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

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”.

Eddie Izzard at the Amnesty International Secret Policeman’s Ball ’08 at Royal Albert Hall, London.

The Secret Policeman’s Ball (1979)

The third Amnesty gala, which was the first to adopt The Secret Policeman name, took place in June 1979. This time it was performed over four nights back at Her Majesty’s Theatre and was captured again by documentary maker Roger Graef. The title evolved (quite a way, in fact!) from Cleese’s initial working title for the first show, “An Evening Without David Frost”, a reference to the fact that many of the performers had started out working for Frost. Lewis reminded Cleese of this when they were discussing names for the 1979 show and reports that, “Cleese then started extemporizing a list of OTHER people he’d like to spend the evening without. At some point he said, “An Evening Without The Secret Police.” Immediately afterward, a voice in the room blurted out, “The Secret Policeman’s Ball!” – and Cleese promptly declared the search for a title was over. {Sic}”

In the interim, since the last show in 1977, there had been a change in the staff at Amnesty, as Peter Luff and David Simpson (the previous benefits’ organisers) had moved on. A chap called Peter Walker was now in charge of fundraising and he wanted something that would work on a grander scale than before, with an accompanying cinematic release. It was perhaps no coincidence then that musical acts would feature more prominently, amongst the performers was a surprise appearance from The Who’s Pete Townshend who played, amongst other renditions, an acoustic version of “Pinball Wizard”. Cleese had also roped in his friend the classical guitarist John Williams who performed a duet with Townshend.

Of additional interest is that this third Amnesty benefit contains Rowan Atkinson’s breakthrough performance. It was Cleese who championed the virtually unknown comedian and trustingly bestowed upon him a prominent role. Though he would have been largely unfamiliar to the audience, in several sketches he is confident, accomplished and demonstrates an extraordinary range of comedic styles; excelling in mime, vocal dexterity, command of the audience and collaboration. This Ball is probably the strongest of the set, featuring the classic Python sketches “Cheese Shop” and “Four Yorkshiremen”; Cleese and Cook collaborating brilliantly on “Interesting Facts”; and, the riotously funny “The Name’s The Game!” in which an old lady, played to perfection by Terry Jones, is attacked by a mystery celebrity assailant whose identity it is ‘her’ challenge to guess.

The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1981)

The fourth event took place in September 1981, over four nights at The Theatre Royal on Drury Lane and was filmed for the screen by Julien Temple. Much had changed in the intervening years; Rowan Atkinson, for example, had become a household name due to success of Not the Nine O’Clock News. New recruits this time round included Pamela Stephenson, from the aforementioned show, and Victoria Wood (now something of a British institution). Alexi Sayle performed “What’s On in Stoke Newington”; a combative send up of middle-class values and, although the humour is reasonably parochial, it is a good example of the kind of material being performed at the time by the alternative scene. Sayle was the first of the alternative comedians to take part in the benefits.

Considered the comedic equivalent of punk and new wave, the comedians of the alternative scene weren’t from Oxford or Cambridge universities (whose privileged graduates had previously populated the comedy landscape). These were comedians with an axe to grind; whose delivery was aggressive and material provocative. This was the first of the benefits to feature a substantial portion of political humour to counter the absurdist vein, which had characterised the gigs up to date. Unfortunately this type of topical material tends to date much more than surrealist comedy and, although this is a good reflection of the comic agenda of the time, this Ball’s material hasn’t aged as well as its predecessors.

For the 1981 show, Lewis was keen to explore the musical potential of such benefits, which had been road-tested in 1979, as this would increase the global appeal of the show’s spin-off recordings and awareness of Amnesty as an organisation. Lewis and co were particularly interested in raising the organisation’s profile amongst young people in America. As before, none of the musical performers were announced beforehand.

Sting describes in the accompanying documentary how working with Amnesty not only opened his eyes to global injustices, but it planted the seed for his break from The Police, as this was the first time he had performed alone. This was also the first time a terrified Phil Collins, then of Genesis, had sung and performed piano solo, so the impact on both these performers was extraordinary and such coups only heightens the importance of the Balls as musical events.

Another significant musical performer whose participation had a profound effect on his future career was Bob Geldof, who would famously later go on to organise enormous benefits of his own: Live Aid and Live 8. Remarkably, Geldof was initially reluctant and aggressively dismissive of the impact such galas could have, and his experience playing at The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball was to turn him around on the concept.

With regards to the impact the shows were having in America, Bob and Harvey Weinstein at Miramax had been interested in The Secret Policeman’s Ball but found the humour “too British”; however, once they found out about The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, they had the idea of combining the two in an edited version cut to suit American audiences and using the latter film’s title, since the brand had achieved some notoriety in the States though media coverage and spin-off merchandise. This premiered in 1982 and was Miramax’s first hit. Publicity material for this US-only version can be found in the extras.

The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball (1987)

After a six-year hiatus, the Ball returned with a different format. It would again take place over four nights, but this time two nights would be devoted exclusively to comedy and two to music. Ruby Wax presents the compilation footage and backstage interviews in her inimitably high-octane style, and this time around the film is directed by Ken O’Neill.

Musical numbers actually dominate the footage, which confuses the benefits’ identity somewhat as, despite the aforementioned musical coups, the gigs are best known and loved for their comedy. High profile performers include Kate Bush (with an excellent, impassioned version of “Running Up That Hill” with David Gilmour), Lou Reed and Peter Gabriel. The new generation of comedians includes Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie — who cheekily poke fun at the old guard of comedians by presenting a (very sporting) John Cleese with The Silver Dick Award — and Lenny Henry who is on fine form here but, as British viewers will be painfully aware, has long since ceased to be funny. However, with the odd comedic exception, this Ball will only really be of interest to music lovers.

The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball (1989)

Intended as an amalgam of new and old, this final inclusion is a joyous return to comedy form, with music kept to a bare minimum at Cleese’s behest. Mike Holgate directs the footage. The return to the original format is wittily reinforced when John Williams (proving himself a thoroughly good egg) is interrupted during a rendition of “Cavatine” by Jennifer Saunders, who tells him he is boring the audience and asks Cleese to remove his friend. There’s also a marvellous updated version of the “Pet Shop” sketch with a surprise conclusion, which renders the characteristically garrulous Cleese speechless.

There’s an anarchic improvisation from French and Saunders; a charming story read by Michael Palin entitled “Biggles Goes To See Bruce Springsteen”; and, best of all, the wonderful Peter Cook and Dudley Moore appear together for the first time at an Amnesty benefit in a couple of sketches. Their hilarious sketch, entitled “One Leg Too Few”, sees Dudley as a one-legged man auditioning for the part of Tarzan.

All in all The Secret Policeman’s Balls is a corking collection of performances from Britain’s finest joke-tellers and musicians. The one-off collaborations are a particular pleasure and its influence and status as a series of events is reinforced throughout. The extras are plentiful, with quality bonus material not featured in the films. Martin Lewis’ pivotal role and enthusiasm means his extensive recollections are rather insightful and entertaining.

The substantial documentary Remember the Secret Policeman’s Ball initially sells itself short with footage of several comedians admitting they can recall very little regarding their involvement. However, it’s well populated by most of the event’s major players and ultimately rather interesting to witness the participants watching footage of their early performances as the memories come flooding forth.

Rowan Atkinson at The Secret Policeman’s Ball (1979)

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