The story of The Secret Policeman’s other Balls

Amnesty's famous comedy benefit event has crossed the Atlantic, but will it match up to the uniquely British originals?

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The bloke in the pink frock with the stubble, that’s me aged 11. Well, it was me in the kitchen posing for my father, political cartoonist Colin Wheeler, so he could sketch the figure for The Secret Policeman playing the guitar.

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The image was to feature on the album cover of music recorded live at the fourth of Amnesty International’s benefit shows in 1981; legendary tracks by the big names of the day, from Sting performing Roxanne to The Boomtown Rats’ Bob Geldof and Johnny Fingers blasting out I Don’t Like Mondays.

Tonight, Channel 4 screens The Secret Policeman’s Ball 2012, recorded at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, and the line-up of musical and comic talent is equally impressive: Russell Brand, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, Sarah Silverman and The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. But The Secret Policeman has come a long way since its original incarnation, a one-off benefit entitled A Poke in the Eye (with a Sharp Stick) back in 1976.

That first Amnesty Show was a simple concept: 1,200 people down at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London for a spot of comedy – the 11:30pm post-pub start time upping the odds of a jovial atmosphere. The comics would perform for free and the night’s proceeds would support Amnesty’s work for prisoners of conscience.

The masterstroke was asking John Cleese to help out. Cleese was connected to just about everyone on London’s comedy scene. Once Amnesty’s assistant director, Peter Luff, had put in the call, Cleese got to work assembling a dream line-up of his best mates – Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, The Goodies’ Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor, as well as Barry Humphries (as Dame Edna Everage), John Fortune and John Bird.

Here, Peter Cook performs “the courtroom sketch” with the Monty Python team:

So, the three-night event grew in scale, a behind-the-scenes documentary film by Roger Graef kept the cash flowing and, before they knew it, Amnesty was planning a repeat performance for the following year.

It was in 1979 that the event got the name The Secret Policeman’s Ball. With so many leading comedians willing to donate their talents, producers Martin Lewis and Peter Walker decided to bring in some rock musicians. Singer-songwriter Tom Robinson signed up, along with The Who’s Pete Townshend.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Qhagzz4eEw

By 1981, the fundraiser had grown into a major theatrical event with many lucrative spin-offs, including live recordings. For that year’s Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, Cleese mixed things up by inviting the Oxbridge regulars to take the stage alongside a new generation of working-class comedians, including Billy Connolly and Alexei Sayle:

Cleese enjoyed putting fresh faces into familiar sketches, so Rowan Atkinson joined three of the Monty Python crew in The Four Yorkshiremen routine:

An edgy young film-maker, Julien Temple, filmed the show for release and I went along to the premiere with my dad. I was 14 years old and squashed up next to a generously proportioned Robbie Coltrane in the foyer, Billy Connolly near the drinks and Peter Cook somehow upstaging everyone, descending the staircase flanked by two pneumatic blondes, with flashbulbs marking him out as the star.

That 1981 show was to be the last Secret Policeman’s Ball for six years and marked the end of an era. By the time Amnesty staged the Secret Policeman’s Third Ball in 1987, the concept of well-known artists performing en masse for charity had developed into higher-profile events like Live Aid. The regular Amnesty Benefits continued on a much smaller scale and, after 1989, under new titles until 2006.

Maybe this month’s American benefit celebrating 50 years of Amnesty International will be a return to form, or even a new departure. It mightn’t be as uniquely eccentric or as un-showy as those first four Balls, but put a bunch of comedians from both sides of the Atlantic onto a stage and who knows what will come out of the mix.

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The Secret Policeman’s Ball is at 10pm tonight on Channel 4