Monty Python’s Tunisian Holiday


Monty Python’s Tunisian Holiday: My Life with Brian

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The farcical comedy troupe returns in this hilarious memoir by Johnson, Monty Python expert and former assistant to John Cleese. In recounting days traveling with the gang as a photographer, journalist, peasant and Roman soldier (during the filming of Life of Brian), Johnny Heller’s delivery is so smooth and seamless it sounds as if he were there himself. And the prodigiously gifted Simon Vance is on hand, showcasing his remarkable impressions. The stories come to life and will enlighten even the most diehard of fans while offering newcomers an inside glimpse. Surviving Pythons John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle provide forewords. A Thomas Dunne hardcover. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. –This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

From School Library Journal

Python confidant and author Johnson (The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close) chronicles the five-week Tunisian shoot for the Monty Python classic Life of Brian, with day-by-day reminiscences from September and October 1978. A fan and fanzine writer, Johnson eventually met members of the British comedy troupe and was invited to join them and record his observations during the filming of the movie. Johnson’s accounts—of, e.g., the ingenuities of set creation, changeable North African weather, late-night gatherings in hotel bars and restaurants, and even a cameo from former Beatle (and film producer) George Harrison—are presented in a workmanlike yet easygoing and readable style. Including interviews he conducted on set, Johnson conveys the excitement of being a fan who gets to witness his heroes creating art. Indispensable for Python fans, this book should also appeal to film buffs in general; those less fanatical or not familiar with the film would do better to start with general histories like The Pythons: Autobiography. Recommended for larger public libraries and academic libraries with film collections.—Jim Collins, Morristown-Morris Twp. P.L., NJ
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Monty Python’s Tunisian Holiday
The Journey to Monastir, in which I am immersed in all things Tunisian
I ARRIVED AT THE AIRPORT IN Tunis in the middle of the afternoon after nearly eighteen hours of nonstop flying. Since there was no direct flight from Chicago to Tunis, I had a brief layover in the morning in Amsterdam. It was too brief for any sightseeing, but there was plenty of time for a Heineken. It seemed like it should taste better in its motherland, but I didn’t notice much difference.As I boarded my flight, I said a silent good-bye to Western civilization as I knew it. The KLM plane was only half full but seemed to be carrying a most varied assortment of passengers. There were Arab mothers with screaming babies, Frenchmen arguing with each other, excited English tourists, and businessmen of varying nationalities who seemed to regard the flight as an inconvenient if necessary part of the job.
The biggest adjustment for me was the lack of a common language, though everyone else on the plane seemed to take it all in stride. The pilot bravely attempted to struggle through the flight announcements in Arabic, French, Dutch, and English, and from the looks of the other passengers, he was barely understandable in any of them. “Le Alps is above us,” he announced, prompting some of the English passengers to glance outside nervously.
No announcement was needed, however, when we reached the coastline of Africa. The sky and the sea were both perfect shades of blue, and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. The sand along the shore was speckled with a few droppings of green. It was oppressively hot down there, no doubt, but from our vantage point there wasn’t a photo in the world that could do it justice. We continued inland, and it wasn’t long before we reached Tunis. In fact, we were nearly on top of it before anyone spotted it, largely due to the lack of skyscrapers and modern buildings. We circled the city once before touching down at the airport, which was a few miles from the city itself.
Tunis is the capital and largest city in Tunisia, located right on the Mediterranean across from Italy, and is, like most Tunisian cities, a curious mixture of the old and new. According to what I had read on the subject, Tunisia is considered to be the most modern of the North African countries, and its major industry is tourism.
Most of the Python filming would be done in the city of Monastir, about a four-hour drive along the coast south from Tunis. The Pythons were already down there preparing. I had arranged for a ride with a group flying in from London, but they would not be arriving until the next day, so it meant spending the night in Tunis.
I briefly contemplated spending the night in the airport until the next group arrived, deciding against it when it appeared the place would probably close up completely around nine that night.
The airport was far from any hotel, so I stopped at an office designated “Tunisian Tourist Information,” a rather shabby room with three somewhat disheveled Tunisian men in it. After a bit of gesturing, one of them wrote out “Bus 35” and “Hotel Capitole”. When the bus arrived, it was packed with Tunisians, and I felt slightly intimidated. Arabic is a harsh, guttural language, which sounds aggressive no matter what is being said, and it sounded a bit like everyone on the bus was arguing with someone else.
Thanks to the help of two boys who spoke English, I got off at the right stop for the Hotel Capitole, which was a couple of blocks ahead. I had still not noticed many tall buildings. Nearly all of the structures seemed to be either stone or cement, and the exterior of nearly every building was painted white or off-white, which I vaguely recalled as having a religious connotation. The outskirts of the city had been sparsely populated, but here in the center of town, more and more people crowded the streets. They made for an interesting picture; some were in traditional dress with white robes. Most of the older women still wore veils across their faces, but I occasionally spotted a younger girl in blue jeans and a sweater.
The Hotel Capitole was a small doorway hidden between larger buildings, which led into an old, run-down lobby badly in need of a coat of paint. I was so tired by that time, however, that if there hadn’t been an open room, I would have gone outside and napped in the alley. I pried the desk clerk away from his card game, and he showed me into an ancient, creaking elevator that was nevertheless bigger than the lobby. He left, and I collapsed onto the bed for fourteen straight hours of sleep.
I rose around nine o’clock and found I had to fight the cockroaches for the shower, which was one of the filthiest I had ever seen. I was glad to pack my bags and wait for a bus to the airport.
As I walked down the street to the bus stop, I passed vendors and street peddlers pushing their wares. I was tempted by the smell of freshly baked bread and bits of fried dough, displayed appetizingly but unsanitarily on cracked Formica counters. Other merchants carried fruit, while another local businessman pushed along a cart full of fish that had undoubtedly been pulled from the sea this morning. I was a little leery of the health standards that were undoubtedly in effect, but out of necessity, I became a little more liberal, though I drew a line at drinking the water.
The bus pulled up shortly. It was much less crowded than yesterday, which made for a more relaxing ride to the airport. As the flight from London wasn’t scheduled to arrive until midafternoon, I decided to sit back and read while I waited. I opened my pack and found The Gulag Archipelago sitting on top. I found the rather graphic descriptions of the Soviet police cells a little too unsettling, though, and decided to write a few postcards instead.
As the time of arrival drew closer, I wandered over to the gate. As I waited, a young, apparently European girl asked me a question in French; when I indicated my ignorance, she broke into a smile. “Oh, you speak English! I’m sorry, but I couldn’t tell,” she said in a distinctively American voice, the first I had heard in the past twenty-four hours. Her name was Carol, and she was originally from Connecticut. Now with the Peace Corps, she had been living in Tunis as an American teacher, but her two-year stint was almost up, and she would be returning to the States soon. Since the London plane was delayed, we had a nice chat in which she gave me a few helpful hints about living in Tunisia.
The plane touched down exactly an hour behind schedule, which seemed to be the accepted norm with Tunisair, so I began watching for arrivals. I had been informed to watch for a driver holding a MONTY PYTHON sign. The only person I knew who would be arriving was Bernard McKenna, a friend and writing partner of Graham Chapman, whom I had met the previous month in London. He had cowritten The Odd Job, a film Graham had produced and starred in. I had first encountered him in a pub where he was meeting with Graham about the film. At the time, Bernard explained that he had just returned from visiting his mother in Scotland.
“I had to go up and tell her about my divorce,” explained Bernard. “My mother is a bit old-fashioned, and it didn’t sit very well with her. Fortunately, though, I think I’ve probably dropped all the big bombshells on her that are possible by now.” He went on to explain that his brother, a policeman, met him at the airport. “He offered to carry one of my bags, and as we were walking along, I asked him if it was illegal for a policeman to possess contraband. He said, ‘Certainly.’ We walked along farther, and then I stopped him and said, ‘You’re breaking the law,’ and nodded to my bag. My brother, who is a bit nervous anyway, looked pale but carried on. Pretty soon he stopped and said, ‘Yes, but I wasn’t knowingly possessing contraband.’ We started walking again, and as he was starting to calm down, I said, ‘You are now knowingly possessing contraband.'”
A couple of days after that, Bernard had to stop by Graham’s house for a bit of doctoring, as he had injured his arm when he slipped and fell in a public lavatory. I saw some of the passengers lining up at check-in from the London flight and spotted Bernard’s bandaged arm, clutching a bag of duty-free cigarette cartons and bottles.
I heard a sound behind me and turned. One of the Tunisian drivers was holding up a sign reading MUNTY PYTON GRUP. It made an interesting sight in the midst of all the robes and veils, an incongruity grand enough to deserve a place on the Python TV series.
Bernard seemed startled to see me but quickly recovered and introduced me to Tania, a tanned, attractive brunette. I recalled that Anne Henshaw had mentioned that Eric Idle’s girlfriend would be with the group. Tania told me she was originally from a suburb of Chicago, not terribly far from my own hometown. Small world indeed.
We wandered over to the rest of the group, where I was assigned to the Hotel Ruspina. The others headed downstairs to pick up luggage and equipment, and then we all stood waiting for the cars and van that would transport us to Monastir. As I introduced myself, I learned that most of the dozen or so people with the group were either crew members or makeup girls, though Bernard was one of the actors. I was assigned to the van, which was loaded with everyone who couldn’t squeeze into the cars, and we started on the ride south.

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