'Secret Policeman's Ball' series at AFI

British comedy, music greats joined for Amnesty benefits

December 10, 2009|By Michael Sragow | michael.sragow@baltsun.com

"The Secret Policeman's Ball" movies play like a "That's Entertainment" of the British counterculture, and they're on glorious display at the AFI Silver this weekend. Their guiding impresario, Martin Lewis, is bringing these films and their exuberant precursors and offshoots to Silver Spring in every possible incarnation, starting with a 40-minute highlights film to be shown for free tonight, followed by the British release versions of "The Secret Policeman's Ball" and "The Secret Policeman's Other Ball." For fans, it will be like listening to the restored Beatles in their original collections. For novices, it will be tantamount to discovering a brilliant new world of comic and musical synergy - and all for the good cause of Amnesty International.

The London benefit revues that brought together comic superstars like Monty Python with music superstars such as Pete Townshend made entertainment history and heightened awareness of Amnesty International's crusades for human rights. But tell Lewis that, and he'll tell you that "history" has too musty a ring to it. Even though Lewis timed this event to celebrate the balls' 30th anniversary, he's still high off of Amnesty International supporter Bruce Springsteen receiving Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday. It confirmed Lewis' faith that the events he produced for the organization have a legacy that's alive and kicking.

With Lewis helping to arrange for the Boss' friend and fellow superstar Sting to be the evening's closing act - even though to do it, Sting had to interrupt rehearsals for concerts this week in New York - the offstage celebrations became, Lewis says, "a love-in for Amnesty International." Younger rock stars like Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper, there to pay tribute to the asphalt bard of the Garden State, learned that he and Sting bonded as headliners for the 1988 "Human Rights Now" global tour, which encompassed the New, Old and Third Worlds. The party Amnesty International threw to honor the musicians as two of their own went on till 5 a.m. and drew every artist in the vicinity, including Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro. Through it all, Sting didn't lose sight of the group's point.

"All Sting had asked me to do before he came," says Lewis, "was look up an old friend, a law professor named Juan Mendez, who had been a prisoner of conscience in Argentina."

Apart from the skyscraping level of talent, the genius of the Amnesty International live performances and movies is that they didn't preach to the converted: They entertained the converted and made new converts out of the curious.

No one came to the front of the stage and delivered screeds against despotic governments or urged people to pass the hat. In fact, the talent satirized the self-satisfaction that sometimes comes with worthy events. For example, Eleanor Bron delivered a riff by that brilliant comic novelist and playwright Michael Frayn: "We often think that young people today are only out for a good time. Well, that certainly can't be said of these young people." And the brilliantly imperious John Cleese berated the cheap-seaters for getting into a human-rights gala "for the price of a prawn cocktail."

Lewis' presence at the AFI Silver will be a prime reason to go. He is an unstoppable raconteur and boasts a 20-20 memory. That's an excellent match of skills to career, since "The Secret Policeman's Ball" series encompassed a formidably eclectic array of performances. It included, on the musical front, Townshend doing signature work like "Pinball Wizard" on an acoustic guitar, and, on the comic front, Peter Cook displaying the genius timing and sometimes acerbic, sometimes otherworldly presence that feature films caught only in parts of "The Wrong Box" and "Bedazzled."

"You could say that we started the 'unplugged' trend," says Lewis, because almost all the musicians performed without their usual elaborate equipment. (That was partly out of necessity: They appeared on a variety stage, sandwiched between comedy acts.)

But Lewis sees the overarching pop impact of "The Secret Policeman's Ball" series in the way it united live-wire farceurs like the Pythons, Rowan Atkinson and Billy Connolly with musicians such as Eric Clapton, Donovan and Bob Geldof.

"Before 'The Secret Policeman's Balls,' we didn't want to see variety shows because they reminded us of our parents' culture and staid series like 'The Perry Como Show,' " says Lewis. "But if you loved Monty Python you also loved the Who. It was a question of uniting those two worlds. It was like that device in the eye doctor's office where one eye sees a bird and the other a cage. You have to move them together till they click, and once we did, it made perfect sense."

And they made beautiful and lowdown comedy and music go together.

If you go
The Secret Policeman's Film Festival starts 6 p.m., today and continues through Tuesday at AFI Silver, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Tickets are $10 for the general public, $8 for Amnesty or AFI members, $9 for seniors and students; opening screening and discussion is free. Call 301-495-6700 or go to www.afi.com/silver.


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