Remember the Secret Policeman’s Ball?

Remember the Secret Policemans BallSynopsis: A celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Secret Policeman’s Ball in aid of Amnesty International. Some of Britain’s best known entertainers, including John Cleese, Sir Bob Geldof, Alan Bennett, Jennifer Saunders, Stephen Fry, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Ruby Wax, Lenny Henry, Sting, Phil Collins and Rowan Atkinson are reunited in a reflection of the changes in British comedy over the last quarter of a century. The film examines the event, with interviews and recollections of the original stars alongside classic comedy moments.

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Remember the Secret Policeman’s Ball? 8.0

eyelights: the overview of the series from multiple perspectives.
eyesores: its brevity and lack of context for the later benefit shows.

‘Remember the Secret Policeman’s Ball?’ is a television documentary that was released in 2004, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the legendary original ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball‘ benefit concert. It’s a look back at its inception, its impact and its legacy over the course of approximately 75 minutes.

Stocked with new interviews with the organizers and participants, many of whom are celebrities, it provides a fascinating overview of what made this such a vital event. It also treats viewers with footage from the shows, including some that had not been part of the original feature films (ex: Billy Connolly).

Before 1976’s ‘Pleasure at her Majesty’s‘, Amnesty International was apparently a very small human rights group. One day, Peter Luff saw a donation cheque from John Cleese come in and decided to try to get a hold of him through a friend, to see how he could help the group. Cleese rounded up some friends and the seeds were sown.

For the first show the comedians selected material they knew well so that they didn’t have to rehearse much. But it had its challenge: It was the first time that Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python ever worked together, causing some amount of nerves; Fringe started the satire movement in the ’60s, and the Pythons were in awe of them.

‘Remember’ discusses comedy at the time, how it was very much a boy’s club: women characters were played by men in drag and women were rarely present unless they had to sex it up. That changed over the years,  of course, with Cleese eventually co-directing the ‘Biggest Ball’ with Jennifer Saunders in 1989. Still, this took over a decade to happen.

There is some discussion of Cleese’s comedic skill, of his edgy delivery which suggested a man just on the edge of insanity. Obviously, the participants were fans of him. Rowan Atkinson, whose performance at the original ‘Ball’ was one of his first, idolized Cleese and was totally amazed that he got to be on stage with him and the Pythons.

Atkinson was a newcomer then, but he wasn’t the only one – The Secret Policeman’s Balls didn’t just feature seasoned professionals. There were also other up-and-comers, such as Alexei Sayles, Lenny Henry, and Ruby Wax (who are all interviewed here) – some of whom went on to greater success, while others were met with disappointment.

There’s evidently lengthy discussions about the musical contributions and the impact that it had on the performers as well as pop culture, with some bringing up the protest song movement, how much freedom artists have in Western countries, or even how scary it could be to go on stage and play solo, acoustic numbers.

Of course, there are also some meaty bits of trivia that one wouldn’t have guessed just by looking at the films. For instance:

  • Peter Cook’s biased judge sketch, “Entirely a Matter for You”, from the 1979 shows, was written and performed the day of an important court case, and was based on those actual events. It adds so much to the flavour of the piece to know that he put it together on the fly, to make a statement. No wonder the crowd loved it! What a masterpiece of comedy!
  • John Cleese’s uproarious “The Last Supper” sketch had been written for ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ but the BBC decided to ban it. So he dug it up for the benefit shows and debuted it in ‘Pleasure at her Majesty’s’. It became an instant classic, which he repeated in ‘Biggest Ball‘. To think that this outstanding sketch could have been lost due to censorship!

‘Remember the Secret Policeman’s Ball?’ may seem like a redundant film to watch if one is already familiar with the original shows, but it isn’t: even after having watched most of them, I was delighted to listen to these comedy and music greats reminisce and loved revisiting sketches that were too funny to only see once.

This is not just an excellent look back, it’s a perfect primer for people who are new to the series. I can’t imagine anyone watching this and not feeling compelled to pick up the original films afterwards. ‘Remember the Secret Policeman’s Ball?’ does a superb job of providing just enough substance to tease its audience into wanting more.

Personally, I came out of this extremely impressed with this new understanding of the shows’ place in history.  When I was a kid, I had absolutely no idea what the big deal was. Now I know. You can hardly understate these shows’ importance. And you can hardly understate how potent the material was and remains to this day. I’m a convert.

Date of viewing: January 1-2, 2014

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