Billy Connolly’s Big Send Off, ITV, review: The Big Yin looks on the bright side of death


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The Independent Culture

If you think you're having a "bad week", compare it to one of Billy Connolly's. On the Tuesday he was told he'd require a hearing aid; on the Wednesday he was given pills for heartburn that he'll need to take for the rest of his life; and on the Thursday he received the news that "the rest of his life" might not quite be as lengthy as hitherto assumed since he had prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease.

As the Big Yin related in last night's ITV documentary Billy Connolly's Big Send Off, it was a Tasmanian surgeon who approached him in a hotel to say that, "I don't want to depress you but your gait would suggest you had early-onset Parkinson's." What's the etiquette about that exactly – about telling a stranger that they might have a degenerative condition?

All power to the accuracy of his prognosis though – rather more impressive than the woman who ventured of the 71-year-old comedian at a voodoo ceremony in New Orleans that, "You're not well, are you?" Since most people would have naturally asked what a film crew was doing at the ritual, and would have been told that it was that white-haired old fella over there making a film about death, this "guess" wasn't exactly like backing a 100-1 outsider to win the Grand National.

ITV has a roster of celebrities it likes to pack off on their travels, and Connolly's last ITV series had him exploring the iconic American highway Route 66. This time he was travelling to Hamlet's "undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns", although Connolly presumably had various first-class return tickets as he criss-crossed the US. For, as Evelyn Waugh had discovered when researching his 1948 novel The Loved One, America provides rich pickings for both funeral businesses and Brits wanting to have a good old scoff.

Not that Connolly is one of nature's scoffers and he doesn't mind being thought sentimental, and if I was a Californian mortician, I'd rather deal with him than be loomed over by the deeply enigmatic Louis Theroux. His openness and easy manner charmed the locals, whether it was hugging the owner of a drive-thru funeral parlour – with no need to get out the car as you pay your respects to embalmed loved ones – or a Texas funeral convention with stands selling such products as "Bereave Mints", zombie-proof steel coffins and (like something out of Hannibal), an eco-death suit complete with fungi spores.

Connolly didn't like the idea of being eaten by mushrooms. Happily, his cancer is considered non-fatal and hopefully he won't have to give the matter more serious consideration for a wee while yet.

The unfairly neglected BBC America (broadcast on BBC3 over here) sci-fi drama Orphan Black was one of my favourite shows of last year, and last night's episode was the second in the new series. It's starting to evolve a complex mythology so this might be the last chance for newcomers to get a foothold, but all you really need to know is that features several cloned "sisters" being hunted by a nefarious outfit that believes it has legal ownership of their DNA.

Each of the sisters, both good and bad, in this subversively feminist drama (which, unlike the relentlessly larky Doctor Who, maintains just the right ratio of humour to thrills) is played by the über-talented Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany. Nominated for a Golden Globe, many people thought Maslany should have won it – and she might be worth a punt in 2015.