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The Secret Policeman's Ball:
The Ball In The Hall
featuring: Al Murray, Chevy Chase, Dylan Moran, Eddie Izzard, and Natalie Imbruglia

director: Julia Knowles

125 minutes (15) 2006
Warner Vision DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Debuting in 1976 as 'A Poke In The Eye (with a sharp stick)', The Secret Policeman's Ball (that's 'balls' as in gala events, not testicles) was founded by Monty Python's John Cleese and music producer Martin Lewis. The first comedy charity show, The Secret Policeman's Ball is widely credited with not only raising Amnesty International out of obscurity, but also inspiring latter-day charity saints Bono and Geldoff. The 2006 edition of the show featured some famous UK comedians, TV presenters and musicians as well as a handful of American faces clearly there in the hope of boosting Amnesty's profile on the other side of the pond. This DVD features some groundbreaking political satire and comedy. It is just a bit of a pity that its included as an extra to what is a completely lacklustre show.

I began my exploration of this DVD by looking at the extras, which are universally excellent. Easily the most noteworthy things on this disc are the truly fantastic animations commissioned for the show. Edgy, darkly comic and beautifully animated, they are not only entertaining in their own right; they also do a wonderful job of highlighting the issues that Amnesty International confronts. Elsewhere on the DVD are three classic sketches from the early days of The Secret Policeman's Ball including the immortal 'Dead Parrot' sketch, the 'Four Yorkshiremen' and a monologue by Rowan Atkinson as a teacher. These are all not only superbly performed but also manage to really capture the air of excitement that once surrounded this show; the audience roars as Palin and Cleese try to make each other corpse and Atkinson's appearance in the Four Yorkshiremen sketch nicely ties together two different comedy generations.

Given the nature of this show, it is difficult to write about it without the review becoming a list. Therefore, rather than try to fit a square peg into a round hole, I shall surrender to the forces of entropy and split the different performances into columns based on their quality.

In the plus column, we have an extremely short (read heavily cut) set by Black Books' Dylan Moran. As grumpily charming as ever, Moran produces some great material about how women are attracted to fascists and how, with all the good will in the world, it is still impossible to talk to a German without thinking about Hitler. Sadly, the quality comedy stops there.

In the 'okay' column, we have Omid Djalili's 'a day in the life of a dictator' monologue. Not particularly strong on the page, this is largely dependent upon Djalili's undeniable personal charm and the joyful swagger of his performance. Indeed, it is unfortunate that the Anglo-Iranian comic has so little to work with as this bit has the potential to become something more than it was on the night. The least well-known comic on the bill Andrew Maxwell provided another decent performance. Admittedly wheeling out easy audience participation bits and some eye-rolling clichés about how women should run the country, Maxwell's clear excitement at being on the bill comes across as quite refreshing given the tired and listless performances by the other comics. We also get to see David Armand's lip synching to Nathalie Imbruglia's Torn, a bit spoiled by the presence of broogly-woogly herself. The last of the 'okays' was Sarah Silverman. A rising star in the US, this stunning Jewish comic wheeled out some material about seven year-old lesbians and exhuming grandparents for the sake of a rape exam, and while there are intriguingly twisted ideas, I could not help but feel under-whelmed by Silverman's performance. Her delivery is overly flat and cerebral and Silverman's stage persona of a cute girl who just stumbles into these horrible ideas innocently sits uneasily with the artful contrivance of her dark imagery.

In the bad column, we have the show's formal sketches. The best of these was a directionless mess featuring Chevy Chase and Seth Green as members of the US military in Guantanamo Bay. The show also features a seemingly hastily cobbled-together Agatha Christie/ Cluedo sketch featuring Richard E. Grant but the worst of the bunch was undeniably the shambolic insult that was the effort by the cast of Green Wing. Poorly written, performed and little more than an excuse for mugging and posing, this sketch started off with a roar of excitement from the crowd but seemed to finish with a sigh of relief.

This leaves us with what I shall refer to as the 'oh, for fuck's sake, fuck off!' column. Into this we can dump Eddie Izzard's whimsy (so tired that it seems like an unfunny parody of the material he was producing 15 years ago), Russell Brand's hypocrisy (a tabloid darling doing jokes about how dreadful the tabloids are), The Mighty Boosh (unfunny cunts with stupid haircuts), Al Murray (a one-joke comic without the joke), Graham Norton, Jon Culshaw, Ronni Ancona (as ever universally poor) and Saturday Night Live regular Jimmy Fallon. However, the lack of quality on display here is perhaps not surprising since Murray, Brand, The Boosh, Culshaw, Norton and Ancona are all terrible even when they are performing new material.

We also get some inoffensive music from The Zutons and the Magic Numbers. Bland, unchallenging and uninteresting, this is exactly the kind of music that you would be likely to find The Guardian guide raving about and predictably it goes down well with the hand-wringing faux-lefty audience.

This leaves us simply with Jeremy Irons' talk about the various victims of torture that Amnesty want to bring to people's attention. Informative, touching and interesting, this clashes wildly with a tired old Eddie Izzard going on about banjos and jam and spending a quarter of an hour imitating flies. It is only spoiled by Irons' unfathomable decision to wear what looks like the jacket off a Chinese peasant's back. Let us just hope he didn't have to torture one to get it.

Overall, the 2006 Secret Policeman's Ball is a real disappointment. With weak performances and material, the show struggles to capture any feeling of excitement or urgency. In fact, were it not for Jeremy Irons' bit, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a particularly lacklustre Royal Variety Performance. It is also worth noting that the show has been extensively edited for no apparent reason. The acts are out of sequence, huge chunks of material are cut from individual acts and; in the case of a - reportedly unfunny - song by Julia Davis and Jessica Stephenson, a whole act is culled from the line-up. If you are looking to watch the entire show, do not buy this DVD. In fact, if you are looking for an evening's entertainment then do not buy this DVD, as aside from the extras, it is mostly gash.
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