First night review

‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’: Flashes of brilliance lose some shine on the journey

The Times

March 6, 2012


Dear, sweet, trusting American audiences. Who puts their hand up when Russell Brand, at his most dementedly bug-eyed, asks: “Who here is not a member of Amnesty International?” One poor woman who owned up was dragged on stage and accused of being singlehandedly responsible for the victimisation of all oppressed minorities. “Everyone, kill her!” shouted Brand.

With comics from the US and Britain joining forces, transatlantic lost-in-translation was the core theme of the first US staging of The Secret Policeman’s Ball, in aid of Amnesty’s 50th anniversary. David Walliams and Ben Stiller deconstructed lexical differences, including how to pronounce “aluminium” and the meaning of obese. In Britain, anyone over 200lb, said Walliams. In the US, anyone over 2,000lb, said Stiller.

The evening plodded on amiably. In a recorded message, Archbishop Desmond Tutu deadpanned that he had chosen fighting injustice over being a comedian because “comedy is harder”. Liam Neeson introduced the guest of honour, the Burmese comedian Zarganar, sentenced in 2008 to 59 years in jail after criticising the Government, but freed thanks to Amnesty.

Eddie Izzard demurred, unconvincingly, that it wasn’t for him to tell Americans who to elect as President (“Obama! Not the crazy people!”). He didn’t mean to cause offence “in this God-fearing country” — but if God existed, he asked, “why didn’t he just flick Hitler’s head off?”

The Pythons Michael Palin and Terry Jones explained, also via recorded messages, why they weren’t there with their comedy baby, first performed in 1976 (both had damaged legs). Before Coldplay’s finale, Chris Martin offered us consolation for spending “nine hours here”. It was only three, though nine felt like an under-estimate.

The comedy, much of it gleefully filthy, flashed brilliantly but too sporadically. Jimmy Carr, archly prurient, noted of watching porn as one gets older: “You just think: that bed looks comfy.”

Among the American performers, the most rapturous applause was accorded to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, who found himself alongside North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un (a brilliantly poker-faced Rex Lee). The cast of the television show Saturday Night Live performed a slick interrogation skit and the Muppet grouches Statler and Waldorf discovered a fresh outlet for their misanthropy via Twitter. Sarah Silverman said that Amnesty’s emphasis on freedom of expression included “the right of a woman to tell a man she loves him after six weeks”.

Was transatlantic understanding reached? As Jimmy Carr considered why those “into recycling” balked at rinsing out used condoms, an American behind me exclaimed: “Ohmygaadd. Did he say that?” Perhaps the next Secret Policeman’s Ball might be better done on home turf.