The Secret Policeman's Balls

The Secret Policeman's Balls
Fans of British comedy should get a kick out of this collection of obscure benefit performances from the '70s and '80s, organized by John Cleese for Amnesty International. Cleese rounds up virtually all of the era's key British comedians and musicians, and the resulting five concert films, collected in this three-disc box set, while uneven and poorly shot, are a valuable opportunity to see many talented comedians perform together. The first, 1976's Pleasure at Her Majesty, is mostly a documentary, showing behind-the-scenes footage of a historic team-up between Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe and the Goodies. The Secret Policeman's Ball and The Secret Policeman's Other Ball alternate between music (Sting, Pete Townshend, Phil Collins) and well-established comedy routines (plenty of Python material, and breakthrough performances by Rowan Atkinson). The Secret Policeman's Third Ball and The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball, produced in the late '80s, are more politically charged, concentrating on Reagan/Thatcher satire and, most interestingly, pairing the veterans with a new generation of comedians, including Jennifer Saunders, Stephen Frye and Hugh Laurie. Hats off to Shout Factory for their impeccable box set, compiling the five Ball films with a surprisingly generous amount of extras. Introductions and commentaries by series co-creator Martin Lewis put the films in historical context, and a feature-length documentary, Remember the Secret Policeman's Ball? (2004), contains interviews with most of the key participants. Other material includes oddities like Cleese and Connie Booth performing the "Bookshop" sketch and a trailer featuring Graham Chapman promoting Other Ball while wearing a garter and panties. The Balls are not for casual fans (some of the sketches are very colloquial and topical) but can be firmly recommended to anybody who can name every cheese in the "Cheese Shop" sketch. (Shout! Factory)