The Secret Policeman’s Balls

by Emma Simmonds

11 March 2009


The Secret Policeman’s Balls

I’d have liked to have been a judge but I never had the Latin.
  —Peter Cook, A Poke In The Eye (With A Sharp Stick) filmed as Pleasure At Her Majesty’s

I’m a mild man madam but when I’m roused there’s hell to pay.
  —John Cleese, The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball

cover art

The Secret Policeman’s Balls

US DVD: 27 Jan 2009

I can’t pretend to be much of a judge of literature, I’m an English teacher, not a homosexual.
  —Stephen Fry, The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball

The seemingly smutty and initially baffling title The Secret Policeman’s Balls is the collective moniker for a series of Amnesty International benefit concerts, held in London, the first of which took place in 1976. This box-set comprises film versions of five of the shows performed between the years 1976 and 1989, and features a wealth of primarily British, musical and comedic talent.

Additionally, one of the show’s co-creators and producers, Martin Lewis, provides insightful commentaries on three of the Balls; as well as introductions and “After the Ball” reflections on all five. A feature-length documentary, Remember the Secret Policeman’s Ball (2004), is also included, along with additional skits and material which could not be accommodated within the original films. Finally an “Incident Report” booklet, again courtesy of Martin Lewis, lays out the story of the benefits as well as providing a Scene Index, which usefully lists the names of performers and titles of individual sketches and musical numbers; an essential addition, since these do not feature in the films themselves.

The human-rights charity Amnesty International was established in Britain in 1961, with the remit of campaigning for the abolition of torture and the release of non-violent prisoners of conscience on an international scale. In 1976 it remained a relatively obscure organisation and it was at this time that Peter Luff, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director, sought an innovative way to raise their profile.

One day a cheque was spotted with a donation from “Mr. J. Cleese”. Luff begged the comedian’s phone number from a mutual friend and contacted John Cleese, who suggested putting on a late-night comedy show which would comprise primarily of “tried and trusted material”. Cleese found that Amnesty’s cause was one his fellow comics were keen to endorse. Stephen Fry, who would appear in later Balls describes the charity’s appeal in the featured documentary Remember The Secret Policeman’s Ball (2004) saying, “One of the things that is so essential in being a comedian is absolute freedom of speech, [to deny this] is a primal insult to the very energy that makes a comedian”.

With Cleese’s comedic chums onboard, the first show was most notable for its coup of bringing together comedy quartet Beyond the Fringe with members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus; not just the first time the two troupes had appeared together but the first time they had ever collaborated. Dudley Moore’s absence meant that a daunted Terry Jones stepped into the Fringe’s Shakespeare parody and the legendary Peter Cook joined the Pythons for their courtroom skit with Eric Idle elsewhere. This substitution of troupe members became a hallmark of future shows.

Pleasure At Her Majesty’s (1976)
The actual title of the first stage show was A Poke In The Eye (With A Sharp Stick)—it was not until the 1979 show that the title The Secret Policeman’s Ball was coined. However, retrospectively this first show and the 1977 smaller-scale effort, The Mermaid Frolics (not featured in this set) have been acknowledged by Amnesty as part of The Secret Policeman’s Ball canon. With regards to the title, as Martin Lewis explains in the commentary, it’s a British colloquialism – a humorous attempt if you like of putting things in perspective, so it might be used in such a way as, “Well it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”

The documentary of the show, Pleasure At Her Majesty’s is so called as there is a British expression to describe incarceration, “detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure” and since the location was Her Majesty’s Theatre, the title was an irreverent pun referencing both.

A Poke In The Eye (With a Sharp Stick) was designed as post-pub entertainment, kicking off at 11:30pm so that the audience were accommodatingly inebriated after last orders at 11:00. It took place over three nights and appositely the first night fell on April Fools Day. As well as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Beyond the Fringe, The Goodies, Neil Innes, Carol Cleveland, John Bird, John Fortune, Barry Humphries and Eleanor Bron all performed.

Beyond The Fringe’s Jonathan Miller was by this point an established theatre director and so was the natural choice to become the stage director. The documentary featured here was directed by Roger Graef and comprises of backstage preparation as well as the performances. A yardstick of the calibre of the material was that the opener was the Python’s famous “Pet Shop” sketch, more commonly thought of as the Dead Parrott sketch; with this performance considered by many as Michael Palin and John Cleese’s finest ever live version. Palin describes it in the retrospective when he comments, “I’ve never seen John at such high voltage. He was absolutely terrific.”

It’s a fine example of comedians trying to make each other laugh; and although Cleese and particularly Palin can be seen corpsing at several points, this does not interrupt the momentum of the sketch and it shows Cleese at his most amusingly exasperated; hitting a particularly impressive high register with the classic line “Pining for the fjords?!”. As a whole this is a consistently amusing and seldom past-it collection of sketches by some of the legends of British comedy.

The following year, a second benefit show, which was televised as The Mermaid Frolics was performed, though just for the one night. One of the most fondly remembered skits from the show is provided in the extras here and features Connie Booth as a monumentally awkward customer aggravating her then husband John Cleese, who plays the bookseller. Lewis comments that although this benefit did not have the same impact it “kept the pot boiling”.

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