When Billy Connolly tries out the stage of the new Scottish Exhibition Centre in Glasgow it will be something like the return of the
_ Prodigal Son — or so the Scottish press would like us to believe.
It is no secret that Billy Connolly is not on the best of terms with the media in Scotland. They have attacked him for the break up of his marriage, and for ‘deserting’ Scotland in favour of London. There have been rather catty remarks in the press this time round suggesting that Pamela Stephenson, Connolly‘s girlfriend and mother of his youngest child, Daisy, would have a better chance of ﬁlling theatres in Glasgow than Billy. The decision to cut the Glasgow part of the tour from three nights to two was received with a certain amountof glee. But for Connolly and a very large number of Scots who have followed the career ofthe Big Yin from small pub act to international star status, all this seems decidedly strange. ‘It’s not difﬁcult for me coming back to Scotland,’ Billy Connolly told me, ‘But the press, it’s sad; they do make it rougher than it could be.’
The attitude of the press is obviously of some concern; when asked why the Scottish papers write the things they do, the answer is certainly forthright and unlikely to repair fences- ‘Mainly because they are arseholes I imagine; overfed and underworked wankers. I think they have always resented the fact I made it very big in London and they didn‘t - because the big leap for them is Fleet Street and they’re not there. I think that’s about the size of it . . . They’re small time people.‘
In conversation Connolly is likely to be just as outrageous as on stage only without a large audience to play off it is difﬁcult to gauge his seriousness. But even on stage it is not always easy to tell when Connolly is merely making jokes and when his purpose is a serious one. Making it all the more difficult is the impression that he would rather say something on most occasions than nothing at all.
Life for Connolly is a continuous experience to be commented on. He was much in evidence at the Edinburgh Festival this year (Connolly is of course by no means a stranger to Scotland). I spotted him on the Mound commiserating loudly with a girl selling hand printed T-shirts whom the police had asked to move on. It was an incident that Connolly instantly recalled when I spoke to him last week asking if it was difﬁcult to walk about freely now that he is so famous.
‘They were cracking T-shirts . . . I ﬁnd it quite hard, but I insist on the right to be a normal human being. I’m famous because I‘m good at what Ido, and that’s fair enough. But. I refuse to be made a prisoner just because I’m famous.‘ Walking through the streets of Edinburgh often with Daisy on his shoulders is no problem for Billy (‘only ninnies don’t accept you’) but ‘walking out with Pamela can stop the traffic.’
Fame has had its effect; ‘As your life changes you draw on different resources but that’s what you are
With three important concert dates in Scotland in the next few weeks, Billy Connolly talks to Nigel Billen about how he keeps his humour fresh. Illustration by John Springs.
BOATING con NOLLY’S
supposed to do. It would be hypocritical of me to keep pretending l was a jolly working class chap — it would be phoney and boring. As my life changes I talk about the new things around me — it’s all I can do.’
Connolly’s method of writing is still one of observation — ‘There was a sort of misconception going round that all my material came from talking to likely lads in pubs and at football matches but it’s nonsense. It has always come from my experiences.’ For a big tour Connolly still relies on a small tour first where he can try out new material that starts as a piece of improvisation; ‘Some nights I go on and nothing new comes. I have done half an hour of totally new material - ten to fifteen minutes is a really great night’. What this technique has given Connolly is a fearless flexibility which allows him to cope with almost any audience, even American audiences who get ‘tired and upset if you’re on for more than half an hour — because of television they are used to getting their entertainment in three minute bursts.’
In the latest tour Connolly has allowed himself the indulgence of singing more of his serious songs (‘I used to ﬁnd it really difficult to find a place to fit my music because people kept waiting for the laughs. Now I use a different stage and it has gone down in this tour real well’), but despite hit records, in essence Billy Connolly’s style is very much as it has always been.
Connolly is still the master of the new breed of stand up comics who don ’t tell jokes. Despite frequent requests to make television series, Connolly’s appearances on the small screen, even more so since the demise of the Parkinson show, are comparatively rare events. Now they seem limited to special guest appearance on programmes such as The Kenny Everett Show; ‘I don’t actually like doing television. I liked working with Kenny because he’s a nice man and he and I have the same ideas. He hates rehearsing and comedy shouldn’t be rehearsed. The
people in television are so dull - they insist on rehearsing because they are all frightened. You do something eight times and by the time you ﬁnish it you hate it.’ The criticism of Connolly’s performance in the televised Festival of Nether Wallop are explained away by Connolly with reference to the twin evils and television and the press. It was the press who took umbrage at Connolly’s language not the people who saw the live show. ‘It is the kind of criticism I’m always getting from people who don’t go anywhere to see anything and don’t actually know how comedy operates because they take it from television. If you conduct your life according to television I suggest you are in big shit. Comedy is the biggest failure on television. Sport like snooker and darts have gained from television and so too, with people like Magnus Pyke and David Bellamy has science and conservation. Rock and roll has gained because of video but comedy has gone backwards; when you watch comedy on television it’s like watching the Dennis Norden Show.’ Gradually, however television does seem to be ﬁnding ways of incorporating the maverick talent of Billy Connolly. On October 26 Channel 4 screens An Audience with Billy Connolly — a style of programme that genuinely allows the comic to be spontaneous. ‘It was great, but nerve-racking. Every time you opened your eyes there was a legend looking back at you’. But for Connolly it wasn’t the celebrities ﬁring questions that provided the high moment of the show. Rather it was his own performance; ‘I was ﬂying for about an hour and ﬁfteen minutes before I allowed anyone to get in a question. It went from the peak of a comedy show to the start of a chat show; the editing should be really interesting’. This isn’t the only television performance he has enjoyed in recent weeks. Already recorded is Channel 4’s alternative Hogmanay show in which Connolly got the chance to work with fellow Scots comic, Robbie Coltraine for the first time. The two apparently hit
it off, fuelling rumours that they might team up in a television series recreating the scurrilous characters Ollie and Wally McCauley. But this is going too far. Coltraine may have ‘a great future ahead of him’ but nobody has suggested it is going to drag Connolly into a television series
Occasionally Connolly’s dislike of television seems symptomatic of a lack of direction in his comedy - where does he go from here? Connolly has, to some acclaim, taken on serious acting roles — roles that included his naked appearance in the West end production of the Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B; he is concentrating to a greater extent on writing- immediately after his tour is over he has to complete the ﬁnal draft of a play based on the Glasgow he remembers (‘or I think I remember’) A Day in the Green Place for the BBC.
However, any lack of direction is an illusion. His itinerant comic life style, The Wreck on tour as he has it in his publicity, is exactly what he wants to do and is his constant challenge. I asked him whether he thought he had changed British Comedy - ‘I’d love to think so, but I’m not really sure. Alexei Sayle once said something about me in a magazine. He sort of blamed me for the whole uprising of the new style comedian, which I took as a great compliment but I don’t know if it is terribly true. There were a few guys I doing it at the time, but I think I was the first to get famous so a lot of people looked up to me. At least I hope so. I hope there are young guys , in school now who would like to be a a comedian and are taking me as a role 5 model’. i
It is not a small ambition for Connolly to want to be a good comedian. He has made it his life and sees no reason why others shouldn’t set themselves similar goals. ‘It would be a good thing for Scotland because so many Scottish comedians up to now have been good only for summer season and panto. Because the Scot is a funny, romantic, poetic kind of person and not the same as a Northern Club comedian, it isn’t really good enough’.
You don’t necessarily agree with everything Billy Connolly says or necessarily find it funny either on stage or off, but in the end, and to the frustration of the press, it is very hard not to like him, or his honest down-to-earth arrogance. ..‘I tend to sound a bit belligerent sometimes but I really feel very strongly about my humour and my Scottishness. I come under such fire for that. The press never seem to see the positive side of it, that I’m filling theatres with regular, ordinary pe0ple. I’ve never looked on myself as an ambassador for Scotland; I do what I do because I have to. It’s a vocational thing comedy. You’re sort of driven to it.‘
Billy Connolly can be seen in An Audience with Billy Connolly Channel Four on Sat 26 Oct at 11 pm and will be performing live in Edinburgh on 31 Oct at The Playhouse and in Glasgow at the Scottish Exhibition Centre on 6 and 7 Nov.
The List 18—31 October 7