Synopsis: The “Secret Policeman’s Ball,” co-created by Monty Python’s John Cleese, took place in London in June 1979. That show, and the now legendary series of benefit shows that followed in the UK over the past three decades, brought together the cream of Britain’s comedic performers and rock musicians, and were disseminated to a worldwide audience in a series of movies, TV specials and record albums.
The June 1979 show was a landmark in galvanizing comedians and rock musicians to use their influence as entertainers to raise consciousness for human rights and other social and political causes. Artists who cite the show as the starting point for their social activism include Bono, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bob Geldof.
eyelights: Peter Cook. John Cleese. Rowan Atkinson.
eyesores: the musical interludes.
“Don’t snigger, Babcock! It’s not funny. Anthony and Cleopatra is not a funny play. If Shakespeare had meant Anthony and Cleopatra to be funny, he would have put a joke in it. There is no joke in Anthony and Cleopatra. You would know that if you’d read it, wouldn’t you, Babcock? Pest!”
Following the success of ‘Pleasure at Her Majesty’s‘ Amnesty International did a second charity concert called ‘The Mermaid Frolics’. It was a smaller affair, playing only the one night and being videotaped for television. However, between the two of them, the seeds for ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ were sown.
I had long heard about the ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’. As a kid, the cinemas played the films and I always wondered what it was about (with a title such as this one, who wouldn’t?). I had no idea that they were a series of concerts until many years later – I thought that they were merely Hollywood concoctions.
Boy, was I ever in for a surprise!
‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ was originally a series of four consecutive shows taking place June 27-30th, 1979, at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Like the others, it was a benefit show intended to raise funds for Amnesty International’s research and campaign work in the human rights field.
The shows were a massive success, and a film as well as two companion soundtrack albums (one for the sketches and one for the songs) were released in its wake. Apparently, an edited version of the shows was also made into a one-hour television special. Like ‘The Mermaid Frolics’, I don’t know if it’s available on home video.
Unlike ‘Pleasure at Her Majesty’s’, however, ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ is strictly a concert film; it does not contain any behind-the-scenes footage or interviews with the cast members. It also features complete performances, whereas the former only showed highlights from some of the sketches and musical numbers.
1. John Cleese and Peter Cook – Interesting Facts: John Cleese is reading a paper on a bench and Peter Cook sits next to him, trying to make small talk, telling Cleese all sorts of trivial information that he calls “interesting facts”, but that are mostly outrageous falsehoods. Hilarious stuff. 8.5
2. Clive James – Apology Telegrams: This one consists of James reading off apologies from people who couldn’t make it to the benefit, including Kate Bush, Mozart, …etc. Amusing stuff. 7.5
3. Peter Cook and Eleanor Bron – Pregnancy Test: An okay sketch, it’s about a woman who claims that she’s about to have a baby. Except that it’s just a balloon. 7.0
4. Pete Townshend – Pinball Wizard: Townshend played an acoustic rendition of The Who’s classic. It was good, nothing special. 7.5
5. Rowan Atkinson – School Master: Atkinson plays a school master. Honestly, I have no idea what he was on about, because the text was over my head (Was it the accent? The poor audio quality?), but the performance was awesome. Imagine if I actually understood what he was saying! 8.0
6. John Cleese, Michael Palin, Chris Beetles and Rob Buckman – Cheese Shop: This is te classic Monty Python sketch featuring John Cleese and Michael Palin. Somehow, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I usually do. 7.0
7. John Williams – Cavatina: This was a baroque solo by guitarist John Williams (not the ‘Star Wars’ composer). It was beautiful but slow. 8.0
8. The Ken Campbell Roadshow – Sensation Seekers!: With the participation of “audience members” this troupe of weirdos tore shirts off audience members, and then proceeded to hammer nail in their noses, …etc. Wacky, lively, but not great. 6.5
9. Rowan Atkinson – The Pianist: Atkinson pretends to play the piano, over-expressing himself throughout. It’s a superb performance. 8.0
10. John Cleese, Terry Jones, Anna Ford, Clive Jenkins and Mike Brearley – The Name’s the Game: This plays as a spoof of game shows. I liked the idea, but not so much the execution. Oh well. 7.5
11. Tom Robinson – Glad to be Gay: An amusing acoustic number that beckons the audience to “sing if you’re glad to be gay”. It’s heavy-handed but catchy.7.0
12. Peter Cook – Entirely a Matter for You: This one’s about a judge going over some testimony for the jury and doing it with a certain bias. I loved the performance and concept even if the details of the material was a bit lost on me. 7.0
13. John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Rowan Atkinson – Four Yorkshiremen: Although this is not as stellar a performance as the original (Atkinson wasn’t appropriate for this one) or even the Python’s take on it, it’s still a classic. 9.25
14. Pete Townshend and John Williams – Won’t Get Fooled Again: An unplugged version of the classic.’Twas alright. 7.5
15. Peter Cook and the cast – The End of the World: A prophet and his followers are readying for the end of days. It was merely alright, a limp way to go out on. 6.5
‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ was not only popular, it was extremely influential: it changed the way that benefit shows were produced. Not only that, but countless musical artists, including Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bono and Bob Geldof himself, claim to have been crucially motivated by this show.
Personally, I really enjoyed watching this, even if the material is uneven. I preferred ‘Pleasure at Her Majesty’s’ for the bird’s eye view of the making of the show, but I much preferred having full sketches to watch here. And although I could do without the musical numbers, as a package deal, it’s well worth seeing.
Date of viewing: December 2013