The Secret Policeman's Balls is the collective name informally used to describe the long-running series of benefit shows staged in England to raise funds for the human rights organisation Amnesty International. The shows started out in the mid-1970s primarily as comedy galas featuring popular British comedic performers and later expanded to include leading musical performers.
The shows have yielded movies, TV specials, home-videos, albums and books that have been distributed worldwide and had a considerable international impact. The Secret Policeman's Ball shows and their spin-offs are credited by many prominent entertainers with having galvanised them to become involved with Amnesty and other social and political causes in succeeding years. Musicians such as Bob Geldof, Bono, Sting and Peter Gabriel have credited the shows with inspiring benefit events that they subsequently helped organise such as Live Aid and Live 8 – and triggering their activism leading to social issue organisations with which they are associated including the Band Aid Trust, the Live Aid Foundation, the Witness human rights group, The Rainforest Foundation, the ONE Campaign, the Debt, AIDS & Trade in Africa DATA charity and the Global Elders.
To date there have been four distinct eras of the Amnesty benefit shows. The first era (1976–1981) featured internationally-known British performers and were widely seen and heard internationally via theatrical films, TV specials, home-videos and record albums. The three subsequent eras (1987–1989, 1991–2001 and 2006 onwards) have featured primarily British performers popular in their homeland – and the spin-off products have been released mainly just in the UK.
The early shows (1976–1981) spawned movies, TV specials, albums and books that were distributed worldwide and had an impact far beyond the London theatre audiences who saw the original events. Those four shows and their spin-offs are credited by many prominent comedians, musicians, actors and producers with having galvanised them to become proactively involved with Amnesty and other social and political causes in succeeding years.
Rock stars Bob Geldof and Bono who were both knighted for their humanitarian work (in 1986 and 2006 respectively) and Sting and Eric Clapton who were both made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for their charity work (in 2002 and 2004 respectively) have all attributed their involvement in humanitarian issues to their exposure to the Secret Policeman's Ball shows – Geldof, Sting and Clapton as participants – Bono as an audience member.
Amnesty directly attributes the leaps in awareness of the human rights issue, the significant increases in its membership (especially among the young) and its dramatically increased fund-raising achievements to the impact of the various shows, their spin-offs and successor Amnesty events such as the Conspiracy Of Hope and Human Rights Now! tours.
The Secret Policeman's Ball title was not actually used until the third of Amnesty's benefit shows in 1979. However, the two preceding shows in 1976 and 1977 were clearly antecedents to that 1979 show and have been retroactively considered part of the Secret Policeman's canon. (The 2004 DVD box set titled The Secret Policeman's Ball: The Complete Edition included edited versions of the films of the 1976 and 1977 shows.)
The series was created and developed by Monty Python alumnus John Cleese and Peter Luff (Assistant Director Amnesty International 1974–76) assisted by entertainment industry executive Martin Lewis who subsequently worked with Peter Walker (Fund-Raising Officer from 1978). Cleese, Lewis and Luff worked together on the first two shows (1976 and 1977). After this, Cleese and Lewis worked on the next two shows (1979 and 1981) with Luff's replacement at Amnesty, Peter Walker, using the name Secret Policeman's Ball for the first time and developing the series identity. Cleese and Lewis subsequently worked individually on other Amnesty projects. Cleese made brief cameo appearances in the 1987 and 1989 shows and co-directed the latter. Lewis produced two American films drawn from the first four shows (released in the US in 1982 and 1983) and then helped expand the participation of rock musicians for Amnesty (that he first engendered in the 1979 and 1981 shows) with his contributions to the 1986 Conspiracy Of Hope US tour and the 1988 Human Rights Now! world tour.
The earliest shows (1976–1981) predated the proliferation of comedy and rock benefit shows that took place in the UK and US in the mid-1980s such as Live Aid, Farm Aid, Prince’s Trust concerts, The Free Nelson Mandela Concert and the British and American versions of Comic Relief. The Amnesty shows are considered to have been the pioneering charity events that helped inspire those later shows.
U2’s Bono told Rolling Stone magazine in 1986: "I saw 'The Secret Policeman’s Ball' and it became a part of me. It sowed a seed..." In 2001, Bono described The Secret Policeman's Ball to an Amnesty audience as "a mysterious and extraordinary event that certainly changed my life..." In 1986, Sting told the BBC "I've been a member of Amnesty and a support member for five years, due to an entertainment event called 'The Secret Policemans Ball' and before that I did not know about Amnesty, I did not know about its work, I did not know about torture in the world." Bob Geldof and Ultravox singer Midge Ure – who went on to create the Band Aid records, Live Aid, and Live 8 – first met and worked together at 1981’s The Secret Policeman's Other Ball which was the first benefit show that either of them had performed at. Geldof credits the Secret Policeman's Ball series with having inspired his own charity show endeavours.
The first wave of shows took place approximately every other year, and three of the first four shows were filmed and released theatrically as movies with corresponding record albums. Because multi-artist benefit shows with contemporary performers were a new phenomenon in Britain in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, they were accorded considerable media coverage and public attention. Some of the movies received international theatrical release (including important markets for British comedy such as the US, Canada and Australia), and the soundtrack albums enjoyed commercial success worldwide, all of which generated considerable international awareness of the original shows, together with a growing grassroots awareness of Amnesty international and the human rights issue. Amnesty states that public awareness of Amnesty increased by 700% between the first and third shows. Membership of the organisation increased exponentially.
There was then a six-year hiatus. When Amnesty International re-commenced staging benefit shows, it did so without the benefit of the Amnesty staff members and outside producers who had successfully guided the first wave of shows (1976–1981). The new team running Amnesty International re-commenced staging benefit shows in 1987, and the shows were on a noticeably smaller scale and consequently generated considerably less media attention. The second wave of shows (1987 onwards) were videotaped to be shown as TV specials and/or released on home video in Britain rather than filmed as movies with prospects for international release. The sole exception to the smaller scale events was an ill-fated attempt in June 1988 to stage a Live Aid style music extravaganza – a weekend concert event titled "Amnesty International Festival Of Youth" at the 65,000 capacity Milton Keynes Bowl. The event was a massive failure and for the first time ever, one of Amnesty's fund-raising benefit events lost money.
Only two more of Amnesty's benefit shows (in 1987 and 1989) carried a Secret Policeman's Ball-related title. Between 1991 and 2001 Amnesty staged four more benefit events and though they were comedy shows in the same vein as their predecessors, none of them carried a Secret Policeman's Ball title. When Amnesty staged a 40th anniversary show in 2001 it was stated that the Secret Policeman's Ball title had run its course and would not be revived.
However, in October 2006, following a seventeen-year gap since the last show with Secret Policeman's in the title, the name was revived for a benefit show that used the identical title as the 1979 show. The merit in returning to use of the original title was underscored by Amnesty electing to use the Secret Policeman's Ball name once again for a show in October 2008.
In early 1976, the British section of Amnesty International was seeking a way to simultaneously raise funds for itself and elevate the very low profile of human rights issues in British public discourse. It decided to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Amnesty parent organisation with a simple one-night benefit show with a few entertainers contributing services as was the norm with charity events in that era. There was no anticipation that the event might be filmed or recorded to be shared with an audience beyond the people attending the benefit, and no anticipation that it might be anything other than a one-off event.
Amnesty's Assistant Director Peter Luff approached John Cleese of the Monty Python comedy troupe to seek his participation. Cleese was taken with the idea and volunteered to assist the event by helping to "round up a few friends."
Cleese’s "few friends" turned out to be his colleagues in Monty Python, pals in the earlier British comedic ensemble Beyond The Fringe, his Footlights/I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again peers in the contemporary British comedic ensemble The Goodies, and other members of the British comedy community from the 1960s and 1970s (primarily those described as "Oxbridge" comedians).
Luff obtained a theatre provided free of charge working with his Amnesty colleague David Simpson. The tickets for the show were advertised solely in the satirical magazine Private Eye and were sold out within four days.
The other member of the production team was Martin Lewis, a young record industry executive who initially undertook to produce a record album of the show and then became closely involved with Cleese, Luff and Simpson on the show production – which evolved into a three-night run. TV documentarian Roger Graef, approached the team offering to make a "fly-on-the-wall"-style documentary about the production of the show and to film the show itself. The resulting film was titled Pleasure at Her Majesty's. Lewis' background was in publicity and marketing and he also undertook responsibility for publicising the show and its film and record spin-offs.
The first show – titled by Cleese A Poke in the Eye (With a Sharp Stick) – took place on 1–3 April 1976 as a series of late-night galas at Her Majesty's Theatre in London's West End theatre district. The show was directed by Beyond The Fringe alumnus Jonathan Miller. The shows started at 11.30 pm, after the performance of the theatre’s regularly-scheduled play. This idea for the show to be a late-night event became a hallmark of many of the subsequent shows, and contributed to the lively atmosphere of the shows.
In addition to Lewis' audio recording team, Roger Graef, using a small 16mm film crew, documented the rehearsals and performances. The footage was later assembled into the film Pleasure At Her Majesty's, which premiered in November 1976 at the 20th annual London Film Festival, and was broadcast by the BBC in December 1976. Subsequently the film received a modest theatrical release at art-house cinemas in 1977. A record album of the show, titled A Poke in the Eye (With a Sharp Stick), was released in November 1976 by Transatlantic Records and was a commercial success.
The working title for the show was An Evening Without David Frost – a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the fact that David Frost was a common frame of reference for all the performers, most of whom had worked with him – or for him – early in their careers.
In May 1977 a second Amnesty benefit was held to build on the success of the first show and with the intent of developing momentum for a regularly-scheduled benefit show. The returning production team included Amnesty Assistant Director Peter Luff and Martin Lewis. The show was directed by Monty Python member Terry Jones. This show was unlike the first show and its primary successors in three key aspects. It was a single-night event rather than consisting of multiple performances, it started at 8:00 pm on a Sunday evening, and the show was videotaped as a TV special rather than filmed for theatrical release.
The show took place at London's Mermaid Theatre and was titled An Evening Without Sir Bernard Miles, an affectionate reference to the celebrated actor/manager who was the founder of the Mermaid Theatre. (The idea for the title grew out of John Cleese's recollection of the discarded working title for the previous year's show.)
The comedic performers in the 1977 show included several who had performed in the first show – such as Peter Cook, Terry Jones, John Cleese – joined by his then wife Connie Booth – and some newcomers including Sir Peter Ustinov. There were also a handful of acoustic musical performers including classical guitarist John Williams, actress/singer Julie Covington and folk troubadour Pete Atkin.
The record album of the show and the TV show were given a fresh title: The Mermaid Frolics. The album was released on Polydor Records in December 1977 and the TV special was shown on the ITV network that same month through Granada TV. The title accorded to the TV show and record album has subsequently become the name by which the original stage show itself is known.
Amnesty decided not to present a benefit show in 1978 in order to consider how to make better use of the performing talent so favourably disposed to assist it in raising funds. Peter Luff left Amnesty in 1978 and the organisation's new fund-raising officer, Peter Walker, was deputed to work with Lewis on reconfiguring the show to raise more money and greater awareness of Amnesty.
Lewis and Walker determined that the third show needed to be produced in the same vein as the first show (i.e. multiple performances, late-night and documented on film for theatrical release) but with a more professional approach to exploiting the film of the show. They approached John Cleese who agreed to be involved again. He also agreed to direct the show though requesting that his credit read "slightly directed by John Cleese." Cleese recruited the majority of the comedic performers – including Peter Cook and fellow Pythons Michael Palin and Terry Jones. He also selected a newcomer on the British comedy scene named Rowan Atkinson. Lewis recruited Scottish comedian Billy Connolly with whom he had worked while employed at Transatlantic Records. Connolly was the first non-Oxbridge comedian to perform at an Amnesty benefit – a distinction he made fun of in his performances at the show.
Lewis proposed to Cleese that in addition to the comedy performances the show should feature some contemporary rock musicians. Cleese delegated this responsibility to Lewis who recruited Who guitarist Pete Townshend to perform, as well as New Wave singer-songwriter Tom Robinson.
Cleese and Palin promoted the upcoming show in a rare joint TV interview transmitted on BBC TV on 22 June 1979. Cleese and Palin explained their support for Amnesty and their reasons for doing the shows. They also talked about the origin of the show name with Cleese crediting producer Lewis for coining the Secret Policeman’s Ball title. "It's Martin Lewis' title, I can pin that one on him. But I thought is was quite funny."
The shows took place over four consecutive nights at Her Majesty's Theatre in London from 27–30 June 1979.
The shows were again filmed by a rudimentary 16mm documentary crew and the resulting 100-minute film – also titled The Secret Policeman’s Ball was released theatrically by ITC in June 1980 heralded by a special preview attended by many of the show's participants. (A one-hour TV special drawn from the performances aired on Britain's ITV network by London Weekend Television in December 1979 to coincide with the release of the Secret Policeman’s Ball record album on Island Records, produced by Lewis, of the comedy performances.)
A second record was released to coincide with the release of the film, a 12-inch EP containing eight musical performances from the show including three Townshend songs.
The film and record albums enjoyed critical and commercial success in the UK and sparked international interest. The film was released in several countries with notable success in Australia. For the first time there was also interest in the USA with the EP of the musical performances being released as an album by Atco/Atlantic Records and the US movie rights being acquired by fledgling independent distributor Miramax Films.
The iconic Secret Policeman's cartoon character used to promote the show, film and record albums made its first appearance in 1979. It was created by New Statesman cartoonist Colin Wheeler who had been commissioned by Peter Walker.
This film, plus four others, is included on the Secret Policeman's Balls DVD.
Following the success of the 1979 show and the financial benefits accruing to Amnesty from the spin-off movie, TV special and record albums – Cleese, Lewis and Walker planned the next show to be a more spectacular event.
Cleese focused on broadening the comedic talent to be presented at the show. In addition to the Amnesty show stalwarts drawn from the Oxbridge/Monty Python/Beyond The Fringe orbit, he invited newcomers such as Rowan Atkinson’s colleagues from the BBC TV show Not the Nine O'Clock News including Pamela Stephenson and Griff Rhys Jones; comedian Victoria Wood and regional comic Jasper Carrott. Lewis secured a return appearance by Billy Connolly and a debut appearance by "alternative" comedian Alexei Sayle who Lewis had recently discovered and was managing.
Building on the success of Pete Townshend's 1979 appearance Lewis recruited other rock musicians to perform at the 1981 show including Sting, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Donovan and Bob Geldof.
The show was presented at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on four consecutive nights on 9–12 September 1981.
Cleese invited theatre director Ron Eyre to co-direct the show with him. Walker secured funds to have the show filmed (at Lewis’ suggestion) by new wave filmmaker Julien Temple. For the first time an Amnesty show was filmed with a full 35 mm film crew. The resulting film was released in the UK by UIP in March 1982. It became a commercial success on both its theatrical release and its subsequent home video release.
Two record albums were also released by Springtime/Island Records. One featured highlights of the comedy material, while the other featured the musical performances. In addition to the movies and albums, Methuen published a large coffee-table book edited by Lewis and Walker, featuring transcripts of the sketches from the show, photographs and some specially written comedic notes by Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
The reputation of the original four shows has endured and grown over the years. In September 2006, 30 years after the first show, a profile in the respected British newspaper The Daily Telegraph referred to the “talismanic power of the words The Secret Policeman's Ball” and “the show's folkloric status”.
There are many factors that have contributed to the reputation of the shows, particularly from the first wave (1976–1981):
• The galas were the first stage shows in the UK to feature a broad cross-section of the baby-boomer generation of contemporary comedic performers who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Media reviews at the time described the 1976 show as a gathering of the tribes.
• They were the first stage shows in the UK to present comedic performers (such as Monty Python and Rowan Atkinson) in the same setting and shows as their contemporaries in rock music (such as Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Sting).
• The shows became famous for presenting unusual permutations of performers. By way of example in the 1976 show, Peter Cook of Beyond The Fringe became an honorary member of Monty Python for their Courtroom Sketch. Terry Jones of Monty Python took the place of the absent Dudley Moore in Beyond The Fringe’s Shakespeare skit. Rowan Atkinson was a guest performer with three members of Monty Python for the Four Yorkshiremen sketch. John Cleese had the opportunity to perform in "two-handers” (skits for just two performers) with two of his mentors: Jonathan Miller in 1977 and Peter Cook in 1979. In 1981, it was Cleese’s turn to fulfil the role of mentor in a two-hander with Rowan Atkinson.
• Much of the material performed in the heralded first four shows (1976–1981) came from the rich repertoire of sketches and skits created in the preceding 15 years by Beyond The Fringe and the subsequent work of its alumni, and by Monty Python and its many stage, radio and TV antecedents. In some cases, material that had been created for radio or TV shows was revived and presented on stage. For example: several skits from the cult 1960s TV show At Last the 1948 Show were resuscitated by John Cleese (one of that show’s creators) and performed by him with various Amnesty show cast members, including fellow Pythons (Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman) and other peers (John Bird, John Fortune and Tim Brooke-Taylor (the last also an At Last the 1948 Show writer/star), younger performers (Rowan Atkinson and Griff Rhys Jones), and Cleese's then wife, actress/writer Connie Booth.
• The out-of-the-ordinary pairings were not limited to the comedic performers. In the 1979 show, producer Martin Lewis arranged for rock guitarist Pete Townshend to duet with classical guitar virtuoso John Williams on The Who’s Won't Get Fooled Again. Lewis also arranged for new-wave rock performers Sting and Bob Geldof to perform in a specially assembled super-group (named "The Secret Police") with 1960s guitar icons Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck on a grand finale performance of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released.
• Solo live performances by rock musicians of their hits was not a familiar phenomenon prior to the Secret Policeman’s shows. This changed with Townshend’s performance of "Pinball Wizard", Sting singing "Message In A Bottle" and "Roxanne", Phil Collins performing "In The Air Tonight".
• The shows were also the first to present the new wave of working-class comedians (sometimes described as “alternative comedians”) such as Billy Connolly and Alexei Sayle to a wider audience. By the time of the second and third waves of Secret Policeman’s shows (in 1987–1989 and 1991–2001, respectively), alternative comedians had become the new mainstream, succeeding the Oxbridge comedy school of the 1960s and 1970s. The later Amnesty shows followed the lead of the earlier shows in presenting the most popular comedy performers of the era, and many of these were the newer, alternative comedians such as Ben Elton, French & Saunders, and Eddie Izzard.
The films and records of the first three Amnesty benefit shows did not receive much exposure in the US, but this started to change in 1981–1982.
The original British versions of the two Secret Policeman’s Ball movies were presented at the 1981 and 1982 Filmex Los Angeles International Film Festival. Media coverage of the festival screenings in magazines such as Rolling Stone created some awareness of the existence of the benefit shows.
The album The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball – The Music was released by Island Records/Warner Bros. Records in March 1982 and became a Top Thirty album in the Billboard charts.
The third major element in bringing the Secret Policeman's Balls to the U.S. was the acquisition of the UK films by an American distributor. Harvey Weinstein and Bob Weinstein, founders/owners of the new independent distribution company Miramax Films had previously acquired the US rights to the film of the 1979 show The Secret Policeman’s Ball and they subsequently acquired the rights to its successor The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. They determined that neither film would be successful in the American marketplace in their original incarnations because some of the comedy content was too parochial for broader American tastes. They decided that the two films needed to be melded into one movie for the US. With Amnesty's blessing, they decided to combine the two films into one.
Original producer Martin Lewis was asked to create a new version of The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball specially for the American marketplace. Lewis distilled the best performances from both films into one new 110-minute film with a special American opening sequence narrated by Saturday Night Live announcer Don Pardo. The new film premiered in New York in May 1982 as a fund-raiser for the U.S. section of Amnesty; it received enthusiastic reviews and went on to box office success. The film is recognised as Miramax’s first hit. The American version of the film was released on home video by MGM-UA later in 1982. The US film (though drawn from the UK films of both the 1979 and 1981 shows) used as its title The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball – a title that by May 1982 had some resonance in the US marketplace because of the success of the music soundtrack album and media coverage of the film festival screenings.
In 1983, the Weinsteins and Lewis produced an 80-minute sequel TV special for HBO/Cinemax later released on home video by Media Home Entertainment titled The Secret Policeman’s Private Parts. The program compiled material from the first two Amnesty shows (the 1976 and 1977 benefits) and the best of the content from the original 1979 and 1981 films that had not been used in the 1982 US version of The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball.
In the early 1980s, Amnesty had a low profile in the US, and its Executive Director Jack Healey was looking for a way to raise the organisation’s profile, especially among young people. In a 1986 profile in Rolling Stone Healey related how he decided to explore if some of the goodwill for Amnesty of rock musicians that he had seen in the US version of The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball could be put to service to help improve Amnesty’s profile in America.
Consulting with Martin Lewis, Healey conceived and produced Conspiracy Of Hope, an 11-day/6-concert rock tour of the US that took place in June 1986 in celebration of Amnesty’s 25th anniversary. The tour was headlined by a mixture of British and Irish artists – Sting, The Police, Peter Gabriel and U2 – with American and Canadian musicians Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, Joan Baez, The Neville Brothers and Bryan Adams. The tour was promoted by rock impresario Bill Graham. The tour concluded with a major all-day concert at Giants Stadium in New Jersey that was televised by MTV. The final concert featured multiple additional artists including Bob Geldof, Joan Armatrading, Rubén Blades, Carlos Santana, Howard Jones, Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell. Just one month after the tour, the membership of Amnesty in the USA had increased by 45,000 members.
Subsequent to Conspiracy Of Hope, Lewis and Healey collaborated in conceiving the 1988 Amnesty world tour Human Rights Now!, that featured Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Youssou N'Dour and Tracy Chapman. Lewis and Healey's intention was to commemorate of the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by staging a tour that would visit all five continents. The aim was to raise consciousness of the human rights issue rather than be a fund-raising exercise.
The six-week/20-concert tour was produced by Healey and Bill Graham. The tour staged concerts in 19 different nations in all five continents – and was considered successful in raising considerable awareness of the human rights issue throughout the world.
The two tours were the cornerstone of what subsequently became known collectively as the Human Rights Concerts – a series of music events and tours staged by the US Section of Amnesty International between 1986–1998 that built upon the Secret Policeman's Ball shows staged in the UK.
Following the success of The Secret Policeman's Ball shows, there was a virtual explosion of benefit shows and charity projects in the UK in the early-to-mid 1980s – for a wide variety of causes. Many of the shows were modelled on the format of the Secret Policeman’s Ball shows. At a certain point the media started to refer to a phenomenon described as "benefit fatigue" a term coined to describe the attitude towards the glut of benefit shows – many featuring the same group of performers – that were taking place each year.
By 1982, Amnesty had lost the services of two key staff members who had successfully guided the first wave (1976–1981) of their benefit shows: Peter Luff (the 1976 & 1977 shows) and Peter Walker (the 1979 & 1981 shows).
The British Section of Amnesty responded to these two factors by taking a break from staging new benefit shows for six years. When it restarted the Secret Policeman’s series in 1987 it scaled back from producing theatrical movies of its shows to making them into TV and home video specials.
When the British Amnesty shows finally resumed in 1987 after a six-year hiatus, the show format was retooled in an effort to take advantage of the growing number of rock musicians supporting Amnesty, especially after the 1981 show and the 1986 Conspiracy Of Hope US tour. Instead of the live show being primarily a comedy show with a few musical cameos, the event made a point of giving equal emphasis to the comedy and the music. The show’s four nights were divided up into two nights of comedy and two nights of music.
The resulting 92-minute TV and video special was subsequently criticised for the increased musical content in place of comedy. While all the musical performances were presented in full, the comedic performances were often edited heavily. The TV version also prominently featured spoof documentary segments by newcomer Ruby Wax, which took time from the performances by the established comedians and musicians. This reflected the fact that, unlike the previous shows (which had been stage events that integrated comedy and music) the performances were edited together from two entirely different types of stage show.
The line-up of musicians included several who were already veterans of earlier Amnesty benefits in the UK and/or USA: Bob Geldof, Peter Gabriel, Jackson Browne and Lou Reed. Other performers included Kate Bush, David Gilmour, Mark Knopfler, Joan Armatrading, Chet Atkins, World Party and Duran Duran.
Most of the comedic performers in the 1987 show were talents familiar primarily just to British audiences. This made the film of the show far less appealing to overseas audiences and unlike its predecessors; it did not find major international distribution in lucrative markets such as the USA and Canada.
Comedic performers included: Stephen Fry & Hugh Laurie, Mel Smith & Griff Rhys Jones, Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders, Hale and Pace, Lenny Henry, Rory Bremner, Robbie Coltrane, Ruby Wax, Ben Elton and the Spitting Image puppets.
The shows took place at The London Palladium over four consecutive nights 26–29 March 1987. The shows were videotaped and a home video special was created integrating performances from the two comedy nights and two music nights. It was released by Virgin Vision. Two TV specials were created and transmitted – one featuring musical performances, the other featuring comedy performances. Following the pattern established by the 1979 and 1981 shows, separate albums of the comedic and musical performances was released by Virgin Records. The shows were produced by Tony Hollingsworth, who also provided the risk finance, and the videos were produced by Hollingsworth and Neville Bolt.
In 1986, the US Section of Amnesty International had organised the very successful Conspiracy Of Hope tour featuring leading rock musicians on an 11-day/6-concert tour of the US. This tour built upon the participation of rock musicians in the 1979 and 1981 Secret Policeman's shows. In early 1988, the US Section of Amnesty announced plans for a world tour featuring major musicians to take place later that year. Titled Human Rights Now! the tour would commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The primary artists who had signed on to perform were Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Youssou N'Dour and Tracy Chapman. It was also announced that the world tour would commence with a gigantic kick-off concert in England – a salute to the fact that Amnesty had been founded in England. The choice of England for the first concert was also in acknowledgement of the English Secret Policeman's Ball shows that had pioneered the deployment of rock musicians for Amnesty's benefit, and the presence in the line-up of two prominent English musicians, Sting and Peter Gabriel.
Shortly after the announcement of the forthcoming concert in England, the British Section of Amnesty International announced that it too had decided to salute the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a rock concert in England. The British Section of Amnesty scheduled its own concert to take place less than ten weeks prior to the announced date of the Human Rights Now! English concert already organised by their American sister organisation.
Amnesty's British Section then booked one of Britain's largest concert venues, the 65,000 capacity Milton Keynes Bowl and at very short notice staged a weekend-long extravaganza titled Amnesty International Festival Of Youth. Fatally for any chance of success for the event, Amnesty's in-house producer Pat Duffy scheduled the event to follow just one week after the long-announced Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute at England's 82,000 capacity Wembley Stadium. The Nelson Mandela concert had already lined up appearances by many of Amnesty's most prominent supporters in the music community – including Sting, Peter Gabriel, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Bryan Adams, Jackson Browne, Steven van Zandt, Midge Ure, Simple Minds, Youssou N’Dour, Joan Armatrading – all of whom declined to partake in the new Amnesty show taking place at short notice just one week later. The Nelson Mandela Concert was the largest such event since 1985's Live Aid and the line-up also featured: Dire Straits, George Michael, Eurythmics, Joe Cocker, Ashford & Simpson, Natalie Cole, Tracy Chapman, Wet Wet Wet, Bee Gees, UB40, Chrissie Hynde, Hugh Masakela, Jerry Dammers, Whitney Houston, Meat Loaf, Salt-N-Pepa, Stevie Wonder and many more. The vast publicity for the one-year-in-the-planning Mandela concert which was receiving massive worldwide live television coverage in the style of Live Aid made it virtually impossible for the comparatively last-minute Amnesty event, with less celebrated performers, organised by people without much previous experience, to succeed. Amnesty resisted recommendations that it postpone or cancel the event and proceeded with the weekend.
Amnesty's Festival Of Youth weekend featured: Aswad, Joe Strummer, Big Country, The Stranglers, Aztec Camera, Motörhead, The Bhundu Boys, Go West, The Damned, Spear of Destiny, Martin Stephenson and the Daintees, New Model Army, The Icicle Works, Rhythm Sisters, The Men They Couldn't Hang, Transvision Vamp, So, World Domination Enterprises, Runrig.
Positioned chronologically between the two previously-announced major benefit concerts that summer in the UK – the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert and Amnesty's own Human Rights Now! concert, both of which featured far more stellar line-ups, and with the inexperience of the organisers – the Festival Of Youth was destined to fail and the show was a major financial disaster for Amnesty. Uniquely among all the Amnesty benefit shows, Amnesty failed to find a film studio, television network, radio broadcaster, home-video distributor or record company to partner with it on the event and this compounded the substantial financial losses sustained by Amnesty.
After the criticisms of the 1987 show’s disproportionate focus on music – and the financial disaster of its music-only Festival Of Youth weekend concert in 1988, Amnesty returned to the original formula that had been so successful in the 1976–1981 era with a primary focus on comedy. Pat Duffy was dropped from organising any further benefit events for Amnesty and for the 1989 show, Amnesty hired producer Judith Holder.
John Cleese and Michael Palin made brief cameo appearances, establishing a connection to the original shows. Also returning was Peter Cook – on this occasion performing with his longtime comedic partner, Dudley Moore – and satirist John Bird. Several performers from the 1987 show returned including: Adrian Edmondson, Stephen Fry & Hugh Laurie, Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders, Lenny Henry, Rory Bremner, Ben Elton, Robbie Coltrane, Willie Rushton and the Spitting Image puppets.
The shows took place at the Cambridge Theatre from 30 August – 2 September 1989. It was directed by Jennifer Saunders and John Cleese. The show was videotaped and televised in October 1989.
In early 1991, Amnesty held a comedy gala at the Duke of York's Theatre in London to commemorate its 30th anniversary. The event was the first Amnesty comedy show since 1979 for which Amnesty did not use the Secret Policeman’s title. The performers were primarily alternative comedians including: Tony Slattery, Lee Evans, Simon Fanshawe, Martin Soan, Eddie Izzard and Richard Vranch. The show was videotaped and televised by Granada TV in August 1991.
A second event commemorating Amnesty's 30th anniversary was organised as a TV special at the end of 1991. The cast included Ben Elton, Lenny Henry, Steve Coogan, Julian Clary, Frank Skinner, Paul Merton, Vic Reeves and Alexei Sayle. The musical director was David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and musical guests included Roger Daltrey Dave Stewart, Seal, Spinal Tap, Tom Jones, Morrissey, EMF, Jason Donovan, Rick Astley, Daryl Hall, Lisa Stansfield.
The show was hosted by Jools Holland, Paula Yates and Jonathan Ross,
Unlike Amnesty's previous shows that had been stage shows or concerts taking place in theatres or concert venues, these shows took place in a television studio. The performers were videotaped at Central Independent Television Studios, Nottingham, on 13 and 15 December 1991 and the resulting TV show was televised later that month.
In early 1997, Amnesty held a comedy gala at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. The performers were primarily Irish performers including: Barry Murphy, Brendan O'Carroll, Pauline McLynn, Dermot Morgan, Kevin McAleer, Owen O'Neill, and Kevin Gildea. The show was videotaped and televised on ITV in March 1997.
In 1998, Amnesty staged a reprise of "So You Think You're Irish" in Dublin. The performers were again primarily Irish performers including: Milo O'Shea, Barry Murphy, Pauline McLynn, Dylan Moran, Dara Ó Briain, Tommy Tiernan, Ed Byrne, Kevin McAleer, Owen O'Neill, Ian Coppinger, Eddie Bannon, Brendan Dempsey and Kevin Gildea. The show was videotaped and televised on ITV in August 1998.
In June 2001, Amnesty staged a benefit show that was video-taped as a TV special to commemorate its 40th anniversary.
Titled We Know Where You Live the show was a one-night performance at the Wembley Arena. The show was coordinated by comedian Eddie Izzard. The majority of the performers were British comedians popular in their homeland but lacking appeal to a broad international audience. Performers included Izzard, Dawn French, Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves, Phill Jupitus, and Jonathan Ross – with cameo appearances by actors Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Richard E. Grant, Tim Roth, Emma Thompson, and Julie Walters.
In a salute to the original Secret Policeman's Ball that was the show's direct inspiration – the finale of the show was a re-creation by four performers (Alan Rickman, Vic Reeves, Eddie Izzard and Harry Enfield) of the celebrated Four Yorkshiremen sketch that had been performed at the 1979 Amnesty gala by John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Rowan Atkinson.
Coordinator Eddie Izzard also acknowledged the show's heritage in an interview in London's Evening Standard (31 May 2001) saying: "The musical elements will follow the previous format because it's the son of Secret Policeman's Ball – so they're more acoustic than electric..."
Explaining the show's new title, Izzard told the Evening Standard: "The title is designed to streamline the message of Secret Policeman's Ball, which was a bit more ambiguous. We Know Where You Live is about gangsters or governments who run countries and withhold human rights."
The audience saw a musical performance on a giant video screen by U2 via satellite. Also acknowledging the heritage of the show, Bono introduced U2's performance by saying: "Right, what we'd like to do now is go live from Toronto to London, to The Secret Policeman's Ball – which is a mysterious and extraordinary event that certainly changed my life..." (Notwithstanding the description of the show as "live" the U2 performance had actually been pre-recorded in Toronto two weeks earlier on 21 May 2001.)
On 18 August 2006, Amnesty International announced that it was reviving the Secret Policeman's Ball title for its upcoming benefit show – a one-night show to be held at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 14 October 2006.
In a conscious reprise of the Amnesty benefit shows of the 1970s and early 1980s that had heralded the organisation's breakthrough in public awareness and fund-raising – the new show was given the same title as the 1979 show – The Secret Policeman's Ball – the name that had by now become the colloquially-used umbrella title for all of Amnesty's fund-raisers. The 2006 show was coordinated by British comedian Eddie Izzard – who had coordinated the 2001 Amnesty show.
The thirteenth show in the Amnesty series took place at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 14 October 2006.
Unlike the first (1976–1981) era of Amnesty shows featuring primarily internationally-known stars – the line-up mirrored the second (1987–1989) and third (1991–2001) eras of Amnesty shows with the vast majority of performers being known only to UK audiences. There was one internationally-known British comedic performer – Eddie Izzard – headlining a roster of locally popular acts – including Russell Brand, Jon Culshaw, Al Murray, The Mighty Boosh and Meera Syal. Four performers from America also made brief cameo appearances. Comedic actor Chevy Chase appeared in a skit along with actor Seth Green – and comedians Jimmy Fallon and Sarah Silverman also performed. There was a cameo from actor Richard E. Grant and animations featuring various familiar voices including Jennifer Saunders. Music was supplied by The Zutons and The Magic Numbers.
In common with the more parochial nature of the latter-era Amnesty shows (1987–2001) – the 2006 edition of The Secret Policeman's Ball was not filmed for international theatrical release as a movie but was instead videotaped for a UK TV special of highlights that was broadcast by Britain's Channel 4 network on 31 October 2006. A DVD with 90 minutes of edited highlights from the three-hour event was also issued. There was also a "cinecast" in which the Royal Albert Hall event was shown live in 17 cinemas in major British cities.
In July 2008, Amnesty announced that it would present another show in the series to be titled "The Secret Policeman's Ball 2008". Like its immediate predecessor, the show was a single-night live event at London's Royal Albert Hall. It took place on Saturday 4 October 2008.
In common with other Amnesty benefit shows in recent years, the majority of the performers were British (or UK-based) – well-known primarily just in Great Britain. (There was one Canadian comedian Russell Peters – who appeared via a pre-recorded video-tape.)
Confusingly, there were contradictory announcements about the cast list for the show, with one "finalised line-up" announced on Amnesty's webpage for the event and a different "finalised cast list" announced on the webpage of the event's broadcaster Channel Four indicating a lack of coordination between the two wings of the production.
Performers who were featured on both lists were: Frank Skinner, Alan Carr, Graham Norton, Sean Lock, Kristen Schaal, Fearne Cotton, Matt Berry, Katherine Parkinson, Mitchell and Webb, Jason Manford, Shappi Khorsandi, Russell Howard, Russell Peters (via video-tape).
Performers who were listed as due to appear according to Amnesty's website but who were not listed on the Channel Four website were: Katy Brand, Tim Minchin, Sarah Millican, Kayvan Novak, Meera Syal, Sean Williamson, Sharon Horgan, Nick Mohammed, Dan Clark, David Armand.
Performers who were listed as due to appear according to the Channel Four website but who were not listed on the Amnesty website were: Eddie Izzard, Ed Byrne, Deborah Meaden, Jon Culshaw, Gok Wan, Mike Fenton Stevens, Keane, Razorlight,
The 3-hour event was video-taped and a 95-minute television special adapted from the show is scheduled to be broadcast the following day (Sunday 5 October 2008) on Britain's Channel Four. There was also a "cinecast" in which the Royal Albert Hall event was shown live in 35 cinemas in major British cities. It was also available live in 4 cinemas in Australia. The "cinecast" was available in cinemas in six of Canada's thirteen provinces and territories. The Cineplex cinema chain made the film available on 50 of its 1,317 screens. In Canada, Amnesty and Cineplex made a public announcement about the Canadian "cinecast" on Wednesday 1 October 2008.
Rowan Atkinson, Eleanor Bron, Connie Booth, Jasper Carrott, Billy Connolly, Dawn French, Stephen Fry, Lenny Henry, Chris Langham, Hugh Laurie, Griff Rhys Jones, John Bird, John Fortune, Jimmy Mulville, Sir Peter Ustinov, Robbie Coltrane, Clive James, Jonathan Lynn, John Wells, Ben Elton, Adrian Edmondson, Alexei Sayle, Carol Cleveland, Jennifer Saunders, Victoria Wood, and Ruby Wax.
Joan Armatrading, Kate Bush, Bob Geldof, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, Sting, Pete Townshend, John Williams, Neil Innes, Donovan
U2, Duran Duran, World Party, Stereophonics
Celebrities who are neither comedic nor musical performers who have made cameo appearances in skits at some of the shows
Adaptations of the shows have been released in various film, video and audio formats over the years. Because there have been multiple different versions released in different configurations in different countries over the years, there has been some public confusion as to which version is which.
The confusion is most notable in respect of the two widely-different versions of the film The Secret Policeman's Other Ball. The only home-video/DVD version presently available is based on the UK version of the film. There is currently no home-video version of the very different, original 1982 US version of the film. The confusion is apparent from consumer comments and complaints on e-tailer websites such as Amazon.com.
The first two Amnesty productions Pleasure At Her Majesty's (1976) and The Mermaid Frolics (1977) have never been released on home video in their original unedited form – only in truncated form. Video reissues of The Secret Policeman's Ball (1979) and The Secret Policeman's Other Ball (1981) have also had original sequences edited out.
The US compilation The Secret Policeman's Private Parts (1983) – that featured special additional content and outtakes not included in the original UK films – has not been available in any format since the early 1980s and has never been released outside the US.
The most recent home-video release has been a 5-disc box set of DVDs entitled The Secret Policeman's Ball: 25th Anniversary Silver Box Set. Released on region zero international format. The discs feature the edited, truncated versions of the earlier films.
The original audio albums of comedy and music from the shows have not been commercially available since the early 1990s.
Shout! Factory released "The Secret Policeman's Balls" in January 2009. The 3-DVD set includes Pleasure At Her Majesty’s (1976), The Secret Policeman’s Ball (1979), The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1981), The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball (1987) and The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball (1989). In early 2010, Shout! Factory released the DVD The Secret Policeman's Private Party, featuring the best comedic moments from various Secret Policeman's Balls.
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of The Secret Policeman's Ball, Shout! Factory partnered with Amnesty International on a collection of musical highlights entitled "The Secret Policeman Rocks." The 14-track anniversary CD was released on 29 September 2009.
* The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1981)
Book containing transcripts of skits and monologues, lyrics of songs, photographs, of the 1981 show. Also features production notes and comedic observations about the show by Michael Palin & Terry Jones.
Editors: Martin Lewis & Peter Walker
Publisher: Eyre Methuen (1981) ISBN 0-413-50080-2
* The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball (1987)
Book containing transcripts of skits and monologues, lyrics of songs, photographs, of the 1987 show.
Publisher: Sidgwick and Jackson (1987) ISBN 0-283-99530-0