionally, the sadder the film the more money it makes, but I’m sure there must be a solution where you show such radiant joy and success that that would encourage you to give more money," he said.

"We’re doing all we can to try to encourage film-makers in new ways of making money that actually give the major voice to the people who are working in the projects.

"The truth of the matter is we heard the criticism, we were doing stuff to address it and we’re accelerating the way that we address it."

Lammy had expressed concerns after the documentary film-maker Stacey Dooley published an image on Instagram of her visiting Comic Relief projects in Uganda.

"This just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes," said Lammy.

"Let’s instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate."

Curtis said Comic Relief took the criticisms very seriously and "it’s part of a journey that we’re on".

Curtis told MPs the film with Dooley was one of only two shown on this year’s Red Nose Day that featured celebrities.

He added that the charity did not engage more in the discussion raised by Lammy because it did not want to detract from its fundraising efforts on Red Nose Day.

"There’s also a slightly odd thing about Red Nose Day in that, when criticisms occur during our fundraising period, that’s the one moment we most don’t want to discuss it, because we want to be saying 'buy your red nose, do an event, watch our TV show'," he said.

"I’d much more welcome the discussion now, when we’re not losing money as a result of that discussion. Comic Relief didn’t react very robustly because we were just trying to get on with the fundraising, but internally we talk about it all the time."

Liz Warner, outgoing chief executive of Comic Relief, said last year that the charity would move away from using films fronted by celebrities and use local people instead after the practice attracted criticism.

The matter gained considerable coverage again this year after Lammy’s intervention.

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