Synopsis: After a six-year hiatus, the SECRET POLICEMAN’S BALL shows resumed with a strong hybrid of comedy and music. The humor reflected the emergence of a new wave of comedic performers in the U.K. including: Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Robbie Coltrane, Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders, Mel Smith & Griff Rhys Jones, Lenny Henry — and the Spitting Image puppets. Lending support and continuity was John Cleese.
eyelights: Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, Emo Philips. Ron Elton. Peter Gabriel.
eyesores: the wonky sound mix for the musical acts.
‘The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball’ is the 5th benefit concert by the British wing of Amnesty International. Even though ‘The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball‘ was a tremendous success, Amnesty put the series of shows on hold; it would take another 6 years before they returned in full form.
This television special was compiled from the live sets recorded March 26-29th, 1987, and also included some backstage bits. In a major departure from the previous shows, which were slightly low-key, this edition of ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ was held at the London Palladium in England.
In another departure, and one that was slightly controversial, the organizers decided to shake things up and put more emphasis on the concert material than they had in the past: they separated the four night into two comedy nights and two concert nights. Many fans of the series were not pleased.
The resulting 90-minute special is approximately half-half, and it works because the stage was set for the inclusion of more music with the last concert films, which had a growing amount of it and bigger and bigger stars. This resulting programme feels like a natural extension of the other shows – for good or bad.
1. Ruby Wax – Preamble and Opening titles: Poking fun at journalism, Wax starts by saying that she will be covering the event, only to be disappointed upon discovering that it’s “merely” a benefit concert. Then the credits roll, featuring an animated bit of the Secret Policeman breaking into Amnesty International’s offices, poring through their papers. 7.0
2. Spitting Image – Reagan and Thatcher: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher have a discussion about dissidents, calling the crowd communists. It’s weird, because the Reagan puppet would laugh in a shrill voice, which was contextually inappropriate. Meh… the text wasn’t all that funny, anyway. 6.5
3. David Gilmour and Kate Bush – Running Up That Hill: It may sound like a weird mix to pair up a rock icon and an alternative pop songstress, but it could have worked. The problem is that the song was initially played slightly too fast, and Gilmour’s fretless guitar was far too raucous (let’s not even talk about his off-key vocals!). It’s a great song, but it was a sloppy performance. 6.5
4. Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry – Hedge Sketch: Laurie walks into a shop looking for a hedge and Fry tries to sell him one. What’s funny is not just how inane the exchange is, but the fact that Laurie (purposely) kept mixing up his lines, leaving Fry to pick up the pieces. Or they would start over, which they did a few times. Pretty inspired stuff. 8.0
5. Ruby Wax and Lenny Henry – Backstage 1: Ruby is backstage trying to get interviews. She forces her way to Lenny Henry, who’s getting his make-up done. 6.5
6. Joan Armatrading – (I Love It When You) Call Me Names: This was a solo acoustic guitar performance. Not bad, actually – I especially liked the chorus. I had never heard Armatrading before, even though the name was familiar. She stood out if only because there aren’t tons of black female guitarists. She felt like a groundbreaker to me. 7.0
6. Ruby Wax and Mark Knopfler – Backstage 2: Ruby tries to interview Knopfler, who’s practicing for his set. He plays along. I was surprised by how effortlessly Knopfler took her intrusion in stride. 7.0
7. Lenny Henry – Lowdown Left-handed Dirty Hound Dog: Henry basically spoofs the stereotypical old bluesman. I didn’t get all the references, but when he finally stopped talking and got to singing and dancing, it was wickedly entertaining – and funny. 7.5
8. Ruby Wax and Bob Geldof – Backstage 3: Geldof and Wax don’t hit it off (I’m guessing this was staged), and end up trading insults until he walks off. 7.0
9. Nik Kershaw – Wouldn’t it be Good: Really? This is Nik Kershaw? He looks like a nerd here. What happened to his hair? And he’s so short! The performance was alright, but the mix wasn’t great. One thing that stood out was that Kershaw had two men and one androgynous woman dancing and singing back-up. I didn’t see that coming! 7.0
10. Jackson Browne and Paul Brady – El Salvador: The pair were on acoustic guitars. It was nice, but nothing special. 7.25
11. Ruby Wax and Robbie Coltrane – Backstage 4: Of course, Ruby’s trying to interview Coltrane, but he has his hands all over her, making it impossible for her. Um… can you say sexual harassment? This wouldn’t stand today. 7.0
12. Phil Cool – Motorway: Cool delivered a maniacal, animated tale of driving and being stuck in traffic. It’s a terrific performance, but the material was so-so at best. Still, it makes me want to see more of him. 6.0
13. Duran Duran – Save a Prayer: Duran came out with an acoustic version of that awesome song featuring mild percussion and keyboards. It’s an unusually stripped down performance for the band. Frankly, while I adore the song, I’m not so sure about this rendition. 8.0
14. Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and John Cleese – The Silver Dick Award: Fry and Laurie announce a fake award of the Silver Dick, the recipient of which is Jim Cleese (sic). In their exchanges with him, they treat him as a “has been” and insult him, which was amusing given Cleese’s actual standing. This was extremely good until Cleese started to over-act his way through it. A shame. 7.75
15. Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins – I’ll See You in My Dreams / Imagine: Knopfler and Atkins effortlessly and confidently delivered a twangy instrumental version of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” followed by an atmospheric rendition of “Imagine”. Both were pretty nice, but the latter stood out most. 7.75
16. Spitting Image – Laurence Oliver and John Gielgud: This was a short bit about a couple of aging Shakespearian actors boasting about their achievements. Loved the concept, which is akin to ‘The Four Yorkshiremen‘, but it wasn’t as great as it could have been. 7.0
17. Bob Geldof – This is the World Calling: This wasn’t bad – and I certainly enjoyed it more than Geldof’s performance in the last one. I could hear how this would sound fully produced, not stripped down as this was. 7.75
18. Ruby Wax and John Cleese – Backstage 5: She tries to get an interview, he tells her off. Short but acrid. 7.0
19. Emo Philips – An American in London: Emo Philips is quite the personage; he sounds and acts like a simpleton – but an endearing one, not a goofy or annoying one. And I love the strange vocal inflections that he affects; it’s veritably unique, special. The material is only okay, but the performance makes it work. I’m a fan. 8.0
20. Lou Reed – Tell it to Your Heart: This was a ballad-y song with a sax solo in the middle and African chanting at the end. It would be much slicker with a great vocalist, and yet it wouldn’t stand out as much if not for Reed. 7.75
21. Ruby Wax and Robbie Coltrane – Backstage 6: Ruby is tricked into Coltrane’s dressing room. Haha. 7.75
22. Ben Elton – Sex Jokes: I’ve never seen this guy before, but I like his style and delivery (if not his fashion choices… eek!). Here he talks about blowjobs, the use of language in sex, communication after sex, pubes and Margaret Thatcher (you can see how that all comes together). I loved the material and would love to see him again. 8.0
23. Peter Gabriel – Biko and End titles: This is a very nice, faithful rendition. It even had some of the audience standing and chanting at the end. Strangely, as though time were an issue, the credits rolled over the last part of it. And, for geeks, there was a neat surround effect at in the final few moments of the programme. Not sure what that was about, but I liked it. 8.0
‘The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball’ had far more elaborate, professional stage set-ups than the previous shows did (which is not saying much, really). All I could think, while watching this was: “How do they make any money?”. This is, after all, supposed to be a benefit show – shouldn’t it be short on frills, so that the money goes to the people it’s intended to help?
Similarly, I was surprised to find out that this programme was offered in 5.0 surround, whereas the others were all in 2.0 mono/stereo. For starters, it was designed as a TV special, so why bother? Perhaps because it also played in cinemas? Secondly, what can there be to put in surround, exactly (aside for the last few seconds of the programme, that is)? It’s such a strange upgrade for a benefit show – especially this one.
Having said that, it’s strange that the audio mix was so wonky for the musical numbers – there were clearly no studio overdubs because a lot of the warts are there for all to savour. Even the captions (another notable difference in this show) were wonky, sometimes introducing artists, but missing a few along the line. Um… were some of them more important than others? Or was the captions person asleep at the wheel?
Anyway, in the end, ‘The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball’ made for a decent, if middle-of-the-road, presentation. Unlike the others, which have a grittier quality to them, it doesn’t really distinguish itself from other benefit shows of its ilk. In trying to do things differently, the organizers may have won larger cross-over appeal, but they lost the flavour of the original concept.
For many, this is no ball of laughs.
Date of viewing: December 30, 2013