Awe, geeza brek, an’ tha’
Billy Connolly is Scotland’s third most famous individual. That must irk him. That and knowing the other guy is a better actor if not as funny, and the other plays better tennis.
Connolly has until now kept out of the political fray when asked about his opinion on Scotland’s future. But it was only a matter of time for the press to take advantage of his condition, the onset of Parkinson’s disease, and a periodic loss of memory, to badger an opinion out of him.
Connolly thinks there is “too much bureaucracy already, too costly, and why should we split up something?” He adds, “I don’t have a great belief in the Union between England and Scotland, but I do have a great belief in the union of the human race.” In what appears a final determined attempt to impale himself permanently on the fence, he’s quoted as also saying, “I don’t like patriots. I am deeply suspicious of patriotism.” Well, Connolly isn’t known for his philosophical dissertations.
A distance from Scotland’s hopes well sign-posted
Connolly’s inability to identify wholeheartedly with his homeland began many years ago. The first inkling of dissent came in a cartoon published in a Sunday newspaper. His personality was recreated in a series called either “The Big Yin,” or “Lobby Dosser” – memory defeats me. It was very popular. At some point in its short history the cartoonist added a tattoo to the “Big Yin’s” arm – “England for Never.” It coincided with the SNP winning seats at Westminster, and a resurgence of confidence in Scotland’s culture.
The cartoonist took it for granted a man of the people, from the working class, would be a home rule supporter, or if not, then something of a rebel against Anglo rule. By that stage Connolly was a UK-national personality. He decided image is more precious than nation.
Connolly demanded the tattoo removed. The assumption was he disliked any connection between his unspoken politics and SNP ideals. Considering Connolly owes everything to his origins, his career based on poking fun at the foibles of his central belt average Scot, denying his homeland had attitude seems a mite bizarre and certainly ungenerous. Later, when Scotland’s parliament seemed certain to be a success, he nicknamed it “that pretendy parliament”, an unforgiveable aside from a man who ought to have welcomed its advent with pride.
He didn’t always travel too well outside Scots speakers
When I gave one of his early taped stage shows to an English friend living in Banbury keen that he enjoyed Connolly as much as I did, I got it back a week later with the comment, “I can see he is a very funny man, but I cannot understand a word he is saying!”
Like the self-taught artist, Jack Vettriano, a man continually quoted a former miner but actually a pit manager for a short time, Connolly the myth is often referred to as a long-term shipyard worker. By all accounts he was a welder for a short time. He has lots of shipyard anecdotes to tell, some not his own, the same technique he employs today but to a greater extent, using borrowed stories and incidents as his core material. He once made a joke about his time in the Boy Scouts, a borrowed anecdote. When was a hard-drinking, hard living, shipyard worker ever in the Boy Scouts? (The anecdote was mine, told a week earlier to his cousin – a jolt to hear it repeated on the Parkinson show.)
Nowadays he is too far removed from his source material, the west of Scotland Scot, to remain as wonderfully funny and truthful as his early days. Back then he did us all a favour, he taught us about ourselves.
The days when he had us screaming in pain from endless laughter at our antics are long gone. Billy Connolly has seen himself as a versatile international star for a generation now, a globetrotter, someone who must earn a princely sum annually to keep the limousines purring over and the multi-homes warm. He has a lifestyle to maintain.
Hobnobs with famous comedians.
He’s admired by stand ups as the father, one can say now, granddad of the genre. In his heyday he was a supreme comedian with a raw untutored talent for mime, a gift he’s never quite developed. Much criticised by the mealy mouthed for daring to talk about bodily functions before such things were discussed openly, he was one of the few comedians besides the American Lenny Bruce, fearless enough to push the limits of good taste, guaranteed to have you in stitches within minutes.
Curiously, and unlike Bruce, it is difficult to recall a single memorable utterance Connolly ever coined other than ‘pretendy’ parliament. There is one that might fit that designation: a poverty-stricken housing scheme in Glasgow he described as a “desert wi’ windaes.”
You think of Connolly as “Billy,” with affection, a very funny man, a naturally funny man, a man who could be your drinking pal, the local joiner, always ready with a comic comment or an amusing anecdote. He only needs to enter a room, brush back his long locks with a sweep of his hand, and say “Hello, how’re yi doin’?” in that booze soaked crackle of a voice to have everybody chuckling.
A memorable joker, unmemorable jokes
It comes as a surprise to be told little of his material sticks in the mind. This is because his skill is not in coining one-liners. That’s Frankie Boyle’s skill or Kevin Bridges. What Connolly does is take a standard joke and elongate it, stretch it to twenty minutes or more with off-topic references, visual description, a self-deprecating remark or two, recasting elements, carefully timed repetition, a cuss word, and banter, usually with somebody in the audience. The punchline is almost icing on the cake.
There are lots like him, ordinary men funny as hell, naturally funny, still tradesmen of sorts, or retirees at the local pub, there with a well-edited story or joke, able to hold forth, domestic entertainers. Connolly managed by luck, the right aspiring confederates, and a pair of outlandish banana shaped boots, to create an eccentric character all his own, “Big Banana Feet” which eventually morphed affectionately into “The Big Yin.”
It is sad that he can’t bring himself to support the democratic cause of his own country. He lives abroad most of the time but unlike Sean Connery has never suffered the accusation that he’s a tax exile, yet he is exactly that, a tax exile.
His distrust of the Scot’s reputation for directness began when a trilogy of poorly written short plays he’d written flopped at Edinburgh’s International Arts Festival. He also starred in them. The critics savaged them, advising he should stick to what the gods had blessed him with – an acute observation of human behaviour, quirks, and attitudes, and the skill to illustrate them in words and comedy action.
The archetypical born performer.
Versatility has its limits. Connolly is not an actor. There are good actors, bad actors, and non-actors. I’d place him in the third category. He’s always Billy Connolly no matter what role he is playing. He’s tried his hand at everything but as soon as the audience look into his eyes the character he is playing disappears. We cannot suspend our disbelief because his eyes are smiling. He may as well wink at us, “Ah’m jist kiddin’ ‘n that’, yi know.” We want to laugh, loudly … but hold back because he’s playing a serious part. That said, we enjoy his worldwide success. He’s one of us.
There was a time when it seemed Connolly fronted almost every programme, documentary and play made in Scotland. It didn’t matter that he had no knowledge of the subject he was narrating. If a Scottish news item came up that might be spiced up by a quotation from Connolly he was duly interviewed. If a radio or television producer had Billy Connolly in his production a ton of publicity and high ratings were guaranteed. Connolly’s ability to entertain was all that was needed, a story teased out to thirty minutes, a risky joke on the Parkinson Show, or Connolly opining on anything was entertainment gold. His fame was riding high. Connolly became ubiquitous, in constant demand. Understandably a man begins to think his every sentence a string of pearls.
He shot to stardom with a long interview and a crude joke on the Michael Parkinson Show, and now announces he suffers from incurable Parkinson’s disease. There’s irony in that.
A cruel irony
His appearance on a recent late night USA chat show illustrated how much he had deteriorated physically. It was painful to watch. I prefer to remember him in his prime, on the stage in Glasgow, a full house packed to the gunnels, prancing up and down on the stage telling us about the cheated woman next door with “tartan legs” from sitting too long and too close to an electric fire.
In later career he produced his television shows through his own production company; insulted a section of society with a scabrious joke about a British man held hostage in Iraq and refused to apologise, and his wife, Pamela Stephenson, wrote a biography in which he owned up to some hard living and an abusive father. I wanted to tell him thousands of us had abusive fathers one way or another, and maybe making a song and dance about it late in life is far too late.
I had the privilege of working with him once. I had to collect him from his hotel half-a-mile from Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. He refused a taxi. I insisted, it was rush hour, the streets crowded. “Naw, away yi go. Ah’ll walk.”
To my astonishment (and embarrassment) he did walk, all the way up Lothian Road, making sure he was noticed, able and happy to return waves and whistles he attracted. Did he really need that recognition? Was it a kind of reassurance the Scots still liked him? Was he simply “giving back,” as they say, for our loyalty down the years?
Connolly was the main celebrity in the Amnesty International Charity Show. I had McGonagall’s epic poem on the Tay Rail Bridge disaster set to music, played by the Scottish National Orchestra. He spoke the poem over the music in a manner only Billy Connolly could, the highlight of his turn and the evening’s show. It was a great night.
I certainly don’t want to remember him betraying his fans and admirers in a single sentence. I don’t want it to be his only memorable punch line.