It’s a secret they want everyone to know about—and for a very charitable reason. Human rights advocacy group Amnesty International is celebrating 50 years of supporting free speech with The Secret Policeman’s Ball, a long-recurring benefit gala featuring music and comedy acts to raise money and awareness to battle global injustice and promote human rights.
A predecessor to similar events like Live Aid and Comic Relief, The Secret Policeman’s Ball was the brainchild of Monty Python member John Cleese who, along with former Amnesty International U.K. Assistant Director Peter Luff and multimedia entertainment maven Martin Lewis, held the first ball in 1976. Since then, the show has become a staple in the U.K., hosting the likes of Eric Clapton, Rowan Atkinson, Bob Geldof, Eddie Izzard, and other big-name acts.
Up until now, The Secret Policeman’s Ball has been held exclusively in the U.K.—but on March 4, agency Mother London is bringing the blockbuster show to Radio City Music Hall in New York City for its first-ever U.S. stop, featuring bands Coldplay and Mumford & Sons and comedians Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Sarah Silverman, Kristen Wiig, Russell Brand, and many more. Even amateur acts will get a chance to grace the stage thanks to the event’s World Shortest Gig contest where up-and-coming comedians who entered were chosen by the public at SecretPoliceman.com. The night’s stellar roster will undoubtedly bring in people by the droves, but for those who can’t get/afford tickets (they range from $55 to $505) the show will air on the cable channel Epix and stream online at EpixHD.com.
So after decades abroad, why is The Secret Policeman’s Ball jumping the pond now? Al MacCuish, head of entertainment at Mother and executive producer for The Secret Policeman’s Ball, says with this year’s ball coinciding with Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary—and with wildly turbulent civil uprisings making headlines daily—bringing The Secret Policeman’s Ball overseas will invigorate the cause by appealing to a new and younger crowd. "There’s an audience for it in the U.K., but in the U.S. its audience is of a certain age group, so we’re trying to get a new generation of young people and make human rights relevant to that audience," he says.
MacCuish, and Mother’s Kit Hawkins, Executive Producer for The Secret Policeman’s Ball, are manning the helm of Sunday night’s massive event with no small amount of help from several other production teams. The scale of production, which MacCuish describes as "infinitely great," serves as a challenge of creative collaboration between the two directors. "Kit’s background is purely entertainment whereas mine is marketing. I’m watching with interest with how well we work together under pressure and within this time frame," MacCuish says.
And while Mother London is known for its non-traditional creative work—the shop has done everything from creating a series of comics to staging a theatrical production—it’s still easy to wonder why an ad agency is producing an event like The Secret Policeman’s Ball. According to Hawkins, it’s really not that far of a stretch. "Entertainment has always been a part of Mother’s culture. It’s our belief that if you’re interrupting someone’s favorite TV show you have an obligation to reward them for their attention," he says. "Communication is no longer a separate side to entertainment. What’s interesting is that our conversation has shifted very quickly in the last couple of years between entertainment and marketing to why shouldn’t they work together? We passionately believe it’s part of the future."