The Flying Circus: 'The Secret Policeman's Balls'

January 28, 2009


THE FIRST THING to know about the new DVD setThe Secret Policeman’s Balls” (Shout! Factory) is that despite the title, it’s rated PG.

The second thing is that despite rather a lot (as the Brits might put it) of filler in the eight-plus hours of comedy and music, but it’s still a must for Monty Python fans and Anglophiles.

The Balls are a series of multi-night stage shows begun in the mid-’70s to raise money for Amnesty International, founded in England in 1961 but hardly a household name prior to its 1977 Nobel Peace Prize win. As noted in the included “top secret dossier” (i.e. liner notes), in 1975 an alert (or perhaps nosy) staffer noticed a contribution from a “Mr. J. Cleese” and AI’s assistant director asked the Python star for fundraising help. Cleese recruited the Pythons, as well as Python idols Peter Cook and Alan Bennett of “Beyond the Fringe” and newcomers like Barry “Dame Edna” Humphries.


That first benefit show, “Pleasure at Her Majesty’s” (1976), fortunately was filmed as part of a documentary, so we can see the Pythons sitting at home and cracking up during a read-through of the “Court Room” sketch. We also see everyone backstage between acts critiquing their performances, and it has the feel of an A-list student revue, filled with last-minute changes and apparently not much rehearsal. One factor that affected both performers and audience, as producer Martin Lewis notes in the commentary track, is that the pubs closed at 11:00 and these shows started at 11:30.

While the sound and video quality aren’t great, the Cleese-Cook sketches in particular are classic, as is Cook’s monologue in which he dryly yet acidly compares the entrance exams for coal miners and judges. (This being English humor, class is a constant topic throughout the balls.) Plus, there’s a cast-wide singing of “The Lumberjack Song” and it’s OK.

The Secret Policeman’s Ball” (1979) continues fairly strong in the Cleese/Python/Cook vein, but in this show we also see rubber-faced ingenue Rowan Atkinson, who in the final sketch sports a voice he’d use years later for his Mr. Bean character. But the real eye-opener here is the addition of music: Pete Townshend‘s acoustic versions of “Pinball Wizard” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” made him not only the first big rocker to do Amnesty work, but also starting the whole “unplugged” trend that would continue in future balls (not to mention on MTV).

The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball” (1981) looks better than its predecessors thanks to the stylized direction of Julian Temple (fresh from “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle“), but this time most of the humor doesn’t translate stateside. Watch John Cleese as a quiz show host who gets his cards mixed up, but otherwise stick to the music: Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck jam together, and Sting does “Message in a Bottle” and “Roxanne.” A sneering Bob Geldof shows up to do “I Don’t Like Mondays,” though he apparently enjoyed the charity experience enough to mastermind Live Aid only four years later.

The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball” from 1987 is mostly music, so be prepared for a lot of awesomely bad new-wave hair. The sketch comedy is wonderful, since it’s mostly by Stephen Fry and a very un-”HouseHugh Laurie, but Ben Elton‘s sex-joke stand-up routine is woefully tame considering what Sam Kinison was doing stateside at that time. Thankfully, that’s followed by Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour bringing the house down with “Biko,” and also suggesting how much Amnesty International must have benefited in the late ’80s from the music industry’s anti-apartheid activism.

By 1989′s “The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball,” the ball had clearly fallen victim to Farm Aid Syndrome and become a shadow of its former self. A 13-minute Ben Elton stand-up routine suggests the organizers were hard-pressed for material by this point, a premise reinforced by the appearance of uninspired rehashes of the classic Python “Pet Shop” and “Argument Clinic” sketches. The only bits of note here are “Last Supper” (John Cleese as the Pope) and “Schoolboy Poetry” (Hugh Laurie writes very disturbed things in class).

A 2004 bonus documentary is titled “Remember the Secret Policeman’s Ball?” It has some fun scenes of the ex-Pythons watching and critiquing their old performances, but otherwise isn’t essential. Pythonite Michael Palin had already summed up the essential philosophy of the balls in the 1981 movie: “Every bit of profit from this lot goes to help people who are in prison for no other reason than they told someone else to go stuff it.”

Written by Express contributor by Paul Stelter

Photo courtesy Shout! Factory

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express · January 28, 2009