Saturday, Jan. 17, 2009

Secret Policeman’s Balls

By David Luhrssen
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Amnesty International was an obscure activist group for many years after its founding in 1961. Its mission to eliminate torture and free prisoners of conscience was thrust onto the pop culture stage by a series of Amnesty International events, the Secret Policeman’s Balls. A three-DVD box set collects all five balls, starting with a 1976 comedy benefit and running through the star-studded Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball (1989).

The role these balls had in raising Amnesty’s profile and altering political dialogue is incalculable. The concerts were distributed around the world through documentary films and TV specials and long-playing albums. With its new found popularity (and flush with cash), Amnesty began to pry apart the naďve support of the hard left for repressive Soviet-style regimes and undermined the apologists on the right for America’s more odious Cold War allies.

The first disc in the DVD set is especially interesting as a “making of” documentary of the effort behind the 1976 comedy revue featuring Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe and other edgy UK comedians. Over the years the format shifted to comedians alternating with musicians, often in stripped-down settings. Some of the topical humor has faded but the acute absurdity of the era’s best British comics still looks sharp. The music was a mixed bag of big names such as Pete Townshend, Sting, Phil Collins, Donovan and Peter Gabriel. It could be said that the “unplugged” phenomenon was initiated at these concerts.

On an ironic note, one of the musical performers, Bob Geldorf, had to be coaxed and cajoled to appear at the 1981 ball. Seems Geldorf was skeptical over the value of benefit concerts. Four years later he organized the biggest benefit show of all time, Live Aid, setting the pace for a plethora of fund and consciousness raisers to come.

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