A secret history of the old Ball game by Brian Boyd

ON APRIL 1st, 1976, a show opened in London's Her Majesty's Theatre. Called A Poke in the Eye (With a Sharp Shock) it is remembered now only as a curio. But there is enough evidence to suggest that this nonmusical event changed the music world forever.

In 1976, Amnesty International was looking for a way to raise funds and draw attention to its work against widescale (and generally unreported) abuses of human rights around the world. It was Amnesty's 15th anniversary, and organisers decided to stage a low-key, one-off latenight theatre show. Their first port of call was Amnesty supporter John Cleese, who promised to "round up a few friends" for the event. By that, Cleese meant most of the Monty Python team and the legendary Beyond the Fringe quartet.

The show was filmed and had a successful run in arthouse cinemas, and an album recording charted very high for a comedy record. The show went on to become an annual event and soon became known as The Secret Policeman's Ball.

There was the odd musical guest during the early years - Pete Townshend being the first - but it wasn't until 1981 that a more comprehensive musical bill was put together. Guests that night included Sting, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Donovan and Bob Geldof.

Ultravox's Midge Ure was in the audience at the 1981 gig and remarked to Geldof that musicians should follow the comedians' lead and organise a special one-off event at some stage. Both Ure and Geldof credit the show as being the inspiration for Live Aid. Also sitting in the audience at one of the early 1980s gigs was a young Irish singer called Bono, who later told Rolling Stone in a 1986 interview: "I saw The Secret Policeman's Ball and it became a part of me. It sowed a seed."

Before the 1976 gig, there simply was no culture of performers and musicians making a concerted attempt to raise awareness of gross injustices. Memories of the farcical Bangladesh concert organised by George Harrison (where a lot of the money ended up with lawyers and only trickled through years after) convinced many that these events were problematic and managers/agents warned against them.

However Midge Ure, Geldof and Bono saw something at the Policeman shows that could be tweaked and built on. They were impressed by how the subsequent films and albums were big sellers - and globally so. Much to everyone's surprise, an album containing the best of the musical acts from the shows was a top 30 hit on the US Billboard charts. Looking on with interest were Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who had just formed an indie production company called Miramax Films. They acquired the US rights to the Policeman shows and, with some editing and a new intro for the US audience, scored their first commercial hit.

The rest you know: Ure and Geldof wrote Do They Know It's Christmas and then staged Live Aid. In the US, because of the groundwork done by Miramax, Amnesty director Jack Healey organised the Conspiracy of Hope tour, which featured erstwhile Secret Policeman performers Sting and Peter Gabriel, along with U2 and a host of US acts.

Because the musicians could attract larger audiences, and, in a sense, stole their thunder, the Secret Policeman Balls slipped quietly out of view in the late 1980s. But, with torture now regularly back in the headlines, earlier this month the Secret Policeman returned with a show headlined by Eddie Izzard and Russell Brand and with music from Gorillaz and The Magic Numbers. Its main thrust was to keep attention focused on what is happening at Guantanamo Bay and the degree to which the British government, among others, is involved in the international arms trade.

It's worth remembering John Cleese's initial and unsung role in how the music world changed irrevocably as result of Band Aid and Live Aid. More importantly, it's worth remembering why there was once a need for a Secret Policeman's Ball - and why there still is.

The Secret Policeman's Ball (2006) will be shown on Channel 4 later in the year. A DVD of the event will also be released