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Always look on the bright side of life : a sortabiography
2018
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Crucifixion? It's October 1978 and I'm being crucified. I'm thirty feet up on a cross in Tunisia singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." Beneath me in a troglodyte courtyard, dug out another forty feet below ground level, an Arab woman sweeps her front yard. She never looks up. We've been here for three days. It's the final scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian and the song I wrote echoes across the desert to the distant hills. John Cleese has the u. e rest of the Pythons seem fairly cheery. ere are twenty-three of us on crosses and only three ladders, so between takes if you need a pee there is a desperate wait. I suppose if that's the only moan you have about being crucified, you are on the whole lucky . . . There's something a little chilling about turning up for work and finding a cross with your name on it. Oh sure, they weren't using nails, and we had bicycle seats to perch on, but it makes you think, hanging up there for three days in your underpants, gazing out at the desert. Perhaps everyone should be crucified for a few days, because it does give you a good perspective on life. Especially if you are singing a song that references your own passing: Just remember that the last laugh is on you . . . And don't think the irony escaped me. I have always known this last little giggle at my expense lies somewhere in the future. I only hope there's a good turnout. The song was supposed to be ironic, but it ended up being iconic. I mean, you can't have much less of a future to be bright about than while being crucified. But people began to sing it in real wars and in real danger. It struck a chord somehow and now people sing it everywhere. Including football matches, and funerals. Especially funerals. As of this writing, it's the number one song requested at British funerals. So here I am, up on a cross in Tunisia singing it for the first time to Graham Chapman. How the hell did I get here? A Scar Is Born By an odd coincidence, I was born on my birthday. In the same place as my mother, Harton Hospital, South Shields, County Durham, though luckily not at the same time. I was born plain Eric Idle. We couldn't a afford a second name. There was a war on. At the time of my birth, Hitler was trying to kill me, but fortunately he missed. The closest he got is one of my earliest memories: a shot-up U.S. Wellington bomber, limping home from Germany, crashing in flames in the field beside my nursery school. "Nothing to worry about," said the nurses, as they hustled us inside. Surely the scariest words you can ever hear. en I learned the truth from my mum: " e American pilot was looking for an emergency landing in the eld. He saw the kids playing and deliberately turned away, taking the plane down." I've always liked Americans. They're brave buggers. So, close, Adolf, but no cigar. If one of the best ways to appreciate life is to have an unhappy childhood, I was very fortunate. Things began badly and got worse. Try this for irony: my father was killed hitchhiking home from World War II. He'd been in the RAF since 1941 in the most dangerous seat of a Wellington bomber, that of the rear gunner/wireless operator, from which he emerged unscathed, and yet seven months after the war in Europe was over, he was killed in a road accident hitching home for Christmas. All over England, servicemen were waiting to be demobbed, and as the trains were full for the holidays they were told to thumb for rides, since everyone stopped for the boys in uniform. My dad got a lift in the back of a lorry load of steel. Just outside Darlington a car swerved to avoid oncoming traffic, the truck veered off the road, the load of steel shifted and crushed him. He died in hospital on Christmas Eve, my mother by his bedside. I was almost three. You can see how Christmas was never much fun in our household. I wonder if that's why I wrote the song "Fuck Christmas"? After I was born my father was rarely home. Wars are like that. The Air Force maps they used had code words on them. I found the words Spam Exit in my dad's tidy handwriting. I also found a few references to myself in his tiny RAF diary for 1945; the choking words for July 7: Eric's first paddle & trip to the Beach. My father's grave is in an RAF cemetery. They are drawn up in neat lined slabs, forever at attention--name, rank, serial number, and date of death: December 24, 1945. Above, the Latin words of the RAF motto: Per Ardua ad Astra . "Through hard work to the stars." It could be the watchword for mankind entering the Space Age. Or a young man entering show business. My mother disappeared for a while into depression, and I was brought up by my Gran in Swinton, Lancashire. Her husband, a dentist who I called Pop, took me to the Belle Vue Circus in Manchester where, amazingly, it turned out we were circus royalty. My great-grandfather was Henry Bertrand, a famous ringmaster and circus manager in the 1880s. I still have his notepaper, with his imposing picture in white tie and tails, announcing he is the Advance Manager of Roby's Midget Minstrels. Only afterward did I realize that I too ended up in a circus: and a Flying one at that. When I did a little research into him recently I found out that, incredibly, he had begun life as a comedian. Isn't that slightly too much coincidence? In my novel The Road to Mars I postulated that this was evidence of a comedy gene. I was joking, but now I'm not so sure. Anyway, as a child it was exciting to be taken backstage at Belle Vue Circus to meet the terrifying clowns, who were very respectful to Pop as a Bertrand and extremely friendly to me. Pop also took me to see various variety shows at the Manchester Hippodrome, where I saw the best of British Music Hall comedians: Morecambe and Wise, Robb Wilton, Jimmy Edwards, Arthur Askey, Norman Evans, Mrs. Shufflewick, Norman Wisdom, and the Crazy Gang. The most memorable thing about the variety shows were the tableaux vivants, where a stage full of beautiful girls stood or sat still, stark naked. This was the first time I ever saw a nude woman and suddenly there were twenty-four of them. It was called "A Scene from Winter" and fake snow fell while they posed with nothing on but discreetly placed drapery. The orchestra played and someone recited a daft little poem while the girls just sat there. They weren't allowed to move. In those days, it was illegal to move around on stage naked. If they did they could be arrested, but as long as they didn't move, it was alright and everyone applauded. I remember thinking, is is great, and ever since then I have always been very fond of nude ladies. So that's my background in show business: circuses, clowns, comedians, and nude ladies. Excerpted from Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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  New York Times Review

"SO MUCH HAS been written about Monty Python," notes Eric Idle, who as a charter member of that brilliant comedy troupe created memorable sketches like "Nudge Nudge," in which he played the world's most annoying pub patron, as well as the absurdly cheerful song that gives his book its name, which he sang at the conclusion of the mock biblical epic "Monty Python's Life of Brian" while being crucified. "There have been," he continues, "memoirs, diaries, books about the Pythons, books by the Pythons about the other Pythons articles about the books about the Pythons, countless interviews, autobiographies, documentaries . . . so many documentaries." He's not wrong. (He doesn't mention that one of those books was "The Pythons Autobiography," published in 2003, which included contributions from all the Pythons, including Idle himself.) The question is how much Idle has to say on the subject that hasn't already been said. The answer: enough. "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" is probably more for the hard-core Python aficionado than the casual fan, who may be baffled by unexplained references like "Orson Welles was on the panel and he must have loved Mr. Creosote." But there is plenty here that all fans, casual and otherwise, will appreciate. I was particularly taken by Idle's recollection of how he came to write "Bright Side," and how he came to record his vocal in a hotel bedroom in Tunisia while under the influence of a powerful local beverage. And I was touched by the mixture of pride and surprise with which he discusses how that song, which "was supposed to be ironic," has taken on a life of its own as an anthem sung by British troops, British football fans and even mourners at British funerals, where Idle says it has replaced "My Way" as the most requested number. I would have liked more stories about the creative process behind Idle's Python work. I would have also liked more about the Rutles, the Beatles parody band he created in the late 1970s with the frequent Python collaborator Neil Innes. Idle calls "The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash," the hilarious fake documentary he wrote, co-directed and co-starred in (as the Paul to Innes's John), "probably the most fun I ever had filming." But for some reason - perhaps because it was Innes and not Idle who wrote the songs - this phase of his career gets relatively short shrift. And I would have liked a lot less about Idle's many, many, many famous friends. Of course, there's no reason he shouldn't write about his friends. "I didn't seek them out," he sensibly observes. "They found me. What am I supposed to say" It's just that so much of what he has to say about them consists of little more than dropping their names. ("Marty Scorsese threw us a party"; "All of the Stones trooped in"; "Suddenly I was making Steve Martin and Robin Williams laugh"; "I have known Salman for some years.") Still, when he writes in depth about friends like George Harrison, who loved - and, in the case of "Life of Brian," helped bankroll - the Pythons, and whom Idle clearly loved back ("He was irresistible"), the payoffcan be powerful. "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" has its share of weak jokes: "By an odd coincidence, I was born on my birthday." "Steve is a polymath, which is not a parrot good at algebra." After a few of those clunkers, I had visions of Graham Chapman materializing in his colonel's uniform to proclaim such wordplay unforgivably silly and urge Idle to move on. Happily, he always does. Some of the best moments here are the serious ones, like his heartbreaking account of Harrison's last days and his harrowing memories of the 12 years he spent in a boarding school he recalls as "a physically abusive, bullying, harsh environment for a kid." And, perhaps inevitably for a man in his mid-70s, Idle does a fair amount of reflecting. "I noticed we had become legends quite a while ago," he writes of the Pythons. "We used to be icons, and before that stars, and before that celebrities, and before that merely TV comedians, but the Reaper keeps on Reaping and you go up a notch each time until you finally end up as myths, which is when you know you're dead." IN ADDITION TO being the Python with the most high-profile performing career, John Cleese has for two decades had an academic one, as a professor at large and later a visiting professor at Cornell University. "Professor at Large: The Cornell Years," a hodgepodge of lectures and conversations, is less for the Python fan than for the Python completist. Naturally, Monty Python is among the topics Cleese addresses. But even the 2004 talk "What Is Religion Musings on 'Life of Brian'" is about more than just that film; while using "Brian" as a starting point, Cleese offers smart and sometimes surprising observations about spirituality, organized religion, and the parts he says were leftout of the Bible. The sublime silliness of Monty Python has always had an intellectual underpinning; not many comedy troupes have sung about Heidegger and Descartes or joked about summarizing Proust. In "Professor at Large," Cleese brings the underpinning to the surface. While rarely silly, Professor Cleese is often funny, frequently perceptive and, unlike many professors, never dull. PETER KEEPNEWS is an editor at The Times.
Summary
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER<br> <br> From the ingenious comic performer, founding member of Monty Python, and creator of Spamalot , comes an absurdly funny memoir of unparalleled wit and heartfelt candor<br> <br> We know him best for his unforgettable roles on Monty Python--from the Flying Circus to The Meaning of Life . Now, Eric Idle reflects on the meaning of his own life in this entertaining memoir that takes us on a remarkable journey from his childhood in an austere boarding school through his successful career in comedy, television, theater, and film. Coming of age as a writer and comedian during the Sixties and Seventies, Eric stumbled into the crossroads of the cultural revolution and found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of George Harrison, David Bowie, and Robin Williams, all of whom became dear lifelong friends. With anecdotes sprinkled throughout involving other close friends and luminaries such as Mike Nichols, Mick Jagger, Steve Martin, Paul Simon, Lorne Michaels, and many more, as well as John Cleese and the Pythons themselves, Eric captures a time of tremendous creative output with equal parts hilarity and heart. In Always Look on the Bright Side of Life , named for the song he wrote for Life of Brian and which has since become the number one song played at funerals in the UK, he shares the highlights of his life and career with the kind of offbeat humor that has delighted audiences for five decades. The year 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Pythons, and Eric is marking the occasion with this hilarious memoir chock full of behind-the-scenes stories from a high-flying life featuring everyone from Princess Leia to Queen Elizabeth.
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