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The Secret Policeman's Ball

Madman Entertainment/AV Channel . R4 . COLOR . 76 mins . PG . PAL


Nowadays the concept of a comedy show to raise money for charity is something we all take for granted. In the mid-'70s, however, it was an unexplored phenomenon, which essentially began with the advent of The Secret Policeman's Ball series of events at London's Her Majesty's Theatre.

John Cleese was instrumental in getting the ball rolling, and he figures in a couple of the sketches included in this collection of skits, music and virtual circus tomfoolery culled from the original four nights, held to raise money for human rights organisation Amnesty International. Also appearing from the comedy stable are fellow Pythons Michael Palin and Terry Jones (the latter uncredited), Peter Cook (RIP), Rowan Atkinson, Clive James, Eleanor Bron and a number of other less famous, but not necessarily less funny, people. Highlights include Monty Python's classic 'Cheese Shop' sketch, recreated with fellow Python Michael Palin and complete with bouzouki accompaniment (of course!), and the glorious one-upmanship-fest that is 'The Four Yorkshiremen", with Rowan Atkinson along for the ride. Peter Cook delights us with some facts about intestines, whales and grasshoppers, whilst Mr Atkinson reappears with hilarious takes on both a schoolmaster and a pianist.

"In my day..."

Musically, The Who's Pete Townshend does the solo acoustic thing on Pinball Wizard, as well as teaming up with the guitar-playing version of John Williams for Wonít Get Fooled Again. Tom Robinson also makes an appearance, with his rather shocking for the times Glad To Be Gay, and John Williams pops back on his own for Cavatina - the theme from The Deer Hunter.

Curiously, Billy Connolly's name appears in the start and end credits, yet is nowhere to be seen - and face it, a giant, rampaging Scotsman such as himself is pretty hard to miss! At a running time of only 76 minutes, and with a couple of rather obvious edits within the feature, one wonders if his performance was removed for some reason, as what little information is available on this film seems to conjure up an inordinate variety of different running times.


Originally aired first on television before enjoying a limited cinema run, The Secret Policeman's Ball comes in a standard 4:3 ratio, and needless to say is not 16x9 enhanced.

As for the transfer, if adherence to the old adage "if you canít say something nice then donít say anything at all" were to be a requisite for this review then you'd be about to jump straight to the audio section, as unfortunately this is the worst transfer I have ever seen on DVD, bar none.

The vision suffers from a veritable snowstorm of scratches and dropouts throughout, and reel change indicators are all present and accounted for. The colour such that it is appears inordinately washed out, at those times when it isnít undergoing mini seizures and flickering black and white - in fact the only vivid colour appearing in the entire show is one instance where it almost looks as if the film is melting down for a couple of seconds, as a retina-crunching bright flash washes across the screen. Grain, too, tries to upstage the appearances of the talent and usually wins, shadow detail is virtually non existent as darker spots blur into indiscernible lumps and the picture tends to wobble and shudder almost constantly - although this appears more due to the camerawork than any telecine-type faults.

On the bright side, there are no layer change issues as there is no layer change, this being a single-layer disc and all. Also, whilst no subtitles are present as such, you can at least get yellow, MTV-ish track details appearing for the musical numbers if you wish.


Mercifully the audio fares a little better. Whilst only in mono, the sound appears to have been cleaned up to an extent, with minimal hissing, and only a couple of instances of crackles and pops. Generally the dialogue is easy to catch, and it's all synched quite well.


The main menu features a quite fabulous little animated intro, and various sketches play in a window whilst awaiting your choice - and if you like what you see you can select it and dive right in.

Background: Five pages of reasonably informative notes on the whole Secret Policeman's Ball concept, and how it all came about.

Amnesty International commercial: A 30 second ad to help bring attention to women's rights around the world. Watch this.

Umbrella propaganda: Four trailers for other recent DVD releases - the entertaining Melbourne-based Malcolm, a bizarre looking Trekkies-like documentary on chook lovers entitled The Natural History of the Chicken (or Chookies?), Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? and finally an absolute gem. This sub-30 second promo of The Secret Policeman's Other Ball features Monty Python's Graham Chapman (RIP) advertising the most depraved, foul, filthy, lewd, rotten, tasteless movie since The Sound of Music as only he could. The first two are in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 ratios, the final two are full frame, and quality varies greatly.

Easter egg: Well, kind of. DVD credits are hidden on the main menu somewhere...


Featuring many, many hilarious moments, and admittedly a few that tend to drag, The Secret Policeman's Ball offers up some hearty chunks of truly classic English student-type humour. Some may argue that the musical interludes are a tad boring, but it's doubtful fans of The Who would be amongst them.

Sadly whilst the disc is nicely put together, the visual presentation is truly appalling, so even the greatest fans of any of those appearing here should take heed of those classic words "caveat emptor". And shut up that bloody bouzouki!

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      And I quote...
    "Featuring many, many hilarious moments, sadly the visual presentation is truly appalling - caveat emptor..."
    - Amy Flower
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Pioneer DV-535
    • TV:
          Sony 68cm
    • Receiver:
          Onkyo TX-DS494
    • Speakers:
          DB Dynamics Eclipse RBS662
    • Centre Speaker:
          DB Dynamics Eclipse ECC442
    • Surrounds:
          DB Dynamics Eclipse ECR042
    • Subwoofer:
          DTX Digital 4.8
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          Standard Component RCA
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