Billy Connolly is Scotland’s third most famous individual. That must irk him. That and knowing the other guy was a better actor if not as funny, and the other plays better tennis. Neverthless, he is unique. Like many another gifted comic the autumn of his life is blighted by illness but he handles it with admirable bravery and humour.
Awe, geeza brek, an’ tha’
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 sorrowful medical condition to badger an opinion out of him when he is, as now, vulnerable, suffering the onset of Parkinson’s disease, and periodic memory loss.
Asked about his view on independence, Connolly gave an elliptical answer. He thought 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.” That is the old, we are all human, argument, which is indisputable, only it has absolutely nothing to do with the intricacies of a nation’s civil and constitutional progress.
In what appeared a final determined attempt to impale himself permanently on the fence, he’s quoted as saying, “I don’t like patriots. I am deeply suspicious of patriotism.” Well, you shrug your shoulders; his comment is self-protection, and anyhow, Connolly isn’t known for his philosophical dissertations. (He appeared to alter his opinion in 2018 – see NOTES, at foot of essay.)
Connolly became famous overnight for telling a heavily misogynist, borrowed joke on his first appearance on the Michael Parkinson Show. The visual imagery of the punchline was hilariously funny, but the joke itself was in poor taste, an indication of a lot of his ‘jobby’ humour to come.
The day after he told the joke he woke up to serious fame. BBC Scotland had pushed him hard to the network as a new talent, and as soon as their judgement was confirmed it seemed as if he was contracted to front every programme ever made. If a producer had proposed a documentary on be-headings of the French Revolution you could be certain it got the green light if Connolly was the presenter.
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, it was watchable because it was ‘Billy’ at the front of the camera. Connolly sold anything. He was the Harry Lauder of stage and screen.
A distance well sign-posted
As with other successful talents made in Scotland, Connolly’s inability to identify wholeheartedly with his homeland began early. The first inkling of his rush to protect his reputation 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, Malky McCormack, 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. McCormack, soon lost his commission on the newspaper, and did not recover from being blackballed for some years.
McCormack took it for granted a man of the people, a man from working class stock, would be a home rule supporter, or if not, then something of a rebel against Anglo rule. Connolly was a UK-national personality. There and then he decided an apolitical image protected his income. But it was the vehemence with which he reacted that jolted us.
Connolly demanded the tattoo removed immediately, 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 the average Scot, denying his homeland seems bizarre and certainly ungenerous.
He didn’t travel well
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 brief period.
He has lots of shipyard anecdotes to tell, some not his own. To a great extent, using borrowed stories and incidents as his core material has been his livelihood. He once told a story about his time in the Boy Scouts, a borrowed anecdote. I know it was purloined because it is was mine, from my own experience. When was a hard-drinking, hard living, shipyard worker ever in the Boy Scouts, Boys Brigade, perhaps, Scouts never. (It was a shock to hear it repeated on the Parkinson show.) Still, what an honour to have my anecdote retold by a great comic, and me unpaid.
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. With the onset of Parkinson’s disease his life is now profoundly constrained.
Hobnobbing with celebrity
In his heyday he was a supreme comedian with a raw untutored talent for mime, a gift he 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. But Bruce was political, he took a scalpel to a target not a tickling stick.
“If you believe that there is a god, a god that made your body, and yet you think that you can do anything with your body that’s dirty, then the fault lies with the manufacturer.” Lenny Bruce
Curiously, unlike Bruce, it is difficult to recall a single memorable utterance Connolly ever coined with one notable exception. Unforgiveably, he decribed Scotland’s parliament as a ‘pretendy’ parliament’. On second thoughts, there is one that might be fit to remember, a poverty-stricken housing scheme in Glasgow he described as a “desert wi’ windaes.” I enjoyed that remark.
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.
As time went by, the working class who idolised him began to resent used as an Aunt Sally, and he shifted to a mixture of poking fun at Scotland’s middle class pretensions and caricaturing working class values. Feste the jester became safe. We could all enjoy his quips and stories and assume he was poking fun at the other guy.
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 Bridge’s.
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 bits, carefully timed repetition, a cuss word and banter with the audience. The punchline that arrives in due course releases the pent-up laughter.
Connolly managed by luck, and the right aspiring confederates, plus 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.”
He lives abroad most of the life, but unlike Sean Connery he has never suffered the accusation that he’s a tax exile, yet he is exactly that, a tax exile.
Not a writer
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. He was not pleased, and that’s being discreet about his response!
The typical 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 every sort of character but as soon as we the audience look into his eyes, suspending our disbelief evaporates. He may as well wink at us, “Ah’m jist kiddin’ ‘n that’, yi know.” That said, we enjoy his worldwide success. He’s one of us.
Connolly is a performer not an enterpreter. Many a stand-up comedian will name him as their guide and inspiration, the originator of the genre, but he’s that very old thing, a classical Shakespearean clown, Feste, the one making fart jokes, miming poo dumped in your doublet and hose.
Connolly’s ability to entertain was guaranteed. He was entertainment gold. Connolly became ubiquitous, in constant demand. Understandably a man begins to think his every sentence a string of pearls.
He got his portrait painted by John Byrne, eulogised by fellow comedians, interviewed by everybody who was anybody. He shot to stardom with a long interview and a crude joke on the Michael Parkinson Show, and now 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. These days he makes light of his debilitating illness. I prefer to remember him in his prime, on the Glasgow stage, a full house packed to the gunnels, prancing up and down telling us about the cheated woman next door with “tartan legs” from sitting too long 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. 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.
Working with him
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 for a charity show I had produced. He refused a taxi. I insisted, it was rush hour, the streets crowded. “Naw, away yi go. Ah’ll walk” he said.
To my astonishment (and embarrassment) he did walk, all the way up Lothian Road, making sure he was noticed, 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 that night. 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’ll remember him for that. 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 line.
In October, 2018, the press reported Connolly suggesting the time was perhaps right to consider independence on the basis of Scotland getting pulled out of Europe against the will of the people. At the time of writing this, no enlargement of that remark came from him or any explanation of the sea change in attitude. In 2021 Connolly announced his retirement from stand-up comedy.