RTÉ Does Comic Relief was a huge undertaking, not least because it was put together rapidly during a global pandemic.
An RTS Republic of Ireland event in late October looked at how the June fundraiser brought stars, including Normal People‘s Marianne and Connell and Fleabag‘s Hot Priest, to the small screen.
RTÉ entertainment producers Clare and Michael Hughes (they are not related) were given just six weeks to get the show ready for transmission on 26 June.
“What was meant to be a two-and-a-half-hour programme ended up being four hours of live TV – an absolute whopper,” said Clare Hughes. “It just kept growing and growing.
“We ended up with 38 VTs [short films], which was a huge amount of work… There was something in there for everyone. We had some of Ireland’s most loved and respected comedians and performers.”
Dara O Briain, Saoirse Ronan, the cast of Derry Girls and Chris O’Dowd appeared, as well as Andrew Scott from Fleabag and Normal People actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal.
For the Normal People/Hot Priest sketch, RTÉ built a “socially distanced confession booth”, explained Michael Hughes. Normal People director Lenny Abrahamson directed the sketch, which was shot in London, remotely, via FaceTime.
The producers spoke to Comic Relief founders Richard Curtis and Emma Freud, who offered advice on the programme’s running order. “They said that, after a comedy sketch, you should play a song to allow people time to take out their credit cards and donate. We had the running order done at that point, so we had to re-do it to include more music,” recalled Michael Hughes.
Safe-shooting protocols and, in particular remote working, complicated the production of RTÉ Does Comic Relief. “Everything was taking twice as long… and [it was] more laboured. With so many things going on at the same time, it would have been a lot easier if we’d been in the one building at the one time,” said Sarah Hughes.
However, the Covid-19 epidemic did have one positive side effect. “Because people were locked down, they were free,” said Michael Hughes. “ [That was one of] the reasons why we had one and half hours’ more content than we’d bargained for.”
“We knew there was a lot of interest from the talent, so we felt comfortable that we would be able to pull something out, but we didn’t expect it to be as big a success as it was,” added Clare Hughes.