Comic Relief, stammering, and the real irony

Humour can be difficult to get right - but last night Lenny Henry and the BBC got it very wrong.

My children have been very moved by the various TV programmes leading up to Comic Relief, in particular one involving Lenny Henry in Kenya. On their own initiative they set themselves challenges and got sponsorship. Their questions have led us to discuss politics, culture and the use of humour to highlight inequalities, injustice and our own inconsistencies.

It beggars belief that Comic Relief would open with a spoof of The King's Speech which involved absolutely no irony, hidden message or clever humour. All it said was – it's OK to roll your eyes and laugh at people who stammer, to interrupt them, to hurry them, to make fun of them and to finish their sentences. What sort of signal does that send out to young people who stammer and to their peers who are so crucial to their self-esteem and acceptance?

In a strongly worded complaint Leys Geddes, chair of the British Stammering Association, said, "Thousands of children are teased and bullied every day simply because they stammer. By doing stuff like this, you give other children permission to continue this foul treatment and encourage adults to snigger and turn a blind eye…In your drive for audiences and edge, you trample on the very vulnerabilities you claim to dispel."

The BBC recently showed an excellent programme about young people attending a course at the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children. Comic Relief spends considerable sums on anti-bullying projects. It's a pity that no-one involved in the production or showing of the opening sketch seems to have spotted this real irony.

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13 Responses to Comic Relief, stammering, and the real irony

  1. Sarah Manns says:

    As Comic Relief are pulling off any negative comments, I have now written on a new discussion thread.
    “The work you all do is fantastic. Of course it is.
    However, the skit with Lenny Henry and The Kings Speech was inexplicable in any realm of understanding.
    Rather than contact the BSA and ask those who have a stammer – ‘How would you feel – should we, shouldn’t we do this skit?’, you choose THE most high profile night to belittle and diminish all those who have a stammer.
    If you are, in any sense, people with honour, you should contact the BSA now, arrange a meeting or to attend the next conference and learn. That meeting surely should include Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry. If they talk the talk, they really should walk the walk.
    You are currently pulling everything off YouTube and Face Book pages which has drawn your attention to this upset. If you were so convinced that the skit was ‘right’ in an sense and can be justified, you would let these voices be heard and this discussion thread would run. Why are these voices less worthy than those you support elsewhere.
    We really do expect to hear from you and expect to treated with dignity and courtesy.
    Sarah Manns”

  2. Angela McQuade says:

    Lenny Henry’s cruel and condescending attempt at humour was shocking. To appear on television claiming to be concerned for others and use the opportunity to mimic people who stammer was, to put it mildly, thoughtless, witless and tactless. Last night Lenny Henry and the BBC sanctioned, and indeed promoted, the bullying and humiliation of those with speech impediments. Angela McQuade.

  3. Soozsal says:

    I do so hope people will complain about this,never felt the need to formally complain about anything until now:(

  4. Jenny James says:

    I rang the BBC within seconds of the opening of Comic Relief last night. I was appalled at the way stammering appeared to be a suitable topic for mockery. I wonder if they also considered a scene with Henry rushing to get into the studio, only to find his way blocked by someone in a wheelchair who he then roughly shoves out of the way to barge through? This was just as damaging. Shame on the BBC, shame on Comic Relief and shame on Lenny Henry.

  5. Brian Skelton says:

    The work that Comic Relief do is Fantastic but the way that the BBC broadcast the opening of the show last night was Disgusting. Since the Film The King’s Speech there has been a lot of intrest from the general public and people who stammer. There has been a lot of positive things about how people deal with their Stammer in the Press and on the TV.
    The Starfish Project who help people who stammer have had a lot of enquries for there 3 day course since the Film.

  6. Linda Brown says:

    My son is a recovering stammerer. I am angry and appalled at this so called humour. Hang your heads in shame all those responsible!
    Linda Brown

  7. Absolutely disgusted by Lenny Henry and the opening ‘sketch’ of Comic Relief. My son and the other recovering stammerers have more courage, compassion and strength of character than this so-called man could ever hope to have, he should hang his head in shame. However, he wouldn’t do this unless there was a tv camera present to record it………

  8. Aonghus says:

    I couldn’t agree more, the sketch was misguided and mocking – it may well undo so much of the good work the King’s speech has done for people who stammer. I would urge anyone who saw it and has concerns to make a formal complaint to the BBC.
    I’m aware that some people might be thinking to themselves that we need to get a sense of humour, that no-one should be free from being the target of a good joke. That’s true, but just think about someone who stammers and has to face bullies at school on Monday – does that skit, shown in front of millions, say that’s it ok to tell someone to ‘get it out’?

  9. says:

    I think people need to see the joke for what it was…a JOKE! My cousin has a stammer and he isn’t upset! Some people just like finding the bad in everything I suppose! It probably went completely over the top of most kids heads and if your child has a stammer, their school mates are probably used to it already! If your child is upset, tell them to hold their head high and live with pride, not complain at the slightest negative comment made to them (and it wasn’t even directed at anyone but a FILM!!), real life isn’t easy so they might as well learn young! I wouldn’t mind someone taking the mick out of me for a whopping 30 seconds if it raised over £74M for charity! Think about it!!!

  10. dom says:

    “All it said was – it’s OK to roll your eyes and laugh at people who stammer, to interrupt them, to hurry them, to make fun of them and to finish their sentences.”
    I didn’t get that impression from the sketch at all. It was merely exploiting the film itself, not stammering…which is arguably what “The Kings Speech” does, exploits a condition for emotional impact.
    People seem intent on taking offence at any instance of perceived prejudice. If you WANT to be offended by something you will be…whether this sketch IS offensive to stammerers is entirely subjective.

  11. t says:

    omg, lenny henry, has been involved with red nose day for over 20years, the sketch was not meant, to make offense, i have to aggree with another post on here, most children who have a stammer and wathched comic relief on friday night, probally, didnt even think anything of it, its the parents that take offence to it, and the parents which make it into a massive issue, which do not get me wrong, it is, but for god sake we raised over £74 million pounds for charitys all over the world including uk ones, and some of that money will probally, go to a charity of sort like yours, so yes complain about something that did not even last 30 seconds, but your not complaining when the moneys getting handed out, to organisations like yours.

  12. PStJB says:

    I don’t think Lenny Henry is a bully – I do think he and the BBC just didn’t think, and I do think he should make an apology, because if the BBC and Comic relief are really pulling all criticism off the airwaves, it’s just going to incense people to make more of an issue, and embarrass LH and the BBC more. I bet Premier Hotels aren’t happy – maybe people, if they want to really have an impact, should withdraw from use of their accommodation and let them know why?

  13. Jonathan Roberts says:

    While I not a killjoy and am cool about most things, I was also shocked by the opening few scenes on Friday night, which apart from that was a great show and raised a lot of money for a lot of needy people. I have had a stammer for over 30 years now and it affects every aspect of my life. While the film was a good portrayal of a historic event, Lenny Henry’s sketch was nothing short of making fun of people who have a stammer. Maybe he ought to sit in a room of people and struggle to say a word and experience the absolute despair and embarrassment that it brings. Maybe he ought to pick up the phone and struggle to get any words out while the person at the other end wonders what is going on? Would you have aired the same clip if it had been about a stroke victim who had lost the ability to speak or some other disorder where speech is impaired? I would like to think not. Thanks goodness 99% of the people I meet on a daily basis treat me with respect and give me the time that I need. Maybe the people who have posted other comments regarding this issue condoning the actions would like to experience having a stammer for a day? It would be interesting to hear their views afterwards.

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