The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball

The Secret Policeman's Ball 4Synopsis: The 1989 show returned to the roots of the series with an emphasis on comedy and eschewing the music that, by the 1987 show, had come to be an equal component of the Balls. The cast was a blend of the 1960s and ’70s generation of performers (John Cleese, Michael Palin, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) with ’80s newcomers such as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Lenny Henry, Rory Bremner, Ben Elton, Robbie Coltrane and Adrian Edmondson (The Young Ones). The show took place over four nights in late August through early September 1989 at London’s Cambridge Theatre and was directed — in a demonstration of cross-generational entente — by John Cleese and Absolutely Fabulous cocreator/star Jennifer Saunders. The show was the last Ball to feature any of the original performers. When the Amnesty shows resumed in the 1990s and 2000s, the Ball had passed to a new generation.


The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball 7.75

eyelights: Fry and Laurie. Cook and Moore. John Cleese. Michael Palin. Ben Elton. the reduced amount of musical numbers.
eyesores: Robbie Coltrane. the quality of the audio track. the editing.

“Well you can’t say Thatcher hasn’t changed some things!”

Following the critical drubbing that ‘The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball‘ took for being too focused on music, the series returned to its roots in a series of performances at the Cambridge Theatre, August 30th to September 2nd, 1989. It was far more low-key this time, with minimal sets and basic skits being the order of the day.

Directed by a returning John Cleese and new addition Jennifer Saunders, the organizers’ intention was to bridge the gap between the old guard and the new one. Thus, many of the performers of past shows returned, but new comedians were brought in by Saunders, who was then on a hot streak with her comedy partner Dawn French.

This TV special, a highlights reel of the four nights’ better moments, was aired in October of 1989. The credits were cheesy, with cheap music and horrifyingly ’80s visuals and the skits alternated through rotating windows – what must have been novel and the height of technology/film editing at the time, but this all looks extremely dated now.

1. John Cleese and Michael PalinPet Shop #2: After a small musical ode to Monty Python, we are treated to an alternate version of the classic Python sketch. Palin turns it on its head by changing the ending taking Cleese by (mock) surprise. No one in the audience saw this coming, which was brilliant and refreshing. 8.0

2. Lenny HenryBad Jokes: Henry sung a song about bad jokes, incorporating a few as he went along. It was an interesting concept. He also poked fun at R&B clichés in the process. Too bad the audio wasn’t very good, ’cause I missed a lot of the lyrics/lines. I have to rate this one highly for the novelty of it. 8.0

3. Spitting ImageRoyal Breakfast: This is merely a sketch of the royal family babbling at breakfast. It was okay, but nothing more. The audience seemed to appreciate it, though – they went wild when they first saw the puppets. 7.0

4. Peter Cook and Dudley MooreThe Frog and Peach: Moore interviews the restaurateur of a disastrous venture, The Frog and Peach. Moore tried to stifle a laugh at one point and not long after Cook forgot a line – but he incorporated it in the sketch. Funny stuff. 8.0

5. Kathy BurkeThe Way We Were: As Tina Bishop, Burke was accompanied by some dude on keyboard, singing “Memories” for Amnesia International. Not bad. 7.5

6. Michael Palin, Dawn French, Chris Langham and John CleeseArgument Clinic: The classic Python sketch was slightly adapted for the occasion, but the performers were in top form here. 8.5

7. Lenny HenryCat Flaps: Henry plays a guy who rants about not trusting cats, babies and James Bond. 7.5

8. Jools Holland and Roland RivronJazz Interlude: A piano and percussion duo play jazz with mildly amusing elements to it. It was okay, and they didn’t overstay their welcome. 7.5

9. Robbie Coltrane and Adrian EdmondsonWilliam Tell Trick: The pair are planning to do a trick, which consists of shooting an apple on Edmondson’s head, but argue incessantly over it. Coltrane overplays it, which was both disappointing and off-putting. 7.0

10. Dawn French and Jennifer SaundersImprovisation: In a clearly-deserved spoof of improvisational sketch comedy, Saunders announces that they’ll create a sketch on the spot. Saunders plays the straight woman and the pair get into an argument over French’s performance. Evidently, it turns into a fiasco. 7.5

11. John Cleese and Adrian EdmondsonThe Last Supper: This classic was also performed as part of the original ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball‘ and it is very well interpreted here. 8.5

12. Michael Palin, featuring John CleeseBiggles Goes to See Bruce Springsteen: Sitting down on chair in front of the audience, Palin reads a story from a book. The story was silly, of course, and his delivery was excellent, but I missed much of it because of the audio. Palin got interrupted twice by Cleese, who was still wearing his Pope attire from ‘The Last Supper’. That was extremely funny, but the rest felt long. 7.0

13. John Bird, Steve Nallon and Rory BremnerThe Politics System: Bush, Gorbachev an Thatcher each boast about their government in contrasting ways. It was amusing. 7.5

14. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie The Poem: A school headmaster calls on a 15-year-old to quiz him on his poem, trying to wrap his mind around its meaning.. This is very funny stuff. After seeing them together in ‘The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball‘, I would love to see more of the duo. 8.0

15. Chris LanghamUndercover Agent: A field operative, dressed as a shrub, is trying to call HQ, but keeps getting the runaround from whoever is answering the phone, before he finally can check in. Then he notices the crowd and tries to deflect the notion that he’s a secret service agent by telling them about his personal, intimate life. Not bad. 7.5

16. Robbie Coltrane, Lenny Henry and Jimmy Mulville with Dawn French and Jennifer SaundersCrunchy Frog: An outsider’s take on the Monty Python classic, as there are no Pythons involved, it more-or-less worked. Coltrane is still over-the-top, for one, but it’s not as subtle as you’d expect it to be (and Python weren’t exactly subtle). French and Saunders close the bit by cleaning up after them. 7.0

17. John Williams w Jennifer Saunders and John CleeseGuitar Solo: This one’s funny because rumour has it that Williams wasn’t told he’d be interrupted halfway through his beautiful solo number – by Saunders, who told him (referring to the audience), “I’m sorry. I think they’re bored”,  after which an apologetic Cleese came on to walk him off the stage. Brief, but awesome. 8.0

18. Peter Cook and Dudley MooreOne Leg Too Few: A one-legged man auditions to be Tarzan. I loved the way that Cook talks circles around the issue of Moore’s missing leg. Both Moore and Cook lose it at different moments in this sketch, which was fun. I was weirded out by how unhealthy-looking Cook was at this point in his life; he used to be so thin and now he’s puffed up like a blowfish. 8.0

19. Ben EltonFast Food and Drink: Elton talks about the environment, but launches into a diatribe against drinking: “How can we take care of the environment, if we don’t take care of our bodies”, he asks. Good point. Then he goes on about his fridge, fast food, advertising and bodily functions. This is by far the longest set of the lot, and it was quite good (even if the audio issues marred it). I’d love to see more of Ben Elton. 8.0

20. Dawn French and Jennifer SaundersContraception: As though they were two young(er) women, Saunders asks French about contraception. Then they get out of character when Saunders makes fun of French’s talent – who breaks into song and dance to prove Saunders wrong. 7.0

21. Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke and Company Goodbye: Moore was on the piano tinkling away at a clearly improvised “goodbye” song – the rest of the cast were trying to sing along and were visibly tickled pink by the performance. Their reactions were the best part of that set. 7.5

One of the disappointing aspects of this show is that many of the sketches were visibly edited, either for time or content. And yet others were full-length. I don’t know why these choices were made, but it’s always frustrating to think that one is getting short-changed – especially when one imagines that there would be more laughs involved if not for the editor’s hand.

But what was the most devastating was the extremely poor audio – at least by today’s standard. This is the worst of ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ concert films thus far – I missed a bunch of jokes because of it. The audio needs remastering to such a degree that I once considered buying the collection on DVD, but will wait until it’s released on blu-ray (presuming that they’ll remaster it then. Or at least there might be subtitles, which would have helped).

‘The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball’ would be the last in the series until 2006, when the title was revived. In those 15 years, Amnesty International continued to put on benefit shows, but did it under various titles, including (inexplicably) ‘Barf Bites Back’ and ‘So You Think You’re Irish’. ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ has attracted new comedians and audience ever since 2006.

But the “Biggest Ball” was the last in a decade-long series that saw and helped usher in a major shift in public consciousness. Some people might be very critical of this edition, with some saying that the organisers were running on fumes by then, but I think that it’s the most consistent since the original. The only thing that mars it are the dated presentation and poor audio.

Otherwise, in my estimation, this programme was a superb way to close the curtains (if temporarily) on the grandest set of balls ever assembled.

Date of viewing: January 1, 2014

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