Performing Arts

The Secret Policeman’s Balls

Emma Simmonds

The seemingly smutty and initially baffling title is the collective moniker for a series of Amnesty International benefit concerts, held in London.

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

Director: Roger Graef DVD: The Secret Policeman's Balls Cast: John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Neil Innes, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie Distributor: Shout! Factory US Release Date: 2009-01-27 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/dvd_art/s/secretepolice.jpg

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”.

Next Page
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Ivy Mix's 'Spirits of Latin America' Evokes the Ancestors

A common thread unites Ivy Mix's engaging Spirits of Latin America; "the chaotic intermixture between indigenous and European traditions" is still an inextricable facet of life for everyone who inhabits the "New World".

Film

Contemporary Urbanity and Blackness in 'New Jack City'

Hood films are a jarring eviction notice for traditional Civil Rights rhetoric and, possibly, leadership -- in other words, "What has the Civil Rights movement done for me lately?"

Books

'How to Handle a Crowd' Goes to the Moderators

Anika Gupta's How to Handle a Crowd casts a long-overdue spotlight on the work that goes into making online communities enjoyable and rewarding.

Music

Regis' New LP Reaffirms His Gift for Grinding Industrial Terror

Regis' music often feels so distorted, so twisted out of shape, even the most human moments feel modular. Voices become indistinguishable from machines on Hidden in This Is the Light That You Miss.

Reviews

DMA's Go for BritElectroPop on 'The Glow'

Aussie Britpoppers the DMA's enlist Stuart Price to try their hand at electropop on The Glow. It's not their best look.

Film

On Infinity in Miranda July's 'Me and You and Everyone We Know'

In a strange kind of way, Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know is about two competing notions of "forever" in relation to love.

Music

Considering the Legacy of Deerhoof with Greg Saunier

Working in different cities, recording parts as MP3s, and stitching them together, Deerhoof once again show total disregard for the very concept of genre with their latest, Future Teenage Cave Artists.

Music

Joshua Ray Walker Is 'Glad You Made It'

Texas' Joshua Ray Walker creates songs on Glad You Made It that could have been on a rural roadhouse jukebox back in the 1950s. Their quotidian concerns sound as true now as they would have back then.

Music

100 gecs Remix Debut with Help From Fall Out Boy, Charli XCX and More

100 gecs' follow up their debut with a "remix album" stuffed with features, remixes, covers, and a couple of new recordings. But don't worry, it's just as blissfully difficult as their debut.

Television

What 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Taught Me About Unlearning Toxic Masculinity

When I first came out as trans, I desperately wanted acceptance and validation into the "male gender", and espoused negative beliefs toward my femininity. Avatar: The Last Airbender helped me transcend that.

Interviews

Nu Deco Ensemble and Kishi Bashi Remake "I Am the Antichrist to You" (premiere + interview)

Nu Deco Ensemble and Kishi Bashi team up for a gorgeous live performance of "I Am the Antichrist to You", which has been given an orchestral renovation.

Playlists

Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.