Thursday, December 12, 2013

A poke in the eye with a sharp stick

I had heard of The Secret Policeman's Ball, and knew it consisted of a live comedy show, but I wasn't at all familiar with the background of how it came to be.  A new book, The Very Best of The Secret Policeman's Ball, takes a look at not only the events leading up to the various shows, but also is loaded with photos from the performances as well as re-printed routines from the well-known comedians who were part of the project.

The first show was a three night event in 1976 held at Her Majesty's Theatre in London.  John Cleese, who at the time was starring in the wildly popular Fawlty Towers TV series, was asked by the assistant director of Amnesty International for fundraising ideas.  Cleese, who was already an Amnesty supporter, came up with the idea of asking some of his funny friends to participate in several nights of comedy to raise funds for the organization.  Cleese was able to get nearly all of his Monty Python co-stars to agree to take part, in addition to other well-known comics such as Barry Humphries (yes, Dame Edna Everage was already an international mega-star by then!).  Included in the first incarnation, titled "A Poke In The Eye (with a sharp stick)," were the infamous Monty Python "Dead Parrot" and "Lumberjack" sketches as well as some others that were new to me but still very funny (such as Cleese's disappointed Pope having a word with Michelangelo about his first version of "The Last Supper").  The second show was a one-off in 1977 which was more limited in scope due to the unavailability of quite a few of the performers from the first show.  Still, it was enough of a success to carry on the tradition.

The first show to carry the name The Secret Policeman's Ball was held in 1979 and introduced a comedy newcomer by the name of Rowan Atkinson.  This show also made music a bigger part of the production by including known musical guests (rather than the occasional songs performed by the comics in the earlier shows).  Some of the musical talent included Sting, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck.  Comedy still was the main focus of the show with performers including the Monty Python troupe, Billy Connolly, and Peter Cook (among others). This show was also the first time the marketing of the program expanded to record albums and TV programs.

The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, from 1981, tried to be a bit edgier, including a more brash type of comic in the form of Alexei Sayle.  The four shows from 1981 were again wildly popular, even if John Cleese was exasperated at how long they ran over the allotted time!  By 1987, the idea of a star-studded event to raise funds for charity had taken off and inspired the Live Aid events.  Additionally, in 1981 Pete Townsend had performed an acoustic musical set that both set the standard for future musical performances on the show as well as inspiring other programs such as MTV's Unplugged series.  At the same time, the success of all these charity events was starting to give the public "charity fatigue." It was therefore important to continue to attract new, fresh talent in order to ensure an audience.  Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Lenny Henry, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry all participated in the shows in the late 1980s.  John Cleese had distanced himself from the program, but was persuaded to come back to accept the "Silver Dick Award" from Fry & Laurie (the sketch is included in the book, and takes some rather personal jabs at Cleese).

By Amnesty's 40th anniversary in 2001, Eddie Izzard had taken over as the host and routines based on familiar characters were the highlight.  To celebrate Amnesty's 50th anniversary, the Ball was held for the first time outside the UK at New York's Radio City Music Hall.  It was funny to read that during the original show in 1976 the most appreciated comedy bits had been about "Proust, philosophy and iambic pentameter," while in 2012 the biggest laughs came from references to "reality TV, Twitter and texting."  Hmm, not sure this is a positive development for our culture!  Some of the names associated with the American version were Russell Brand, Seth Meyers, Sarah Silverman, Catherine Tate and Jon Stewart.

There's no doubt that the "Secret Policeman's Ball" shows have done a great deal to raise both funds and awareness for Amnesty International.  Founded in 1960, at the time of the first show there were 3,000 AI members.  Today, this number has expanded to over 3 million members.  The important work of the organization in defending human rights and working to free the unjustly imprisoned has benefited greatly from its association with comedy.  Even though the two ideas might seem to be somewhat at opposite ends of the spectrum (topic-wise) they have ended up being a very good fit.  Over the years the performances have been turned into numerous film and album releases.

The book is filled with illustrations of posters from the various shows, as well as photos of the performers.  Many of the skits are also included and make for fascinating and hilarious reading!  A helpful index at the back will let the reader jump to the routines of his or her favorite performers. The ever-escalating cast of comedic and musical talent that the shows were able to attract speaks to the valuable work that Amnesty International did and continues to do.  The pairing of noble work and irreverent comedy was a stroke of genius that continues to benefit us all!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Very Best of The Secret Policeman's Ball from Independent Publisher's Group in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for The Very Best of The Secret Policeman's Ball:   Five Gherkins, for being a comprehensive and uproarious look at the evolution of a comedic institution

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