Judge Victor Valdivia says his balls are quite fancy. We desperately hope he means "dances."
"I'm not a man given easily to superlatives, but The Secret
Policeman's Other Ball is undoubtedly the most depraved, corrupt,
scandalous, odious, rank, foul, filthy, lewd, vile, rotten, sordid, tasteless
movie since The Sound of
On April Fool's Day 1976, Amnesty International, then a little-known organization, assembled a series of benefit performances of various British comedians at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. Those performances, captured on film as Pleasure At Her Majesty's, began over a decade of benefits that would turn Amnesty into one of the world's most famous organizations and would also help to launch the careers of some of England's most famous comedians. The Secret Policeman's Balls, as the concerts were subsequently known, were the brainchild of two men: Amnesty Marketing Director Martin Lewis and Monty Python's John Cleese, who was an outspoken Amnesty supporter. The five shows they organized and filmed are collected on the three-DVD The Secret Policeman's Balls set. While the films are sometimes a bit sloppy and uneven, the sheer importance of the actual performances and performers makes this set a must for anyone who cares about classic British comedy and music.
The first film, Pleasure At Her Majesty's, is by far the roughest and least organized, but in many ways that was by design. When Cleese and Lewis decided to put together the first benefit, they decided to make it as loose and relaxed as possible. The shows were filmed late at night with little in the way of dressing rooms, rehearsals, or backstage amenities. Nonetheless, Cleese managed to round up an impressive roster: All of Monty Python (minus Eric Idle), all of the legendary Beyond the Fringe group (minus Dudley Moore), Dame Edna Humphries, and the then-popular Goodies, amongst many others. Pleasure captures both highlights from the shows along with a healthy smattering of backstage footage, and the film is fascinating, if not quite a slam-dunk. The comedians perform in each other's sketches and routines and throw in suggestions and extra jokes, leading to some enthralling collaborations. It's especially interesting to see the laconic style of Beyond the Fringe's Peter Cook meshing with the more over-the-top style of the Pythons and to see some sketches and material that were never captured on film before. The actual performances, however, are not always great. The loose atmosphere and lack of regular rehearsals result in a considerable amount of sloppiness and even onstage laughter. These performances are historically important and a lot of the material is genuinely solid, but fans should be warned not to expect film-quality brilliance.
For the second film, several significant changes occurred in the shows. The name of the show was changed, at Lewis' suggestion, to the Secret Policeman's Ball, and the name would stick for every subsequent film. Another important suggestion from Lewis was for musicians to appear onstage and perform unplugged. The first film consisted entirely of comedy sketches and routines, but for The Secret Policeman's Ball, Who guitarist Pete Townshend was drafted to perform acoustic renditions of "Pinball Wizard" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." There's also an appearance by New Wave singer/songwriter Tom Robinson, who sings a solo version of "Glad to be Gay." These are spectacular performances, easily worth the price of the set alone just for music fans. The comedy performances are also quite good and considerably improved from the first film. This time, though only three Pythons and Peter Cook return from the first film, the cast is bolstered with the breakthrough appearance of a then-unknown young comedian named Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), who makes a stellar debut. In this film, however, while the performances are more consistent, it's the material that's uneven. There are a few sketches by Cook and the Pythons that are heavily topical and dated, which will make them somewhat incomprehensible to viewers who were not in England in 1979. There was some parochial British humor in the first film as well, but there's even more here, so it might not play as well with some modern viewers as it did originally. Still, this is a generally stronger film than the first and it may be the most consistently entertaining one in this set.
By 1981, the Secret Policeman's Ball series had acquired enough cachet that Lewis and Cleese no longer had to beg their friends to appear; now they could recruit the cream of British music and comedy royalty. For The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, the musical heavyweights who performed with full bands and equipment include Sting, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Donovan, Bob Geldof, and Phil Collins. Similarly, now a couple of Pythons and Atkinson (who returned as a full-fledged star) are joined by newcomers Pamela Stephenson (Saturday Night Live) and Alexei Sayle (The Young Ones). It's the musical performances, though, that are the real highlight, especially a searing guitar duel between Clapton and Beck on "Further On Up the Road." The music is so strong, in fact, that it winds up overshadowing the comedy, which is only decent. It was the strength of the musical performances that earned this film the attention of a struggling distribution company named Miramax, who released it, in a version with highlights from the previous films edited in, theatrically in the United States. Because this is the only film in this set that was ever officially released in the U.S., it may be the one that most fans will be familiar with, although they should note that this will appeal more to fans of music rather than comedy.
By 1987, the Secret Policeman's Ball had become so hip that it threatened to become more of a fashion show than an event. It's no surprise, then, that The Secret Policeman's Third Ball, though it contains some bright spots, is by far the weakest of the films in this set. Part of the problem is that the show is padded with some rather painfully dated '80s relics like Duran Duran, Nik Kershaw, and Emo Philips, making almost a third of the film easily skippable. There's also a heavy preponderance of aggressively topical and political humor from comics like Ben Elton and the Spitting Image puppets. The endless swipes at Reagan and Thatcher may have played well at the time but seem hopelessly dated and quaint by today's standards. Still, even with these flaws, there are some good bits. The two appearances by the duo of Stephen Fry (Jeeves & Wooster) and Hugh Laurie (House M.D.) are amongst the best of these films, rivaling anything by the Pythons. There are also a few good musical performances, particularly by Lou Reed and Peter Gabriel, who closes the show with a haunting rendition of "Biko." Nonetheless, this is the one film in this set where viewers may be tempted to use the fast-forward button more than usual.
For The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball, the focus returned to comedy. There are no musical performances, apart from a couple of comic songs. There's also more time devoted to a new younger range of comics, including Robbie Coltrane, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous), and Lenny Henry, in addition to a return performance by Fry & Laurie. In this case, the younger performers are the stars, and deservedly so, as they deliver the biggest laughs. Still, it is a welcome sight to see a reunion of Moore and Cook performing onstage together for one of the last times Cook would perform in public. Some fans might be disappointed by the lack of musical performances, but the comedic performances are by far the most consistent here, and the humor isn't as dated as it is on other shows, making this a worthy closer to the set.
As for the technical specs, those are a bit of a letdown. The fourth and fifth films were shot on video and look the cleanest, though hardly sparkling. The first three films, on the other hand, don't look so good. They're fairly scratched-up and damaged and full of dirt and nicks, so at times it's a little hard to make out what's onscreen. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mixes are all decent, but are sometimes marred by loud pops and clicks. There's no doubt that Shout! Factory did the best they could with these films, but it's hard not to wish that they had been better preserved.
Though the films are technically disappointing, the extras compiled for this set are stellar. The best are the commentaries Lewis recorded for the first three films. These are a must for fans, especially because Lewis puts each performance in context, recalls the particulars of how each show was put together, and even explains some of the more arcane British humor and references for American viewers. Lewis has also recorded introductions and epilogues for each film, and while they sometimes repeat information he gives in the commentaries, they generally add immensely to understanding how each film was made and received. The third disc also comes with a superb 75-minute documentary, Remember the Secret Policeman's Ball?, that contains great stories from most of the surviving Pythons, Sting, Collins, Saunders, Fry, and Atkinson, amongst others. The second and third films include a pair of musical performances by Townshend and Sting that were previously unreleased, some hilarious promotional trailers and TV commercials starring assorted Pythons and Cook, and extra animation that was filmed for a U.S. home video compilation of highlights from the first three films called The Secret Policeman's Private Parts. There are even three sketches filmed from a much smaller Amnesty benefit in 1977 called The Mermaid Frolics, although these are mainly for hardcore Python completists as the material and performances are only mildly amusing. The set is rounded out by a 10-page booklet with plenty of backstage photos and exhaustive liner notes by Lewis.
All of which means that if you're any sort of fan of classic British comedy and/or music, The Secret Policeman's Balls is a must-buy. Yes, the performances can sometimes be subpar, but the sheer volume of good performances and the historical importance of the shows captured here make this collection too essential to pass by. Lewis and Shout! Factory have done an outstanding job of compiling and presenting these films (apart from the disappointing transfers) and American fans who have until now only had edited versions of much of this material will be happy to finally have all of these films in their original form.
The Secret Policeman's Balls is one hundred percent not guilty.
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