I first came across the Secret Policeman’s Balls (metaphorically speaking of course) in the early Eighties when they were shown on Channel Four, the then-home of different and interesting programmes.
I was barely a teenager but the chaotic, anarchic shows left an indelible impression although, perhaps strangely, it’s not the comedy that sticks in my mind, but Pete Townsend performing acoustic versions of We Won’t Get Fooled Again and Pinball Wizard.
Since then, what started as a small benefit show designed to raise awareness and membership of Amnesty International has grown into an international brand with TV shows, books, records and films and this weekend will have its first American incarnation at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
The cast list has changed along the way mirroring the development of British comedy as it did and, as co-founder Martin Lewis said recently, also reflecting “the essence of the Amnesty creed that we should pass the Amnesty candle on to the next generation – so the fight for human rights continues”.
What started as a small benefit show designed to raise awareness and membership of Amnesty International has grown into a brand.
Many of the performers involved in the early shows have credited them with being the inspiration behind a host of other charities and benefit and it’s little surprise as the iconic, early shows were pioneering, after all back in the mid-Seventies the concept of celebrity-led benefit gigs was genuinely radical.
In 1976, Amnesty was struggling to stay afloat and raise the issue of human rights abuses around the world and so they decided to stage a 15th anniversary show. Peter Luff the charity’s assistant director noticed a donation from John Cleese and so asked the comedian, fresh from the success of the first series of Fawlty Towers, if he would help put on a benefit show. Without hesitation Cleese said yes and that he would enlist some friends.
Those friends turned out to be the elite of British comedy at the time – the ‘Oxbridge’ set ranging from Cleese’s fellow Pythons to Peter Cook, The Goodies and Johns Bird and Fortune among others. The show, which was called A Poke in the Eye With a Sharp Stick evolved from a one-off to a three-night run from the 1st to 3rd April at Her Majesty’s Theatre with performances starting at 11.30pm after the evenings’ scheduled play, a tradition which remains and which created the raucous atmosphere.
Tickets were only advertised in Private Eye and sold out in four days. Fittingly the first sketch performed at the first show was the Dead Parrot sketch with Cleese facing off with Michael Palin desperately trying to suppress fits of laughter. The show was recorded for an album which became a hit and by a documentary crew. The subsequent film, Pleasure at Her Majesty’s was broadcast on BBC2 later in the year and received a limited theatrical release.
Buoyed by their success – Amnesty’s membership had rocketed by a massive 700% - and wanting to set a precedent of annual shows, Amnesty produced a second gig in May the following year at the Mermaid Theatre. Called the Mermaid Frolics it featured pretty much the same cast along with a few additions such as Cleese’s then-wife Connie Booth and Sir Peter Ustinov. This show was the first in the series to include music - Julie Covington and her band – but unlike it’s immediate predecessor and successors, it was a one-off designed to be filmed as a TV special.
Two years later in 1979, the third show, and the biggest to date was staged over four nights again at Her Majesty’s Theatre. The Who’s Pete Townsend provided the music and a young Rowan Atkinson joined the line up as did Billy Connolly – the first non-Oxbridge comedian to take part, the show brought him to the attention of a wider audience (this of course when he was actually funny and able to deal with hecklers). This show was the first to be called The Secret Policeman’s Ball, a title created by co-producer Martin Lewis who would go on to oversee the successful Oscar campaigns for Crash and The King’s Speech.
The Secret Policeman himself was designed by cartoonist Colin Wheeler and has had several guises, for 1981’s Other Ball he wore a dress while for 1989’s Biggest Ball he had a massive testicle. In 2006 he became Mr Beaky, an accident-prone bird created by James Jarvis but that was quickly superseded by the return of an actual policeman re-imagined by graphic artist McBess.
The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball in 1981, was the biggest to date. Cleese focused on integrating the hottest young comedy talent of the time into the established line-up. Connoly returned as did Atkinson, bringing with him his Not The Nine O’Clock News chums. Alexi Sayle made his debut and was the first of the ‘alternative’ comedians who would dominate Amnesty gigs and the British comedy scene in the Eighties and Nineties to appear. Victoria Wood, and Jasper Carrott were also added to the line up.
For 1981’s Other Ball he wore a dress, while for 1989’s Biggest Ball he had a massive testicle.
With Townsend having led the way two years earlier, more musicians were added to the line up with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Donavan playing sets and Sting performing as a solo artist for the very first time. It was also at this show that Live Aid creators Bob Geldolf and Midge Ure would meet and work together for the first time, and Geldolf credits the show with inspiring his own charity efforts. Likewise Sting credits The Other Ball as bringing human rights issues to his attention and inspiring his charity efforts as has U2’s Bono, who was in the audience.
It was around this time that the show and Amnesty started to have an impact in the US. An album of the music of The Other Ball reached the Top 30 in America in March 1982, while a film compiled from the two Policeman’s Balls was a box office hit in both the UK and the US in the same year. It was distributed by a small start-up outfit called Miramax run by Bob and Harvey Weinstein. It was their breakthrough film and they would go on to have huge success with films such as Shakespeare in Love. Every silver lining has a cloud I guess.
Building on this, Amnesty organised a 10-day, six gig music tour called Conspiracy of Hope which featured a mixture of British and American acts and ended with an all-day concert at New York’s Giants stadium which was broadcast live on MTV in just one month Amnesty membership in America increased by 45,000. Two years later the charity organised a Human Rights Now! World tour featuring the likes of Sting and Bruce Sprinsteen which again helped increase the charity’s membership.
However, in Britian, the Secret Policeman’s Ball became a victim of its own success as it was swamped by imitations such as Comic Relief, which started in 1985, and Children In Need, which held its first telethon in 1980 and so Amnesty took a six-year break and returned in 1987 with a four-night show which for the first time gave equal prominence to music and comedy.
The following year it organised a disastrous music festival catchly titled the Amnesty International Festival of Youth. Crucially it was scheduled a week after the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday concert which most of Amnesty’s musical performers had already signed up to. So, Amnesty was left with the likes of Transvision Vamp, failed to fill the 65,000-capacity Milton Keynes Bowl and lost money on a show for the first time.
A year later Amnesty re-focused on a primarily comedy show and used the Secret Policeman’s Ball title for the last time until its revival in 2006. During that 17-year period there were a number of shows but they were much less high-profile than their predecessors with casts of comedians primarily known only in Britain.
The most recent incarnations are slicker affairs, but they lack the anarchic joie de vivre of the early shows (although let’s face it in the era of the rock star comic when someone as dull as Michael MacIntyre can slip on a head-mic and fill Wembley this is hardly Amnesty’s fault). They also take place in a crowded marketplace of celebrity-led comedy and music charity appeals and so have become just one of many, but we shouldn’t forget that without Amnesty and the Secret Policeman and his Balls that market place wouldn’t be there at all.