Izzard keeps the Ball rolling into a new era

Cleese hands over legacy of Amnesty's 'Secret Policeman' shows, reports Duncan Campbell in Los Angeles

Sunday April 1, 2001
The Observer

Recordings of The Secret Policeman's Ball were once passed among schoolchildren like contraband. The humour was surreal and rude, and parents did not usually approve.

Many of the biggest names in British stand-up comedy today developed the taste after seeing Peter Cook, Alan Bennett or Billy Connolly being absurd on grainy video tapes of the charity events run in aid of Amnesty International. Now one of those younger stars is seizing control, as John Cleese hands over to a new artistic director - Eddie Izzard.

To mark the fortieth anniversary of Amnesty, a charity launched with an appeal by the lawyer Peter Benenson in this newspaper in 1961, the human rights organisation is going back to its comic roots and re-launching its live benefit shows following a 10-year gap.

The passing of the Amnesty comedy baton took place in Santa Barbara, 100 miles north of Los Angeles, where Cleese now lives. He and Izzard met on a balcony of the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills to tell The Observer about Amnesty's plans. The old name is going - Izzard's show will be called We Know Where You Live - but it is the direct heir to the many Secret Policeman's Balls that funded Amnesty through the Seventies and Eighties.

The early Balls and other Amnesty benefits provided some of the great comic moments of our time. Looking through the programmes Cleese has brought with him is like taking a roll call of the best of British comedy: Alan Bennett's T.E. Lawrence sketch, the Monty Python cast singing the 'Lumberjack Song', Peter Ustinov doing the Queen Mother at the Royal Ballet, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Rowan Atkinson's schoolmaster riff, Billy Connolly, Alexei Sayle, Robbie Coltrane, French and Saunders - with musical support by everyone from John Williams, Donovan and Lou Reed to Joan Armatrading and Jackson Browne.

Cleese enthuses about Peter Cook's famous satire on the judge's summing-up at the end of the trial of Jeremy Thorpe: 'Peter got very, very cross and wrote a piece overnight.' He also recalls the time his own daughter held Robbie Coltrane's idiot card upside down - 'the look of desperation that came over his face! And Ken Campbell, for god's sake, some of the best stuff I've seen on stage.'

The earliest shows were rare events but, since the days of Live Aid and Comic Relief, the public has become used to filling seats for good causes. Izzard has no worries about filling the 11,000 seats at Wembley Arena. The reason for such a big venue, he said, was because he wanted tickets at prices people could afford so it would not be an audience of the 'rattling jewellery brigade'.

Izzard first saw the Secret Policeman's Balls while at school and was happy to become involved with Amnesty later. Cleese, unable to organise the event this time because of of parental responsibilities in California, had suggested Izzard. 'I thought Eddie had the right touch because you can't put too heavy a hand on it.'

There are specific Amnesty cases that have relevance to the night, says Izzard, mentioning comedians U Pa Pa Lay and U Lu Zaw, jailed in 1996 in Burma (now renamed Myanmar) for making anti-government jests. 'They did some jokes about the government, got some laughs and seven years in jail.' They are now in a labour camp.

He also wants to highlight the case of musician and film-maker Ngawang Choephel, jailed in China for 'espionage and counter-revolutionary activities' while researching a documentary on traditional Tibetan performance, and of Venesa Lorna Ledesma, a member of the United Transvestites Association in Argen-tina who was arrested, tortured and murdered last year.

The change of title to We Know Where You Live has a point. 'It's normally used by gangsters against innocent individuals so I thought we should take it and use it against these dictators who run these countries,' said Izzard, who is still finalising the line-up for Wembley, dependent on who's in town that night.

'The shows were always a bit rough,' said Cleese nostalgically, 'which seemed to add something to them. People would just turn up at the door on the night. Barry Humphreys would be able to perform so Willie Rushton, say, would be asked if he minded dropping out for the evening and he would say "not at all, my love".'

Cleese is sad that Amnesty, now with more than a million members in 140 countries, remains as necessary as it was when it was founded. Its last annual report shows there were prisoners of conscience in 61 countries and executions taking place in 31 countries. 'Growing up in the Sixties when satire started, one really thought this kind of insane behaviour would eventually be laughed off the world stage, but I'm not sure that much progress has been made,' said Cleese. 'You see how many absolutely awful people there are in charge who only want to be in power. You've just got to see what happened in the American elections. It's extraordinary how immoral most of it is.'

Amnesty hopes the event, to be shown on television at a later date, will not only raise funds but also recruit to the cause a new generation who may first hear ofAmnesty, as Izzard did, through the shows. 'We Know Where You Live' is at Wembley Arena on 3 June, tickets from Wembley Arena, 0870 7331050