• Secret Policeman’s Balls, The

    Released by: Shout! Factory
    Released on: 1/27/2009
    Director: Various
    Cast: Various
    Year: Various
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    The Movies:

    It all started when John Cleese made a charitable donation to Amnesty International on fine day. When Amnesty’s assistant director got wind of this, he called Cleese up to talk to him about doing some charitable work. Cleese offered to call up ‘a few pals’ and soon he and a wealth of other famous British comedians of the era were planning the first Amnesty comedy benefit show, intended to be called ‘A Poke In The Eye (With A Sharp Stick). The title got changed to Pleasure At Her Majesty’s and it was so successful that it spawned a few follow ups which became known as The Policeman’s Ball shows.

    Shout! Factory, in conjunction with Amnesty International, finally compiles the main shows that make up the series on DVD in North America for the very first time. Here’s a look…

    Pleasure At Her Majesty s (1976)

    The show that started it all isn’t as good as the next two entries in the series but it’s obviously historically significant as this show would set the stage not only for the Policeman’s Ball series of shows but also for the likes of efforts like Comic Relief and Live Aid.

    Performed by members of Monty Python, Beyond The Fringe, The Goodies with contributions from a few solo performers, this picture spends a good part of its running time documenting the various acts preparing for the show rather than the show itself. By the time we get to the show itself, things have slowed down a bit but thankfully the final performances make it all worth the wait.

    Highlights this first time around include the famous pet shop skit done with a bit of improvisation by John Cleese and Michael Palin, the always hysterical ‘I’d have rather been a judge than a miner’ delivered with perfect dry wit by Peter Cook, a Python court room sketch by Cleese, Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Peter Cook standing in for Eric Idle, The Last Supper in which Pope John Cleese debates the merits of fine art with painter Jonathan Lynn, and a great discussion about the might asp by Peter Cook and John Fortune. Of course, you can’t forget the closing number in which Michael Palin and the entire cast bring things to an end with The Lumberjack song.

    The Secret Policeman s Ball (1979)

    The second effort teamed up many of the performers from the first try with some new talent and threw in a couple of musical numbers to spice things up just a bit. Things start off with the brilliant Interesting Facts discussion between returners Cleese and Cook before moving on to a Telegram sketch courtesy of solo performer Clive James. Cook returns for Pregnancy Test with Eleanor Bron and then legendary Who guitarist Pete Townsend does a fantastic acoustic solo version of Pinball Wizard. Rowan Atkinson makes his series debut with his great solo performance of a school master in charge of a classroom full of kids with strange names before a snarky John Cleese tries to buy cheese from a dim Michael Palin.

    John Williams breaks out his guitar for the next musical number, Cavatina before moving on to more comedy from The Ken Campbell Road Show, Rowan Atkinson, Cleese and Terry Jones, Tom Robinson, Peter Cook and more. The show winds up with a great version of the Python classic Four Yorkshiremen done by Cleese, Palin, Jones and Atkinson, a killer acoustic version of Won’t Get Fooled again by Townsend who is joined by Williams, and the closing ‘The End Of The World’ in which Peter Cook is joined by the entire cast.

    The Secret Policeman s Other Ball (1981)

    Cleese would gather a group up again for a third go round two years later, starting the show off with a word of thanks before engaging in a discussion about beekeeping with Rowan Atkinson. Sting shows up to sing Message In A Bottle, before John Wells does his solo skit, Denis On The Menace and Chris Langham treats us to some crass, shallow humor. Phil Collins pops in to perform In The Air Tonight before John Cleese takes the stage again, joined by Pamela Stephenson and Graham Chapman for Clothes Off!

    Musical numbers from Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, Donovan, and Bob Geldof compliment more comedy from Cleese, Palin, Atkinson, Chapman, and Alexei Sayle (remember him? Hey, didn’t you kill my brother?), to bring one of the strongest entries in the series to a close.

    The Secret Policeman s Third Ball (1987)

    Puppeteers Spitting Image starts this show off before Kate Bush and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour perform Running Up That Hill. Fry and Laurie follow that up with their fantastic Hedge Sketch that’ll have you in stitches. From that strong entry, things turn out to be a mixed bag with weaker entries from Joan Armatrading, Lenny Henry, Nik Kershaw, Jackson Browne and Phil Cool.

    Duran Duran show up and play Save A Prayer before Fry and Laurie save the day and get things back into full swing by performing The Silver Dick Award with John Cleese. Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins play two numbers before Spitting Image, Emo Phillips and Bob Elton finish off the comedy in between musical performances from Bob Geldof, Lou Reed and Peter Gabriel.

    The Secret Policeman s Biggest Ball (1989)

    The last entry starts off with another variation on the Pet Shop skit from Palin and Cleese before Lenny Henry entertains us with some Bad Jokes. Spitting Image pop up to take the piss out of the Royal Family before Peter Cook and Dudley Moore perform the now classic The Frog and Peach sketch. Cleese and Palin then take us on a hysterical trip to the Argument Clinic before Lenny Henry takes the stage again.

    Jools Holland performs a jazz interlude to break things up a bit and once he’s done, Robbie Coltrane and Adrian Edmundson tell us how it really was in the time of William Tell. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders do some improve work and then turn things over to Cleese and Adrian Edmundson for another stab at the Last Supper sketch. Palin and Cleese tackle Bruce Springsteen concerts next before things get a little political when John Bird, Rory Bremner and Steve Nallon tackle Gorbachev, Bush and Thatcher. Fry and Laurie return for some Schoolboy Poetry and then Robbie Coltrane, Lenny Henry and Jimmy Mulville discuss the merits of Crunchy Frogs. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore team up again for One Leg Too Few, Ben Elton does Sick Trigger, French and Saunders tell us about Schoolgirl Contraception and it all winds to a wonderful close with Dudley Moore and the rest of the cast saying their fond goodbyes to the audience.

    All in all, this is a great mix of old and (at the time) new British comedy from a batch of comedians who have proven to be incredibly influential over time. Some efforts are hit or miss but thankfully the good far outweighs the bad here and even if, like some of us, you know the dead parrot sketch by heart at this point, seeing it done in front of an enthusiastic live audience brings a whole new level of charm to material that may be incredibly familiar.


    Pleasure At Her Majesty’s and The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball are presented in their original fullframe aspect ratios while the other three films are all presented in their intended anamorphic 2.35.1 widescreen aspect ratio. The earlier films are in rougher shape than the more recent ones but they’re all watchable even if you have to expect some moderate grain and mild color fading throughout playback. Detail levels are mediocre thanks to the stage lighting that tends to wash things out a fair bit, and color reproduction is a tad quirky but by and large everything looks alright. Not great, but alright.

    The audio is on par with the video in that the earlier material doesn’t fare quite as well as the newer stuff. That said, each of the five films is easy enough to understand and follow and the dialogue all comes through nicely without any major problems.

    Here’s where this set really goes above and beyond. In addition to the first two features, disc one contains some excised skits including Bookshop, From Beyond The Wall, and Words and Things all taken from the 1977 Mermaid Frolics performance that came after the success of Pleasure At Her Majesty’s, and which was directed by Terry Jones. Producer Martin Lewis provides intros and outtros for both films and also provides some fun running commentary tracks for each feature in which he talks about organizing the shows and what it was like trying to corral all manner of eccentric comedians and musicians. A performance of Drowned by Peter Townsend that wasn’t used in the final version of The Secret Policeman’s Ball is included here as is a television spot.

    Disc two contains the third and fourth features in addition to a deleted performance of Sting doing a solo version of the Police’s Roxanne. Footage from The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball’s theatrical premiere in Hollywood is amusing to see as are some deleted sketches that were only ever shown in the U.S. release of the film. Lewis provides more amusing commentaries as well as his intros and outtros and a U.S. theatrical trailer and U.S. television spot originally used to promote the movie are also included.

    The third disc contains intros and outtros for The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball as well as the feature length retrospective documentary, 2004’s Remember The Secret Policeman’s Ball? which features some great clips from the series as well as some modern day interviews with many of the performers.

    Inside the box that houses the three slimpack DVD cases is an insert booklet that contains a list of the collection’s content as well as an essay that explains the genesis of the series from Martin Lewis. All in all, there’s a very impressive array of excised material, insightful history and amusing reflection contained in this releases supplements – far more than any of us probably ever expected to see.

    The Final Word:

    All five films in the series are presented with scores of great extra features that are both interesting and funny, making The Secret Policeman’s Balls collection an easy recommendation for anyone who enjoys a good laugh and appreciates the best of British comedy.