Monday, January 25, 2010



David Tennant recently said of his experience of the US, “There’s a tidal wave of positivity, which sometimes obscures the truth.” He found Americans to be friendly and highly optimistic, more so than the whingeing, moaning, but perhaps more pragmatic Brits. That’s his view, and I think it’s shared by many. However, I’ve never found people in the US to be overwhelming optimistic and I haven’t found the British to be completely doom and gloom either. Maybe I’m just unobservant and not in touch with the prevalent national mood. Something I think to counteract this argument is the British attitude toward charities.

I’m not going to say that Americans are ungenerous, by any means. They open their hearts and their wallets all the time for worthy causes. But as a national institution, something that is highly visible in the workplace and on TV, I don’t think it compares to the way the British do charities. There are so many high profile British charities that are constantly on TV in a big way. Comic Relief is probably the first one I ever heard of (“Curse of the Fatal Death,” obviously). This is also known as Red Nose Day, and in November when this happens the shops are full of plastic red noses. The idea is for the ordinary people to do funny things in order for other ordinary people to pledge money for the cause. I find it amazing how many people actually participate, and what lengths (if not creativity) they go to for workplace and other social group schemes.
The willingness and frequency that British celebrities donate their time and talent for such charities is impressive. It also gives you such gems as the aforementioned sketch, ones from The Vicar of Dibley, French & Saunders, Top Gear, Only Fools and Horses, several Catherine Tate sketches (a really funny one is this pre-series 4 collaboration between Tate and Tennant), Deal or No Deal, Tom Jones and the cast of Gavin and Stacey, and so on. Many years ago Caitlin Moran wrote a column for one of the papers, remembering how when she was a kid, staying up for one of the charity nights (I can’t remember which) was a real event, like she felt like she was being a part of something. I saw this go out live last year, and it still makes me squeal.

Children in Need is another in this category, and it of course has produced such memorable moments as the brilliantly-written Time Crash (the end always makes me want to cry). In 2005 there was a tiny Doctor Who Children in Need Special that I didn’t see for many years, featuring a manic Tenth Doctor and a very frightened Rose. The completely bizarre Dimensions in Time was also a Children in Need Special, way back in 1993 (watch it if you dare!). And then there’s Poirot, Hollyoaks, Lark Rise to Candleford, Merlin, The Bill, Casualty, and on and on. As you may have gathered from this clip, (if you weren’t distracted by Richard Armitage’s leather trousers) the mascot of Children in Need is Pudsey, a yellow bear with a bandage.

Another very important and very visible charity (again, in November) is the Poppy Appeal, which is part of the charities headed by the Royal British Legion. The poppies themselves are a symbol from the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written in memory of the fallen in World War I, and indeed, the Royal British Legion was founded after that war. The weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday will see thousands of volunteers give out millions of paper and cloth poppies to donors, which they pin to their clothes. (Of course in the US we have Veterans' Day, 11 November, which is duly marked with respect—but there’s not a visible sign like the poppies, other than the American flag of course.) Remembrance Sunday is also marked by a minute of silence and wreathes of poppies presented on memorials to the war dead.

There are likely a hundred more charities (I’ve donated to a few) but one unique aspect of life in the UK that is tied up with charities are charity shops. These are like thrift shops, but they are omnipresent. Run by volunteers, these small shops, some specializing in things like furniture and collectables, receive donations of almost anything from people, then sell them at very, very affordable prices. I love them, because in whatever way you support them, everybody wins. I have got some of my coolest clothes from charity shops and for very reasonable prices.

The appeal to donate to charities is everywhere, all the time: on Radio 4, there’s always a special appeal going, and different seasons and events bring different charities to the fore, besides the ones I’ve already mentioned. Finally, and this is what sparked this subject in my mind today, everywhere you go in Britain, you’ll see someone at the street corner selling The Big Issue. This is a magazine with content produced by the homeless, sold by the homeless as part of their job. I always feel guilty going by a Big Issue vendor, as I very rarely have the money to buy one, and they are everywhere in Swansea. I think it’s a good idea, and I try to support it when I can.

In my experience, British people play hard—they love their pubs and they love their long, boozy weekends. But I have never met a people so willing to respond again and again to the call of charity.

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