We’ll all be making our faces funny for money this Friday as part of this year’s Comic Relief. The famous red nose has been a staple of the BBC’s pre-Easter programming since 1988. And thanks to a hearty celebrity endorsement and the unfailing support of the Great British Bake Off public it is still going as strong as ever. In terms of the money and awareness it raises, the facts and figures surrounding Red Nose Day are, like some of the TV moments it has given us, truly remarkable.
But rather than a simple red nose, they have taken things up a level with this year’s full on facial blitz. As long as your face is funny, you can do what you want. Creativity has always been part of the Comic Relief manifesto. All bets are off. Whether you plan to sit in a bathtub of face-cream, shave off your flatmate’s eyebrows, or set up your own game of funny face bingo, no-one will complain (apart from perhaps your flatmate). Funny face bingo is where you set up a bingo style sheet that allows you to score whenever you spot things like fake noses, face-paint, wigs, crazy teeth and shaved eyebrows.
This poses a challenge. In a world where everyone is absurd-ifying their face, how do you make yours stand out? Who gets to be the funny one when everybody’s face is made up like Katie Hopkins Ronald McDonald on a bad day?
There are some serious decisions to be made. How can you stick cornflakes to your face without a) gluing your eyes shut b) burning yourself with molten chocolate or c) removing an entire layer of skin when you discover that the glue you’ve used is a little bit better than you thought.
It has to be admitted that some people’s faces start out funnier than others. Jim Carey may call himself an actor, but anyone familiar with his early work will know that there is a subtle, but important distinction between the highly skilled, delicately nuanced and painstakingly acquired craft of acting and the more prosaic accomplishment of just crossing your eyes and sticking your teeth out.
Perhaps more respectably, Mr Rowan Atkinson has a face that anyone with a love of play-dough would give their eye for. If there were a place in the Olympics for facial gymnastics then surely the man who gave us Blackadder, Jonny English and Mr Bean would be right up there with Dame Kelly Holmes, Sir Bradley Whiskers and that rower with the big feet. As the only man on the planet to have completed a triple-salko with his lips alone, Mr Atkinson’s services to facial fun are in the gold medal class.
There are others who deserve an honourable mention in this celebration of silliness. Comedian Les Dawson delighted a generation of TV fans with gravitationally seduced facial expressivity rarely seen anywhere but a Lancashire outdoor lavvy.
Frankie Howerd’s eyebrows – a pair of promiscuous caterpillars on first sight – were part of the same vintage, as were Ken Dodd’s splendidly spatch-cocked front teeth, and Trevor McDonald’s spectacular specs. Making your face funny for money was what quite a number of performers did full time during what they still insist on calling TV’s gurning golden age.
Comedians of a more recent vintage have learned some important lessons from these old masters. Lee Evans’ hyperactive, hyper-perspirational performances are famously enlivened by a face that – despite his best endeavours – insists on dancing to its own idiosyncratic music. It’s a shame each of his features has a different tune, but it helps take your mind off his jokes.
But there is another class of public persona that outdoes these humble purveyors of puns, parodies and pratfalls. Some of the most remarkable facial edifices out there achieve that rare thing of comedy through the back door. During his days preparing to be a professional jumper-jockey for the One Show, Gyles Brandreth MP perfected a knack of appearing to speak sensibly whilst sending out visual comic signals. Brandreth’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed evangelism confounded all who attempted to deny his Brendrethments blandishments. Audiences were reduced to rabbits trapped in the hypnotic beam of his wide-mouthed-frog of a smile.
Brandreth’s impact at Westminster is still felt today. Party leaders are no longer selected not on the basis of their leadership, intellect or downright sneakiness. Now, following the Big B, the ability to speak something that make sense whilst looking like an outcast from the Muppets or a fire damaged reject from Thunderbirds is seen as the ultimate in political accomplishment. It is the very epitome of disarmament. Because – like Voldemort – Brandreth’s name can only now be uttered in light entertainment, those in the business instead call this mastery “a Farage” “a Millliband” “a Clegg” “a Cameron” a Clarkson”.