The Secret Policeman’s Ball is the name informally used for the long-running series of benefit shows staged initially in the United Kingdom to raise funds for the human rights organisation Amnesty International. The shows started in 1976 featuring popular British comedians but later included leading musicians and actors. The first two balls took place in 1976 (‘A poke in the eye’) and 1977 (‘The Mermaid Frolics’). The name ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ was first used in 1979, then ‘The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball’ followed in 1981.
Following the success of these shows, there was a substantial increase in the number of benefit shows and charity projects in the UK in the early to mid-1980s – for a wide variety of causes. Many of the shows were modelled on the format of the Secret Policeman’s Ball shows. By 1982, Amnesty had lost the services of two key staff members, Peter Luff and Peter Walker, who had guided the first 4 benefit shows. Amnesty responded by taking a break from staging new benefit shows for six years. When it restarted the Secret Policeman’s series in 1987 it scaled back from producing theatrical movies of its shows to making them into TV and home video specials.
The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball took place at The London Palladium over four consecutive nights 26–29 March 1987. The show’s format was retooled in an effort to take advantage of the growing number of rock musicians supporting Amnesty. Instead of it being primarily a comedy show with a few musical cameos, the event made a point of giving equal emphasis to comedy and music. The show’s four nights were divided up into two nights of comedy and two nights of music.
Most of the comedic performers in the 1987 show were talents familiar primarily just to British audiences. This made the film of the show far less appealing to overseas audiences. Comedic performers included: Stephen Fry & Hugh Laurie, Mel Smith & Griff Rhys Jones, Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders, Ruby Wax, Hale and Pace, Lenny Henry, Rory Bremner, Robbie Coltrane, Ben Elton and the Spitting Image puppets.
The line-up of musicians included several who were already veterans of earlier Amnesty benefits in the UK and/or USA: Bob Geldof, Peter Gabriel, Jackson Browne and Lou Reed. Other performers included Mark Knopfler, Joan Armatrading, Chet Atkins, World Party and Duran Duran. Kate Bush appeared on stage together with David Gilmour to perform a live version of her hit single Running Up That Hill.
Two more editions of the Secret Policeman’s Ball followed in 1988 and 1989. The phenomenon returned in 2006, 2008 and 2012.