“Do you seriously not have anything better to do today?” British comedian John Cleese was astonished when he saw the hundreds of people who had turned up in Eindhoven on a cold Monday morning last April for the opening of a refurbished bicycle tunnel. Graffiti artists had embellished the 130 metre long walls of the over 60-year-old bicycle tunnel with a mural depicting the Silly Walks from a very well-known Monty Python sketch from 1970.
The municipality of Eindhoven wants people to have more fun in some of the public space. This was one location that really needed that. The Eindhoven public space advisor came up with this idea for the walls of the long tunnel under the main railroad in Eindhoven. The city commissioned Studio Giftig to create the artwork. Some people were surprised that young people would come up with the idea to depict a 46-year-old English sketch. Artist Niels van Swaemen, 34-years-old, had not been born when John Cleese did his Silly Walks. “But he is an icon, younger people also know his Silly Walks!” van Swaemen told a newspaper reporter. It took him two weeks to paint the mural together with his colleague Kasper van Leek.
Eindhoven then sent an e-mail to the management of John Cleese to invite him to do the opening and – much to their delight – the city quickly received an answer that he would be there! Cleese happened to be in the country for some shows and on the way to a performance that night he was able to make a stop in Eindhoven. It was an unfortunate decision by the municipality to announce that news on April Fool’s Day. Many people – including some in the press – were suspicious, but it was really true: John Cleese came to Eindhoven!
The tunnel was packed with people. There was a lot of press too. This was a first, John Cleese had never opened a tunnel before. “My first tunnel, yes, I think it is my first tunnel!” But Cleese has opened other important landmarks: “I have a waste disposal tower in New Zealand.”
The Eindhoven alderman Yasin Torunoglu, born in 1982, long after the sketch, is responsible for “maintenance of public space” among a lot of other tasks in his portfolio. Torunoglu explained Eindhoven’s motives to John Cleese and the audience. “This Silly Walk fits perfectly into our new policy we call the smile factor. In which we try to give a new meaning to our public space. As a city we can contribute by changing boring walls into a sort of fitness instruction for our citizens. I am looking forward to people walking into the tunnel with a gloomy face and walking out of it with a happy face like yours in 1970. Your humour has inspired generations of people all over the world. You took everyday situations – nobody would think about much – and turned them into absurd sketches which are still talked about today.”
John Cleese, clearly amused, then took the microphone. “I must say I am very astonished by this, I thought there’d be about 60 people, but as far as I can see it is most of the population of Eindhoven! I like this, because we English think of you guys as tall and very sensible and very good at business, but I never realised, before, how silly you all are. That you can waste hours on a meaningless event like this is encouraging.”
Cleese then literally unveiled the art work by pulling away a red curtain. He laughed out loud when he saw his portrait.
Making his way back to the car, through the crowds, taking a lot of time to give out autographs, Cleese was asked if he could still do the silly walks. “Oh come on! 76! I have an artificial knee and an artificial hip, probably as a result of doing it!”
This week’s video (the images of the opening itself are a compilation of images I found on YouTube. Unfortunately I was not there that day.)