The Secret Policeman’s Balls

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.