Blame it on John Cleese.
That sentence could be applied to any number of things – from thousands of nerdy college boys actually thinking the dead parrot sketch is funny to Fierce Creatures – but in this case, we can blame John Cleese for the following words: Sir Bob Geldof and Sir Paul Hewson. Were it not for the inspiration of seeing and participating in the various Amnesty International benefit concerts that took place under the banner of “The Secret Policeman’s Ball,” it could easily be said Geldof and Bono would have continued on their paths of being annoying rock stars, rather than annoying rock stars with a cause.
Of course, it could also be said that, without the direct awareness-raising of the Amnesty concerts and the efforts spearheaded by Geldof and Bono, thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of people would have unnecessarily died for lack of food, medicine or any of the other things that those celebrities have used their star power to focus attention on.
So, yes, let’s blame it on John Cleese; he probably wouldn’t mind.
Yet, in watching the chronological progression of the five concert films collected on the three-DVD setThe Secret Policeman’s Balls, it’s clear that such an outcome was inevitable. What began in 1976 as an ad hoc comedy show featuring three of Britain’s top comedy teams (Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe and the Goodies) running through what amounted to greatest-hits sets morphed into something more attention-getting. The 1979 show – the first to bear the “Secret Policeman’s Ball” moniker – was a four-night extravaganza, featuring comedians as well as musicians like Pete Townshend.
By the time the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball went down in 1981, marquee rockers like Sting, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and, yes, Bob Geldof were on hand. It was this 1981 show – and its highly edited, cinematic counterpart (directed by none other than Julien Temple) – that got the most attention on both sides of the Atlantic. The opportunity to see rock stars in a more casual environment helped ease the delivery of the concert’s primary mission: raising money so Amnesty could free political prisoners. As such, musicians played a disproportionately large role in 1987’s Third Ball; a rare live performance by Kate Bush, an acoustic set by Duran Duran (with Simon Le Bon wearing mom jeans), and songs by Mark Knopfler, Joan Armatrading and, er, Nik Kershaw overshadowed comedic interludes by Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid!) and Hugh Laurie (House!). This trend was reversed in the next concert, 1989’s Biggest Ball, in which only British comedians took part, making the appeal a bit more parochial.
The second and third Balls, though six years apart, are the best and most compelling, presenting musicians and comedians in a casual, late-night atmosphere, united for a good cause and delivering excellent performances. However, the inclusion in this set of 1976’s Pleasure at Her Majesty’s is well worth watching; although it seems the producers hardly gave a thought to posterity – the grainy 16 mm footage and tinny soundtrack make it feel like a rediscovered home movie – the enthusiasm of the performers for their work and for Amnesty’s work is organic and infectious, despite the presence of the dead parrot sketch. For that, we can probably blame John Cleese.