For roughly a decade, Amnesty International’s “Secret Policeman’s Ball” series of music-and-comedy concerts were some of the hippest shows around. Popular sketch-comedy troupes Beyond The Fringe and Monty Python riffed alongside next-wave British comics like Alexei Sayle, Ben Elton, and French & Saunders, while between the jokes, rock stars like Pete Townsend, Sting, Lou Reed, and Duran Duran performed stripped-down versions of their hits. The Balls spawned books, soundtrack albums, TV specials, and films—including a best-of anthology that helped establish Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s fledgling arthouse company Miramax as an industry player. From the entertainers-for-charity boom of the ‘80s to the “unplugged” music craze of the ‘90s, a fair number of late-20th-century pop-culture trends arguably had their origins in The Secret Policeman’s Balls.
And yet the five concert films collected on Shout! Factory’s three-disc The Secret Policeman’s Balls set don’t carry the same charge they had in their day. Blame the post-Balls proliferation of events like these, or the wide-open media landscape that makes live recordings of music and comedy less of a novelty, but in 2009, the entertainment value of murky-looking, hollow-sounding rehashes of old Monty Python routines is decidedly diminished. Which isn’t to say that The Secret Policeman’s Balls is worthless—far from it. It’s fascinating to trace the evolution of British comedy from the old collegiate irreverence of Peter Cook and John Cleese in 1976’s Pleasure At Her Majesty’s to the broad satirical grotesquerie of the Spitting Image puppets and Ruby Wax in 1987’s The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball. The only real problem with the Python-and-Fringe-led comedy of the early films is that the sketches are overly familiar, and they lose some of their snap in a live setting with guest stars. But at least they have jokes, unlike the more frenetic and conceptual routines of the ‘80s comics.
There are more than a few performance highlights scattered throughout these discs. Phil Collins’ acoustic version of “In The Air Tonight” is singularly haunting, as is Kate Bush’s performance of “Running Up That Hill” with Dave Gilmour on guitar, and Tom Robinson’s sing-along take on “Glad To Be Gay.” Emo Phillips pops up in Third Ball, bringing his own unique energy to the room, while Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie kill with their post-Python riffs in the ’87 film, as does Rowan Atkinson with his schoolmaster routine in ’79. Still, nearly eight hours of this material does get wearying. When Robbie Coltrane announces in 1989’s The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball that he and partner Adrian Edmondson have “decided to fly in the face of comedy convention and not do a sketch that John Cleese wrote 20 years ago,” the crowd whoops. Viewers of this DVD might as well.
Key features: Introductions from executive producer Martin Lewis, bonus performances, and a not-as-probative-as-it-could-be hourlong documentary. (The problem with making movies about comedians: they’re too busy being smart-asses to answer a direct question.)