It’s a mighty long way from folk music in Partick to comedy in LA. Ann Donald traces the mercurial career of Billy Connolly.
ellies. wee-wees, willies and the intricacies of the human digestive system — mention these delicacies to any Scot over the age of 25 and inevitably the name Billy Connolly springs to mind. For this is the comedian who tapped into. not only Scotland’s funny bone. but its psyche. giving release to a stream of hitherto unmentionables and becoming. in some respects. the therapist of the nation.
The Big Yin aka The Big Yank aka The Big Yang (as he was recently dubbed after a dalliance with California karma) is now back on our screens. This time as professional Glasgow gangster. Jojo Donnelly, in Peter McDougall’s BBC] film Down Among The Big Boys.
Born in Anderston in 1942 and raised by his father and a ‘mad auntie’. the Socialist Clydeside welder turned banjo-playing Humblebum folkie rose to fame as a stand-up comedian and singer looking like ‘a tramp keeking out of a hayloft’ as his father observed. With his wildman hair and trademark goatee beard, he became the larger than life bawdy hard of bodily functions; a cruelly accurate observer of humanity, whose earthy lavvy humour struck a chord of recognition in his Scottish audience. During the 705 he gained a loyal and affectionate following, largely filling the role occupied today by Rab C. Nesbitt. with an act based on imitating his audience. ‘When they laugh at me.’ he said. ‘they’re laughing at themselves.’
By 1975 The Great Northern Welly Boot Show had been a rave success everywhere but Glasgow, he had had a Top 40 hit with ‘D.l.V.O.R.C.E.’ and his scatalogical humour had been captured at its peak in the documentary Big Banana Feet . It was also the year of his ﬁrst collaboration with Peter McDouga/l in the oft-praised BBC drama Just Another Saturday Night. By 1979 Connolly was stretching his wings still further with an operatic debut in Die Fleidermaus. This foray into serious theatre coupled with the national exposure gained from frequent appearances on his buddy Michael Parkinson’s chat-show throughout the 703. (often inducing apoplectic ﬁts in the BBC’s powers that be) meant that his Glaswegian banana boots were becoming increasingly restrictive.
His subsequent move to London incurred the wrath of the mean-minded faction of the ‘I knew yir faithir’ school who couldn’t accept the Big Yin Mk II: trimmed beard. Perrier drinking and vegetarian. Silencing these critics in 1983 Connolly said candidly, ‘those people don’t want progress and they never did’. Adding
3 The List 10-23 September 1993
poignantly: ‘lt suddenly dawned on me that I don’t belong to Glasgow anymore.’
The London-based Connolly continued to tour nationally and internationally. slotting in parts in the hoary old Gothic thriller Absolution in 1979 and the dismally non-hysterical Caribbean caper, Water in 1984. But the mid 80$ saw his professional career being overshadowed as his personal life was splattered daily across the tabloid front pages. The break-up of his first marriage and his subsequent relationship with Pamela Stephenson suddenly became hot copy, giving rise to an abrasive and rapidly spiralling relationship with the press that soured to such an extent recently that Connolly seethed: ‘Joumalists have done nothing but fuck me up for twenty years, write shite and lies about me.’
Billy Connolly: the therapist of a natlon?
When not in the news for his Sean Penn-like assaults on the press Connolly immersed himself in charity work, doing marathon bouts for Live Aid and Comic Relief. However, when it came to public notice that the self-proclaimed ‘l’ve always been an anarchist and I always will be an anarchist’ was a Royal chum, the cries of sell-out came fast and furious. Connolly’s response was typically caustic. ‘I don’t believe in a class system sol mix with them. They make me laugh and we have dinner and the kids play together.’
The trademark beard was shaved off in 1990 for his role in the film version of William Mclllvanney’s The Big Man . And not long after, in keeping with his zig-zag career of contradictions, Connolly signed up for thirteen