Guest post by Tim Worthington
The Secret Policeman's Ball wasn't the first of the annual comedy galas held in aid of Amnesty International, but it was certainly the most significant. There had been no event in 1978, as Amnesty wanted to explore ways of using the shows to raise money beyond the sales of tickets on the night; John Cleese and comedy impresario Martin Lewis were put in charge of the project, and decided that the following year's show should both be marketed like a rock concert, with accompanying spin-offs in other media, and match the energy of the new wave of 'Alternative' comics. Lewis was in fact already working with several of the early Alternative standups including Alexei Sayle, Tony Allen and The Outer Limits, and while none of these more radical acts would appear on the bill for the inaugural Secret Policeman's Ball, it was nonetheless notable for featuring a then almost completely unknown Rowan Atkinson, surrealist theatrical troupe The Ken Campbell Roadshow, and a number of rock musicians including the deeply politicised Tom Robinson, alongside familiar names from the sixties satire boom and early seventies live comedy scene.
The Secret Policeman's Ball ran for four nights from 27th June 1979, but reviews for the first performance were cautious. Several critics suggested that the verve and energy were ill-suited by a collection of largely familiar material with little satirical bite. By chance, Peter Cook happened to be at Private Eye when he caught sight of the reviews, contributing to their coverage of the Jeremy Thorpe trial; that evening, he turned up with a newly-written parody of Mr Justice Cantley's contentious summation to the jury, in which he had essentially directed them to find Thorpe not guilty of attempting to have his former lover Norman Scott assassinated. It was so fresh and pointed that he was still fine-tuning it while waiting to walk on stage, running through his phrasing and euphemisms with Michael Palin and Billy Connolly, and this attention to the fine detail was well worth the extra effort. The audience, who would have had precious little other collective outlet for their frustrations at the machinations of the political and legal system in those days, were in furiously appreciative hysterics throughout - the shrieks that greet the opening comment "I hope you've brought a toothbrush" refer to a now forgotten detail of the trial in which Cantley rattled a sabre at a dissenting journalist - and revel in every last swipe at the judge's bias, deference, and contempt for the hapless public who simply do not understand how much more important politicians are than them. Unlike Auberon Waugh's swiftly silenced 'A Better Deal For Your Dog' electoral campaign, it was an attack on the Establishment that they must have been stung by but could scarcely answer back to; it was essentially using their own words against them.
Needless to say, the ten-minute tour-de-force caused an immediate sensation and an immediate about-face from the critics who had been so lukewarm about the first show. It made headlines, and Cleese and Lewis' foresight meant that the rest of the world would get to see it as well. The sketch was conspicuous by its absence from ITV's broadcast of The Secret Policeman's Ball that December - the network's executive in charge of film purchase, Leslie Halliwell, commented that it was an unfair joke at the expense of an innocent individual and "not suitable for television"; anyone who has ever consulted his film and television guides for research will be all too aware of how much of a sense of humour he had - but enjoyed pride of place in the cinema release of the official film of the show. It also appeared on Island Records' accompanying album, but such was its popularity that it had already been released as a single before either appeared. Virgin Records, home of The Sex Pistols and Cook and Dudley Moore's own Derek And Clive albums, arranged for the live recording to be issued as a 12" under the title Here Comes The Judge.
With brilliant laziness, Peter Cook originally suggested that the b-side should be a 'dub' version of the sketch; Virgin insisted that there had to be sketches, however, and Cook booked time at Berwick Street Studios in London with comedy producer John Lloyd to record some additional material. Well-Hung Jury imagined a Derek And Clive-like sexual proposition between two of the jurors whose ardour had been aroused by the details of the case, while Thanksgiving was inspired by the news that Thorpe's parish priest had staged a special service to celebrate the Not Guilty verdict; concerns about libel saw to it that Cook's clergyman gave thanks and praise for the then still-at-large Yorkshire Ripper instead. Most biting of all, Rad Job features a nervous politician on the phone to a hitman, cautiously discussing plans to 'repair' a 'radiator' in as vague a fashion as possible before reaching an agreement that it would be shot through the head. If nothing else, these little-heard and under-appreciated sketches show that Cook wasn't just picking a topical story at random in reaction to tepid reviews; he was as bemused and as angry at the whole affair and the determination of Thorpe's friends and supporters that everyone should forget about it and let everything continue as normal as any member of the public. In case that needed underlining, the film was launched with a screening at the National Liberal Club, and the single promoted with a photo session featuring Cook posing in his judge's outfit with Norman Scott.
Perhaps the last word should go to Martin Lewis. In 1999, by which time he was working as a topical correspondent on American television, he told The Peter Cook Appreciation Society that "a day doesn't go by when I don't think of Peter; when the Clinton scandal, Monica Lewinsky and all that, was raging, I thought 'what if Peter were here right now? What would he make of the richness of detail?". There are a more than a few current political figures that deserve to feel the full force of that kind of satire. You may, of course, think that they do not. That is entirely a matter for you.