Richard Curtis is behind a fair few iconic screen moments of his own, but when the screenwriter and film-maker clapped eyes on the Normal People-meets-Fleabag sketch that Element Pictures contributed to RTÉ Does Comic Relief last summer, he called it his favourite seven minutes of film of all time.
So he's arranged for it to get a fresh outing on Friday on the original, BBC version of the Comic Relief telethon. It will be the first time British audiences get to see Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, as Connell and Marianne, attend confession with Andrew Scott – Fleabag's hot priest – in all seven minutes of the sketch's glory. The full version of Lenny Abrahamson's film has been largely geoblocked in the UK. It means the trio will be joining Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Olivia Colman, Harry Styles and Keira Knightley, among others, to help Comic Relief's Red Nose Day raise more money for charity.
The sketch came about by chance, when Deirdre O’Kane, who created the Irish Comic Relief event with producer Darren Smith, met the playwright Conor McPherson while walking on Dún Laoghaire pier.
It was made under Covid restrictions, which isn't easy when you have two talents who had paparazzi following them wherever they went
“There were only three conversations happening in Ireland at the time: the coronavirus, Tiger King and Normal People,” Smith says. “When the conversation drifted into the telethon, Conor told her that he had an idea around some sketches. Dee and Andrew Scott have also been great mates for a long time and he said he would do something.”
An early draft of the project had the hot priest in “Zoom confessional” mode. “We hadn’t dared to dream of a Normal People connection, but then Conor sort of unlocked Lenny. And once that happens, people take the calls. Ed” – Guiney of Element Pictures, which made Normal People – “made calls to Paul and Daisy, and it went from there.”
With Abrahamson directing from Dublin – “the cinematographer had something on his camera that meant Lenny could see what the camera was seeing” – the sketch was filmed on a day-long shoot in a London church. “It was made under [Covid] restrictions, which isn’t easy when you have two talents who had paparazzi following them wherever they went,” Smith says.
The sketch elicited a rapturous reaction on social media. It was one of a number of standout moments on the RTÉ telethon. “Lenny called me afterwards and told me that he welled up during the Den sketch with the pure nostalgia of it all,” Smith says.
Before Christmas, the money raised from RTÉ Does Comic Relief – almost €6 million – was awarded in 672 grants to charities across Ireland. “We are in the midst of putting a structure on what Comic Relief Ireland does in terms of its own organisation and we hope to do another event in 2022,” Smith says. “But for now it’s brilliant that this one sketch is getting a second life, and on the mothership.”
Comic Relief 2021 is on BBC One on Friday at 7pm