Nothing to Hyde

Billy Connolly has lost none of his rage, either in his act or in his perspective on life. Just perfect for his new TV role...

Billy Connolly should be knighted for services to the green ink industry. He must have singlehandedly kept it going as indignant correspondents flooded the BBC with complaints about Billy Connolly's World Tour of Australia, his pre-Christmas series. The series - with its Tarantino levels of swearing - was responsible for a third of all complaints to the Corporation in the last three months of 1996 and helped contribute to a 500 per cent increase on the last quarter. Chris Morris, eat your heart out.

Connolly has an amazing capacity to laugh this off - and much else besides. "Newspapers call me a `foul-mouthed, vulgarian millionaire'," he says, "and people are always writing to me, `Why, oh why, did you have to spoil an otherwise excellent show with that torrent of filth?' They must hand out fuckometers with the Catholic Herald. But those people are wallies. You mustn't conduct your life according to their wishes - they're freaks. Swearing is an integral part of what I do. It's a rhythmic thing, it's got nothing to do with language, good or bad. It creates a certain atmosphere that I like. If people say to me, `I don't like the way you swear,' I say, `Fuck off and go and listen to someone who's won the Perrier Award instead. You'll die of boredom, but at least they won't be swearing at you.'"

Age has done nothing to dim the rage that burns within Connolly. He admits that he goes on stage fuelled by "coffee and anger", and the red mist visibly descends from time to time - he spent much of his London stage- show in January recounting with relish how he had recently decked a Scottish tabloid photographer. It's ardour that fires him and maintains his position - at the grand old age of 54 - as our most mesmeric live performer. Which other stand-up can hold an audience uninterrupted for two hours-plus and make them forget all about their jobs, their babysitters, time itself?

Sitting eating a bowl of soup in a film studio canteen, his large, beardless face looms over the table and erupts into raucous laughter at the slightest prompting. Wearing a denim shirt with logos of Daffy Duck on the buttons, he is a livewire from the moment we are introduced.

"Rampton? Isn't that some kind of institution for the criminally insane? They should name a place the Connolly Hospital for the Criminally Negligent." He is liable at any moment to send the cutlery flying as he leaps up to illustrate a rant about Internet nerds ("the lovely thing about the Internet is that nobody can see your anorak"), or perform the dance-routine to his song, "In the Brownies". Once the dam has been breached, no amount of polite cajoling from a patient PA can stem the flood of stories and steer him back on set. It's very much a Royal Command Performance for An Invited Audience of One. The man has more life force than he knows what to do with.

He would be the first to say that he is still driven by a wild streak. To prove his point, he lifts his shirt to show me the nipples he's just had pierced. "You become untouchable when you're 50. It's wonderful," he smiles. "I'm now becoming much more anarchic, the way I was in my early twenties when I actually wanted to be an anarchist but was too scared to ask. They used to drink at the other end of the pub, the anarchists, and I thought, `You can't ask to join because you can't have a society if you're an anarchist.' Now I've become very disillusioned with organised religion and organised politics."

It was this iconoclastic view that attracted him to the role of Deacon Brodie, which he plays in a Screen One to be broadcast on Saturday. A well-known 18th-century figure in Edinburgh, where a pub is named after him, Brodie lived a double life; by day, he was a respectable town councillor and locksmith, by night, a master criminal, plotting to raid the city's customs and excise house. Brodie's archetypal duality inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Connolly plays him with a menacing twinkle.

He takes a sip of soup and muses that he was lured to take BBC wages and endure the indignity of a period periwig by the fact that Brodie "is rogueishly sexy. He's got a soul. He's a good laugh, and he gave a lot of money back that he stole. It was a game. I like people who live a little. He didn't need the money; he was deflating people when he was stealing from them. I love deflating the pompous. I try to make a lifestyle out of it."

Indeed, much of Connolly's stage-act resounds to the noise of egos being punctured. "I deflate everything that frightens me," he says, "and the pompous often frighten me. The pompous sound like everyone who's ever had power over me. I'm now in a position where very few people have power over me, and so I like to lash out at everything that irritates me."

At the very top of the list of irritants are journalists - a condition that has been in existence since he caught one doorstepping his wife and gave him a right-hander. "During my divorce," he says, "they were incredibly cruel and just lied. Like I was the guy who ran away with the big blonde and deserted his wife; life doesn't work like that, and they know it. So I chose not to talk to them. If they apologise to me for all the shite they've written about me, then I'll talk to them."

The other group that get Connolly's goat are the (mainly Scottish) Jeremiahs who accuse him of selling out. The house next door to David Hockney in Hollywood and the friendship with the Duke and Duchess of York only serve to increase these people's ire. Connolly has little time for them. "I did my folk club days and they were nice, but the bigger it got, the better I liked it. The small clubs don't have any soul that the big rooms don't have - that's a myth usually spread by people who can't get out of the clubs. They've read the notice outside my concerts - `sold out'. That's where their jealousy comes from."

Famously, he approaches these concerts with nothing down on paper. Connolly is - unusually - at a loss to explain what occurs during his live act. "I read an article on Robin Williams and screamed out loud because I thought I was the only one in the world it happened to. He said, `Sometimes I'm on stage and something comes into my head. I say it, everybody falls about, and I think, where did that come from?' My daughter Daisy said to me, `You're a com-medium.' That's exactly what I am. What you do is you fill your head with stuff - you constantly read, go to the movies, watch TV and talk to people. You absorb, absorb, absorb, and it comes out in the weirdest forms. It's a bit like dreaming - you unload it on the world."

For the future, Connolly has no set plans. He claims to be "the least ambitious person in the world. I sit at home and play the banjo. I read, meditate, look out of the window. Left to my own devices, I'd do it till the day I die. There are comedy awards here I believe. I've never seen the programme, but somebody phoned the office and asked if I'd accept the Lifetime Achievement Award. I said, `Yeah, but I'll be in Australia on the day', so they gave it to somebody else. So I can't have achieved anything at all. I guess I'm a non-achiever, but I'm thoroughly happy about that."

Loud, opinionated, spiky, yet utterly charismatic, Connolly is something of a latterday punk, content to continue creating anarchy for the UK. "If you can't apply logic to something, I find it very attractive," he says. "Logic is a pain in the arse. Abstract art, for instance, confuses people terribly. Abstract is a celebration of the absence of logic. The press don't like that. They're scared of a pile of bricks because they can't put a price on it. More piles of bricks, I say"n

`Deacon Brodie' is on BBC1 at 9pm on Sat

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