Comic Relief’s outlandish origin story – inside Nether Wallop festival

Comic Relief’s outlandish origin story – inside Nether Wallop festival

The year is 1984 and, thanks to a headline in the Sunday Times, the tenacity of a charity entrepreneur and an eagle-eyed vicar, it is the opening evening of the first Nether Wallop international arts festival.

The headline ran in 1982 and sat above an article asking why Edinburgh had a monopoly on arts festivals. It was written by Stephen Pile (author of The Book of Heroic Failures) and his headline was to the effect of “The Edinburgh festival has had its time, why not do a festival in Nether Wallop?” – a village name plucked out of the ether purely for its quirkiness.

The charity entrepreneur who saw the headline was Jane Tewson. She had just set up a venture called Charity Projects and immediately rang Pile, introduced herself and said: “Let’s do it.”

The story also goes that the vicar of Nether Wallop saw the article and contacted Pile to say: ‘Why not, indeed?’ And, he added, that if the festival did happen, the church roof needed fixing.

In the annals of Wiki history, Pile gets credit for the idea as it sowed the seed for the first Nether Wallop international arts festival and Jane also gets credit for acting on it. But the vicar is not mentioned so often – and yet I am told his encouragement and enthusiasm were very important. So well done, reverend.

Back in 1984, I was an art director at Saatchi & Saatchi and my friend Fi worked in the TV department. The short version is that Fi introduced me to Jane and, on hearing of her wonderfully ambitious plans for the festival, I asked if I could come along with my camera. “Of course – if you can find somewhere to stay,” Jane said.

Jane had registered Charity Projects as a charity earlier that year but she needed supporters, not to mention an office. She started at the top.

Nether Wallop village sign in woodland.

One of the calls she made was to Saatchi & Saatchi asking to speak to Maurice. The Saatchi brothers’ PA, Nick Crean, thought he was pretty good at filtering out cold callers but, he says, Jane made herself sound like one of Maurice’s very best friends, so he put her through. Two minutes later, Maurice came out of his office asking why Nick had put through a charity worker – but, importantly, he did not dismiss what she had to say and asked Nick to talk to her himself. So job number one was done. Jane had made an impression.

At the same time, Jane had knocked on the door of a commercials director she knew, Mike Russell Hills, because she needed office space. Mike had a production company on D’Arblay St in Soho and told her he had a spare desk in the far corner of the top floor. Mike had worked at Saatchi & Saatchi for a few years and had left just a few months before to set up on his own.

The “free” office was quite a coup because one of Jane’s founding pledges was that every pound donated should be what she called a “golden pound”. In other words, the pound was to go in its entirety to the cause. Her thinking was that if a child raided their piggy bank to donate a pound, then Jane wanted that child to know that the whole pound had gone to the cause; not a penny was to be lost paying staff, celebrities, film crew or even buying a coffee. The golden pound philosophy continues to this day.

Arnold Zuboff, AJ Ayer and Jerry Cohen.
Bamber Gascoigne.

  • Left: Arnold Zuboff, AJ Ayer and Gerry Cohen, as the world’s greatest philosophers took on the great minds of Nether Wallop

  • Right: Hosted by Bamber Gascoigne

This also means that no one gets paid, not even the celebrities.

In fact, Paul Jackson told me that not only are they not paid, the brief to celebrities is not to dig something out of your back catalogue, do something new. And not just new: make it the best thing you’ve ever done.

Andrew Lloyd Webber

It is no wonder Comic Relief has become such a success.

Three performers at Nether Wallop

The first Nether Wallop international arts festival itself was a riotous and wonderful event, star-studded yet intimate, spontaneous yet orderly (hmmm) and Nether Wallop proved to be the perfect setting. I say “hmmm” but actually the village festival chairman Major Billy Jepson-Turner ran proceedings with authority and charm, making little attempt at any military order.

A living room, a tithe barn, a village hall, a scouts hut and a marquee in a field were just some of the “arenas” that saw performances by the wonderful actors and comedians who are now household names. But there were also a host of other artists: an opera singer (Jessye Norman), dancers (Lynn Seymour, Wayne Sleep), TV hosts (Bamber Gascoigne), directors (Trevor Nunn of the RSC, Andrew Logan), actors (Jenny Agutter, Maria Aitken) and musicians (Bill Wyman, John Otway, Jools Holland, Andrew Lloyd Webber), who gave up their weekend for charity.

Stanley Unwin, Bill Wyman, Mandy Smith : There was an eclectic mix of people - Stanley Unwin, Bill Wyman, Mandy Smith
Mel Smith with beer and cigar: Mel Smith - a quick break from the synchronised swimming
Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie: Stephen Fry gives Hugh Laurie a Shakespeare masterclass

  • Top: Stanley Unwin, Bill Wyman, Mandy Smith

  • Left: Mel Smith takes a quick break from the synchronised swimming

  • Right: Stephen Fry gives Hugh Laurie a Shakespeare masterclass

Other venues were public footpaths (the walk around the village hosted by Arthur Smith), the village “high street” along which there was a pageant (narrated by Jenny Agutter and Michael Hordern) and a farm trailer on which a stand-up comedian (Norman Lovett) performed – surrounded by a herd of cows.

Jenny Agutter sheet B neg 18 crop rtch NWF
Rowan Atkinson holding oranges: Rowan Atkinson berates the Nether Wallop football team

Another quirk of the Nether Wallop festival was that Jane didn’t inform the national press, she only told a reporter from the local paper that it was going to happen. And Jane says that the paper’s editor thought that the reporter had made it up so the story never ran!

Rik Mayall + band neg 30 rtch NWF

But what did happen was that Jane and Paul Jackson, a producer in the light entertainment department of London Weekend Television (LWT), thought that there should be cameras present.

Fry and Laurie roll A neg 20 rtch NWF

Not for a live broadcast, but to make a documentary about it. (The documentary captures the charm and spontaneity of the Nether Wallop festival perfectly and is available to watch online – and by the way, the festival raised over £40,000 for charity projects work with young people, which, as Jane says, was “Huge” adding “we had such fun distributing it and indeed involving the artists who performed in Wallop …”)

Unwin and Wyman sheet A neg 16 rtch NWF
Tony Pearce stand-up sheet G neg 11A NWF
Rik Mayall roll C neg 14A rtch NWF

  • Top: Stanley Unwin and Bill Wyman on stage

  • Left: stand-up Tony Pearce

  • Right: Rik Mayall and friends

To quote Jane again: Paul is a “legend of a man and certainly there would be no Comic Relief without him. The energy and passion he gave us was absolutely extraordinary … he also produced all the live shows we did with the Young Ones etc and then became chair of Comic Relief … he was the key linchpin.’

Billy Connelly roll G neg 15 rtch NWF

The people who were to become so instrumental in creating Comic Relief were not only some of the stars who took to the stage in Nether Wallop: Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Billy Connolly, Rik Mayall, Mel Smith and Arthur Smith, to name just a few, but also those behind the scenes: Jane Tewson, Stephen Pile, Paul Jackson, (Sir) Tim Bell, Mike Russell Hills and, very soon after Nether Wallop, Lenny Henry and Richard Curtis. And what an achievement it is.

Final Bow roll G neg 19 rtch NWF

And last but certainly not least, that church roof that needed fixing?

Wayne Sleep car roll D neg 9 rtch NWF

Paul Jackson tells me that LWT were more than happy to donate and made sure the vicar received every pound that was needed.

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