in britoh es
Comedian Billy Connolly is to be hung high as one of Edinburgh’s most legendary rogues, Deacon Brodie. But will he do it convincingly? Eddie Gibb salutes the Big Yin in the BBC’s latest wig-and-britches drama.
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creenwriter Simon Donald’s wig- and-britches romp through the narrow closes of Edinburgh’s Old
Deacon Brodie is, by his own admission. largely a vehicle for the talents of comedian Billy Connolly. Why Connolly, an ex-apprentice welder from the Govan shipyards. should be an obvious choice to play a late-18th century cabinet maker and respected — if not entirely respectable — Edinburgh town councillor. must remain a mystery of television casting.
The fact is that Connolly does play Brodie in the BBC’s feature-length drama based on the legendary Edinburgh rogue. But perhaps it is more fruitful to consider this from the reverse angle. Despite the frock-coat and tri- corn hat of the
gentleman, Deacon Brodie looks like Billy Connolly,
sounds like Billy Connolly and to all intents and purposes is Billy Connolly. Even the back- combed hairstyle could have been the result of Connolly’s recent spin round Australia on his trike. In short. Connolly plays himself as he generally does.
Dual personality: Billy Connolly surrounded by troops tn Deacon Brodie
Town in pursuit of the story of
‘There were reports of Brodie being sighted in Paris a year after he was hanged but they never exhumed him period so "Obady knows Whether he who is so in love with him that did heat the gallows.’
DEACON BRODIE FEATURE
‘You can try and cast charisma, but if you can’t get someone who’s got it, then it is hard to act it,’ says Simon Donald, who scripted and acted in Deacon Brodie. ‘You ask yourself why did nice people stick round Brodie. what’s in it for them? What was in it for them is the guy has got that kind of sparkle that Connolly has, which is so rare. I wrote it so he would have this presence that would affect everybody around him. and that’s such a useful thing to have in a lead character.’
Judged as a piece of serious, historical drama. Deacon Brodie falls ﬂat, but this is television entertainment and Donald is right — Connolly does have the charisma to carry the show. And given that the recorded facts about Brodie are sketchy, it seems reasonable to have a little bit of knockabout fun embroidering the life of a man who has passed into legend. An alternative title might have been ‘Carry On Gardeloo‘.
The bare bones of the story are these. Brodie’s father was a wealthy wright and cabinetmaker whose booming business in the Lawnmarket passed to his son. Leading a double life which is believed to be an inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde published 100 years later, Brodie sat as a town councillor by day and indulged his appetite for whores by night.
In Deacon Brodie, our hero’s favourite bit of petticoat is Annie Grant, a prostitute who bears his child and wants to marry him. She is played by Catherine McCormack, an English actress who was called on to adopt a Scottish accent again after playing Mel Gibson’s childhood love in Braveheart. ‘Annic is a woman
every time you see her she’s fallen further — it’s the gradual decline of her mind,’ says McCormack. ‘It’s unrequited love and she ends up going mad.’
The Deacon has other problems, however. He falls in with the company of thieves and becomes the brains behind a series of audacious and high profile burglaries which later rocked the Edinburgh establishment. Donald believes these were conducted as much for the thrill as a need for money. Connolly plays Brodie’s perverser innocent delight in illegal activity with much the same bravado as he brought to Jojo, the old-school Glasgow crime boss in Peter McDougall’s I993 TV film Down Among The Big Boys.
But just as sometimes happens in contemporary Glasgow gangland, someone broke the criminal code of silence, and Brodie was lingered for a raid on the excise ofﬁce and ended up walking to the gallows in 1788. One story has it that these were gallows of his own devising, and though apparently not true, Brodie had been lobbying the council to adopt a revolutionary design which would reliably and humanely despatch the condemned man to the next life.
‘There’s all this stuff about how he designed the gallows he was hanged on, and the legend of how he came back from the dead,’ says Donald. ‘There were reports of him being sighted in Paris a year after he was hanged but they never exhumed him so nobody knows whether he did beat the gallows. It’s quite possible.’
Whatever, at least he got a pub named after him.
Deacon Brodie will be broadcast by the BBC in the near future.
The List lO-23 .lan 199717