Secret Policeman's Ball 2008

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

Amnesty International’s Save the Human Campaign received a massive boost on Saturday with this year’s Secret Policeman’s Ball, complete with a cinema simulcast and TV airing 24 hours laters.

It’s an almost impossible gig in the beautiful Albert Hall, with 4,000 people lining the sides of the oval, and in the pit around the satellite mini-stage and in front of the main one.

The building must be four-storeys high and has the disadvantages of a stadium gig – distance from the stage, lack of intimacy, the essential big screen projections – without the advantage of sheer numbers of people to add power to the laughs. The sound was absolutely perfect as you would expect, which gave the comedians a fighting chance.

Frank Skinner started the entertainment gently enough, talking to members of the audience nearby as though he was at club, and his intimate tone immediately focused and reassured the room .

His observations moved from the pedestrian (road crossings), to the historical – lightly satirical ditties about Hitler, and of course on to the sexual. Gruesome hoodie joke aside, the sexual stuff was self-deprecating, funny and conspiratorial and he closed with a fine pastiche of a Formby-style song about Osama Bin Laden.

A big cheer greeted Ed Byrne and he didn’t disappoint, all floppy haired charm and speedy delivery, interrupting his own flow and deconstructing what might have been a dodgy paedophile story and making it safe.

The very nature of a gig where everyone is doing a tight five minutes, plus or minus a couple, depending on status, and a combination of smooth voiced back-announcing and live intros makes for a choppy nightJonathan Ross glided on make a few observations about getting old, gravity and droopy testicles and was excessively pleased to be there, having done his first Secret Policeman’s Ball, 20 years ago.

His function was to introduce Alan Carr, who was also doing ‘getting old’ material, with plaintive remarks about his bald spot, his back, his knees and whatever going. He seemed put out when someone lobbed a sock on to the stage (he’d been talking about signing anything for autograph hunters), and that spoiled his comedy momentum slightly, but there was no doubt about the warmth in the room for this relatively new TV star.

Graham Norton then introduced a piano spot from Tim Minchin, who gave a dashing , energetic performance appropriate to the size of the venue without seeming over the top. A song about the taboo word with a couple of Gs an N and an R added some sparkle to the evening.

David Mitchell and Robert Webb successfully pulled off a sketch about Nazis, undermining the stereotype with a moment of hilarious self-doubt. The sketches at the last Ball were the weak spot, but this stood up well, crisp, witty and assured.

Shappi Khorsandi was next off the blocks, and she addressed the ‘who’s she?’ question in the audience mind head on, referring to herself as a box-ticker for the night – female and Iranian, and a former refugee, she had it all. Her effervescent style is unforced and natural and her’s was the name I could hear coming up most among the audience as they tramped back to the Tube, much later on.

Demotic stylist Gok Kwan was lumbered with introducing Boris Johnson (or Jon Culshaw in a blond wig). Culshaw is highly talented and eerily accurate with his voices, but the whole impressionism shtick does depend on something bloody funny emerging from hearing the impressionee say something hilarious. Perhaps Johnson is too much of an irritating clown for a parody to have any bite, because his brief reappearances served only to remind what a pain in the arse he is.

The next sketch was a return to (bad) form, with an interrogation of Lisa Tarbuck (least worst), by Mathew Horne, Alan Carr dragged up as Amy Winehouse, Jason Manford riding an ostrich outfit and Graham Norton butching up for 30 seconds. I’m sure the sketches have to be blown together a short notice for people not known for their ensemble work, and it showed, but hey, it was over fast.

Then Fearne Cotton introduced Kristen Schaal as ‘the true star of Flight Of The Conchords’. I’m sure Rhys Darby would want a few words about that. Schaal’s flighty, needy passive-aggressive kookiness bewildered a few people, but she knows what she’s about and remained unfazed by the collective puzzlement in the room.

Eddie Izzard appeared to do the serious human rights bit for Amnesty and then Shappi Khorsandi returned with the right balance of levity and passion to persuade us to text Amnesty with our support for the women of Iran, whose human rights really are negligible.

After the interval, ‘Boris Johnson’ introduced Razorlight who blasted through a couple of songs pleasantly enough, all looking like they’ just had a good primp and blow-dry and the drummer going at it like Animal from the Muppets.

Chris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade from The IT Crowd amused, with a technical sketch about a monitor and time delay, garnering some good laughs because it rang true, and then we were treated to a live video link to Kitchener, Ontario to see Russell Peters give a message of support and do some material about how it’s impossible to win a battle with someone you can’t even slightly intimidate. Russell Howard followed this with his own winning brand of fluffy, energetic story telling around family, Christmas and his brother’s epilepsy. I bet his brother’s delighted.

Two Hollow Men (Nick Tanner and David Armand) and Katy Brand performed a language school sketch where the French teacher was clearly getting infidelity issues off his chest, cue some extravagant histrionics, but it’s ‘Allo ‘Allo qualities seemed to chime with the audience.

Sarah Millican was the epitome of cool on this night. She may have been largely unknown, but her tetchy and pragmatic observations on sex and relationships will have won her plenty of new fans and she loaded the short set with an enviable number of rock solid punchlines.

Gavin & Stacey stars James Corden and Mathew Horn were obviously the new favourite thing with this audience, but I didn’t get that memo. Deploying the double-act stock-in-trade of naughty goofy one jumping about like a six-year-old at a birthday party,constantly amazed to be here, counteracted by the more uptight reactions of the straight guy led to a comedy interpretive dance version of Enya’s Sail Away. It got a massive response, two blokes rolling round the floor, nose to bum, and miming swimming. I felt like I’d missed some important backstory, it was daft enough but we’d all have a go at that, given enough disinhibiting alcohol. Suffice to say they got an amazing response.

More to my taste is Sean Lock, sheltering behind material and the professional problems of his downbeat voice, sponsorship of hurricanes and intolerance, all covered with dignity and intelligence.

Tim Minchin popped up again for a curiously vicious love song, with enviably twisted lyrics, followed by Jason Manford doing his professional Manc bit, all very friendly and ‘isn’t he just like us?’ and then it was the turn of Germaine Greer, to remind us of the work of Amnesty International.

Lastly Eddie Izzard returned, looking the spit of Kenneth Branagh. There was palpable excitement and warm recognition of his verbal tics, the Eddie ‘aaaaaaaaaahm’, the sense of the man revving himself up for a set.

A couple of remarks made me think he may be sponsored by Apple, some iPhone comments and Mac versus PC propaganda. We learned he’s an atheist, but it’s still clearly quite handy to use God as a character and the Bible as source material for stuff on Noah’s Ark, always a favourite subject, and his endearingly anthropomorphic animal impersonations.

The audience expected to laugh with Izzard, they know and trust him, he could have got away with making noises rather than tag-heavy material and they would still have gone with him, indeed they did. There was a sense of satisfaction and of ‘at least he didn’t just do the serious bit’ – but the real comedy riches of the evening came from the comics still regularly working their own live shows and in clubs.

It was a thankless task for the comedians at this prestige gig, without the same kind of knock-you-off-your-feet response they could normally expect from a colossal show. The audience enjoyed the comedy marathon (three and half hours plus 30-minute interval), and the experience of seeing so many TV faces, but for density of laughs they could go to any good night in London and laugh louder and longer.

However, it was a ‘good cause’ gig and from the packed house, a very successful one.

Reviewed by: Julia Chamberlain
Royal Albert Hall, London
October 4, 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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