Having attended the last two outings of Amnesty International's Secret Policeman’s Ball at The Albert Hall, it strikes me as an occasion as bewildering for it’s audience as it is for the acts who have never played this grand venue before; if not more so.
While the performer’s natural ego can adjust to the occasion and feed off it, the audience members must constantly change gear to accommodate a conveyor belt of quick acts that are either announced by the (occasionally irritating) PA narration or by a cursory celebrity guest appearance.
So when, after an abrupt start to the charity gig, Frank Skinner opened and reminded people why he’s one of the very best stand ups the UK has ever produced, you couldn’t help but wish that he’d stayed on as an MC to give the evening some more shape. In his act Skinner dealt with his age, 51, in a deftly course routine about how his ‘50+ vitamins’ had turned his urine luminous. Similarly glorious in its ‘basic’ appeal was his routine about having sex with a woman while playing ‘peek-a-boo’ with her toddler daughter who had accidentally wandered into the bedroom.
Later, at the after show party, a beaming Skinner told me that as soon as he was off stage he pulled up a chair in the Green Room, [that was furnished with fruit and Terry’s chocolate orange pieces as if to cover both extremes of replenishment] to watch the rest of the acts. “People were applauding the others. I know that’s probably not what you want to hear, but honestly I found there was more backbiting when I was in teaching than in show business!”
The willingness to applaud may partly come from the general agreement that there were no ‘car crashes’ on the night, though the ensemble sketches were instantly forgettable. Mitchell and Webb’s reprisal of their Nazis sketch where Mitchell’s character realises that they are “the baddies” went down well enough and the audience also warmed to a somewhat zanier sketch from Gavin and Stacey's Matthew Horne and James Corden portraying them as a couple of schlocky magicians.
On the stand up side Alan Carr, Sean Lock and Jason Manford were perfectly adequate but Ed Byrne had only the briefest of slots to show why he is on such a hot-streak at the moment. Luckily the Irishman still managed to get in some choice one-liners including one referring to the Joseph Fritzl story: “You can’t tell people how to raise their kids, unless you are Austrian and then you kind of have to.” Byrne told me later that there was a certain amount of “shambolicness” to the proceedings and that he was a bit surprised when his curtain call came. Meanwhile, Byrne’s decision to do only five of his allotted seven minutes was partly inspired by Liza Tarbuck who had suggested to him that he might as well edit himself for his 5 minute TV slot than have someone do it for you. In the end Byrne was, harshly, edited out altogether.
As with the 2006 Ball, the evening belonged to newer talent with both Anglo-Iranian comedian Shappi Khorsandi and if.comedy newcomer Sarah Millican keeping up the tempo with some nifty one-liners and winning plaudits backstage from the elder statesmen. Khorsandi joked that the organisers must have made a mistake and meant to book civil rights campaigner Shami Chakrabati. After putting the audience at ease with her relative unknown status mused on her wish for a “Mullah Lite” for her family's home former home nation. Khorsandi's material made her the most 'on-message' comedian on a night ironically bereft of biting political satire. Meanwhile, Sarah Millican’s already high voice was amplified by the sharp acoustics of the Albert Hall but that did not take away from her gloriously gossipy shtick that advised the audience that you know you are too fat “when your lover has to say ‘1-2-3’ before he picks you up.”
Mock the Week star Russell Howard came out of the stocks quickly, one of his first gags was to wonder if the Queen ever pulled the bed sheet up to her neck and said: “Phillip, look at me, I’m a stamp”, hardly anti-establihment stuff but cute all the same. Relaxing at the after show party Howard admitted to me that mixing with the big beasts of comedy in the Green Room was daunting: “First and foremost I know people like Frank Skinner, Sean Lock and Eddie Izzard as a fan so it’s a weird experience being aware of them in the same room. In that ‘non-asky, asky’ kind of a way you say ‘what did you think of that?’ It’s horrible, but you just want people that you love to think that you’re all right.” Izzard himself later told me that the Green Room is “the hardest room to play” so Howard can be assured that everyone was thinking along the same lines.
Synonymous with Amnesty, after appearing at a series of their events including last year’s Ball, Eddie Izzard topped the bill. In 2006 his musings on flies caused another comic on the bill to remark to me later “can he really be that interested in insects?”, incredulous that such an established comic was still peddling such a rudimentary routine by his standards. This year he pushed the boat out a bit more, that boat being Noah’s Ark, the idea of which he debunked on the basis that the tigers would have eaten all the cargo. It was a notch above his previous SPB appearance, albeit with a few themes undeveloped (including why Democratic states in the US seem to be the ones with a coastline), and one that reportedly drew a rapt attention and a rapturous reception backstage.
After the gig too there was no shortage of warmth for Izzard. David Mitchell confessed that one of the best things about the night was meeting him, Skinner was also effusive, while the exuberant Germaine Greer (who was there to introduce a film about torture, one of the smattering of cause-related inserts on the night) compared Izzard’s imagination to that of Peter Cook (a stalwart of previous Secret Policeman's Balls in their late Seventies heydey) while also remarking that Izzard was starting to look like Burl Ives and thus too, well, burly to go back to dressing in drag. Meanhwhile, Izzard himself felt especially moved by the night because his mother, who died when he was six, once sang in a choir at the Albert Hall. “It has a special significance playing this venue” Izzard told me, “it was as if she was here”.
Finally one stellar name that was too busy working backstage to appear on it was Steven Merchant who explained: “I was interviewing people for the Amnesty website so I didn’t get to see anything, but, from what I hear it went well.”