Synopsis: Back in the day, if you wanted to raise money you stood on street corner with a tin and a smile. Step forward Mr John Cleese, who rounded up a few friends in 1976 for Amnesty’s first show, A Poke In The Eye (With A Sharp Stick). Of course it helps if your “friends” include the Monty Python crew, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Neil Innes, John Bird and The Goodies.
eyelights: Peter Cook. John Cleese. Michael Palin. the fundraiser’s groundbreaking concept.
eyesores: the callous editing of the skits. the poor sound quality.
“It is particularly gratifying to see so many young faces here tonight. We often think that young people today are only out for a good time. Well, that certainly can’t be said of these young people.”
‘Pleasure at Her Majesty’s’ is a documentary on the making of the Amnesty International stage show “A Poke in the Eye (with a Sharp Stick)”. Spearheaded by John Cleese, and featuring a number of British comedian and comedy troupes this show ran for three nights at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. For some reason, in America, the film was originally called ‘Monty Python Meets Beyond the Fringe’.
The troupes were often incomplete, so they filled in for each other. For instance, Terry Jones took Dudley Moore’s place in the Beyond the Fringe skits, whereas others took Eric Idle’s place in the Monty Python skits. The sketches themselves were also sometimes adapted for the event, being fine-tuned in some cases, and sometimes worked out to include the new performers.
‘Pleasure at Her Majesty’s’ (the predecessor to the extremely popular ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ series of comedy shows) is narrated by Dudley Moore, who couldn’t be there because of commitments in Hollywood. It provides explanations and background on the project, which is essential given that the first 30 minutes or so consist of watching the comedians practice, negotiate, do publicity, …etc.
In essence, the film is a highlights reel of the preparation and performances.
Personally, I loved watching the comedians discuss their sketches, creative process, craft, …etc., amongst themselves. As a people-watcher, and as someone fascinated with humour and human psychology, I couldn’t have asked for more. But then we were also treated to excerpts of the nights’ sketches, with behind the curtains footage (in black and white and widescreen) edited in between:
1. John Cleese and Michael Palin – Pet shop (a.k.a. the Parrot Sketch): The moment that Palin and Cleese even get started there is LOUD applause; it’s obviously a very popular sketch. I’m not that big a fan of it (I prefer the Cheese Shop sketch that they did with Python), but it’s fun and it’s a terrific performance. I got a real kick out of seeing Palin loses his composure midway through. 8.5
2. Alan Bennett – T.E. Lawrence: Honestly, I didn’t really get this one; I couldn’t hear or understand most of what was being said, due to the poor audio and his accent. I would have needed subtitles… and a bit of culture. 5.0 (just because I’m not sure how to rate it)
3. Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage – Spunk!: I couldn’t figure out most of the lyrics to his silly songs, but it was a fun performance nonetheless. 6.0
4. John Fortune and Eleanor Bron – Happy Darling: This is a very short bit featuring a couple talking about the end of a love affair (presumably theirs) with an unusual giddiness. It was amusing, but, at less than a minute in length, it was too short to be truly effective. 6.5
5. Peter Cook – Miner: This was a particularly funny bit about a miner who claims he wanted to be a judge. Cook’s deadpan delivery is fabulous, as are his lines. This may have been my first time seeing Peter Cook in action (aside from short cameos in other films) and I really loved it; it made quite the impression on me 7.5
6. Monty Python, featuring Peter Cook – Courtroom Sketch: A classic Pythonesque sketch. Hilarious stuff. 8.0
7. John Fortune and John Bird – You Say Potato: A rather amusing ditty that has one of them quizzically singing the lyrics to the classic song without any distinctions between “tomato” and “tomato”, “potato” and “potato”, making it totally nonsensical. 7.5
8. Neil Innes – Protest Song: This is a spoof of folk singers. It was merely alright, as far as I was concerned, but the crowd seemed to relish it. 5.5
9. John Cleese and Jonathan Lynn – The Last Supper: The Pope is upset because Michelangelo is getting creative with his interpretation of The Last Supper. This was unbelievably funny! (by the way, I didn’t know there were three Jesuses at The Last Supper!) 8.5
10. The Goodies – Funky Gibbon: This is merely a rock band playing a silly and pointless number. Honestly, it might’ve been better suited to 3-year-old children than to an adult audience. 3.5
11. Alan Bennett – Telegram: This is a one-man skit, with Bennett on the phone trying to send a telegram, but being railroaded by a chatty operator. It was pretty good. 8.0
12. Desmond Jones – Hamlet: I didn’t realize that this was called “Hamlet”, actually: you’d never guess it by watching the sketch, because it looks like he’s doing “magic’ tricks with his fingers – not miming “Hamlet”. It’s original and fun to watch, though. 7.5
13. Peter Cook and John Fortune – Asp: This one consists of Cook claiming to Fortune that he has a python in his box, and going on about the virtues of pythons over asps. It may not seem like much, but it was actually pretty funny. 7.5
14. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Carol Cleveland, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Bill Oddie and Michael Palin – The Japes Lecture: This is a formal lecture about slapstick with many of the Pythons re-enacting the particular slapstick elements being described. It’s funny because of how out-of-place the formality is, but also because of the slapstick performances themselves, which hold a few surprises. Classic. 7.5
15. Eleanor Bron – Appeal: A superb spoof of those awkward announcements that event organizers do at these types of soirées. It’s perfectly vacuous, stilted… and hilarious. 8.0
16. Beyond The Fringe, featuring Terry Jones – So That’s the Way You Like It (a.k.a. Shakespeare Sketch): Truth be told, I couldn’t understand most of what was being said. Was it the audio or the accent? Or both? Oh well. 5.0 (because I’m not sure how to rate it)
17. The entire cast – The Lumberjack Song: A classic, of course, but it doesn’t work as well here for some reason – perhaps it was sloppier than usual. Still, it’s decent enough. 7.0
The presentation is pretty horrid: it’s grainy, full of dirt, and spotty. As mentioned in some of my comments above, the audio isn’t exactly crystal clear; subtitles would have been welcome, if not for that reason, then because of the accents. So this is disappointing, given the historical aspect of this show – you’d think more effort would have been made to preserve or remaster this properly.
However, the film (which was included as part of ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ collection) can be watched with bookending comments by Martin Lewis, one of the series’ creators, which is nice because he provides some perspective on the event. There’s also an audio commentary with Lewis, which can help understand what went on behind the images that we’re seeing. That’s nice.
So, all in all, aside from some misgivings about the presentation, and the fact that we’re only served snippets of many of the sketches, I really enjoyed watching this video document. Had it been of greater quality and with unedited sketches, it would surely have rated even higher – perhaps as high as an 8.0. Still, as a highlights reel, it’s a pretty decent overview of this landmark project.
Date of viewing: November 6, 2013