Profile: No mercy for the Big Man: Billy Connolly, the comedian Scotland can't forgive

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'I F YOU LEAVE Scotland,' said a friend of Billy Connolly, 'then get successful and come back, it's Who do you think you are? If you don't make it and come back, they say, I could have told you you needn't have bothered.' The trouble with Billy Connolly is that his native Scotland can't decide which category he's in.

There shouldn't be much doubt: the boy from the respectable, if broken, home in the working-class Glasgow district of Partick is rich and famous, commutes between California and, implausibly, Maidenhead. He lunches with Elton John and parties with the Duchess of York. It looks like a clear case of Who do you think you are? But so venomous is the relationship between Scotland's most famous comedian and that other self-appointed custodian of Scottish working-class mythology, the Scottish popular press, that it can scarcely be accommodated within the habitual accusations of treasonable behaviour. For the Scottish tabloids, Billy Connolly has not just sold out, abandoned his wife, his roots and his mother: he has failed as well.

Where has he failed? He has manifestly failed to fulfil the destiny his stage character demands: he is neither an alcoholic nor a disappointed man; he does not appear lonely or embittered. There is no tragedy waiting around the next corner. If he had just gone away, shaken the dust of Scotland off his feet and lived a life of sybaritic exile in Gomorrafornia, it would have been better. A complete absence would allow a free hand in the creation of a myth of long-distance misery. But the man keeps coming back, popping up looking fit and cheerful and popular.

His latest tour is running now as a six-part series on BBC 1, Billy Connolly's World Tour of Scotland. His audiences packed the halls from the south-west to the north-east and rocked with laughter, much as they always did.

Connolly has failed to act out that most beloved of Scottish prophecies: get above yourself and a jealous God will destroy you. He is not crushed by guilt at his success. For that sin there is no forgiveness.

Billy Connolly knows about Scottish sins. He was brought up with the jealous God and informing angels of Glasgow Catholicism. His mother abandoned the family when he was five and two aunts - resentfully, by his account - were propelled into the breach. A version of what it was like has been acted out on stage for more than 20 years: the men drank, the women railed, the kids dreamt of taking ship on any of the liners that crowded the Clyde when it was still a combination of factory and highway to the world. Connolly crossed it on the ferry every day to school, listening to the sound of the shipyards and watching the ships that came in from places with wonderful names.

Now the great river has been heritaged and that Glasgow has gone, but in it Connolly developed the survival strategy that provided his own ticket out: being funny.

In a city where one bus conductor in two is a comedian, it's not that easy to stand out. For a while Connolly seemed bound to the escalator that took boys from the streets to the shipyards. School was no great success and he was apprenticed as a welder in the Govan shipyards. 'There were a lot of people like him in Glasgow,' said a friend. 'I knew them in the shipyards myself. When Billy began to make it they'd say That's my joke the bastard's telling. And maybe it was, but he was the one who had the bottle to stand up on a stage and tell it.' Other apprentice boys made it in other ways: Gus Macdonald went into journalism and is now managing director of Scottish Television. When Connolly talks today about the drive to perform, he describes the child inside, compensating for other miseries. As a young man, it was the straightforward desire for fame that drive him. Hamish Imlach, the folk singer, tells a story about Connolly and a girl walking through Glasgow. The girl pointed out a man dressed in cowboy boots and hat, with a leather jacket and tailored jeans. 'That's Alex Campbell, the folk singer,' she said. And Connolly thought: 'Nobody ever says there's Billy Connolly, the welder.' As insights go, it may not be profound, but part of Billy Connolly's appeal is the nave frankness of his ambitions. Fame? Money? Grand hotels? You bet he wanted them.

Not that they were immediately on offer when he left the shipyards in 1966 to be a singer. He worked with three groups before making a reputation with Gerry Rafferty's group, the Humblebums. He and Rafferty fell out: Rafferty was a singer who hated the chat; Connolly's chat got longer and longer. Connolly then tried to make it in Europe as a folk singer and was such a resounding failure that 1970 saw him in a cold-water flat in north London with his friends buying him pints. He took his banjo back to the folk circuit in Scotland and the introductions to the songs continued to grow. From there it was steadily up, through the Great Northern Welly Boot Show on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the release of the first albums that became huge sellers and a triumphant Sunday night at the London Palladium, booked for a one-off and packed by expatriate Scots who thronged to see the man who had turned patter into an art form and become a hero.

He became a kind of shrine: politicians jostled to be photographed with him and Glasgow's Sunday Mail started a Big Yin cartoon strip. Willie Ormond, the manager of the Scottish football team, flew him over to Munich to administer an emergency dose of humour when the lads were getting depressed in the 1974 World Cup finals and Pastor Jack Glass, Glasgow's Ian Paisley, led demonstrations against Connolly's blasphemy. In London, Michael Parkinson took him up and set the metropolitan seal of approval on his success.

In the first moments of fame, being available was part of it. To walk into a chip shop in Aberdeen and cause delirium behind the counter kept telling him he was getting somewhere. But it soon began to be a problem, being a hero among the people. Bobby Campbell, another former apprentice boy turned folk singer, now associate editor of the Scotsman, recalled: 'He had a flat in Glasgow and these jokers would come out of the pub at two in the morning and think Let's go and see Billy, so they'd ring the bell with a crate of Irn Bru, wanting to tell him jokes about nuns.' So the Glasgow flat was exchanged for a country manor in Drymen, on the outskirts, with his wife, Iris and two small children.

The real trouble began in the late Seventies when the marriage began to break up and the popular press thought it was Christmas. When Connolly came home to find a Sunday People reporter doorstepping his wife, he hit him. When they began to camp outside the flat of Pamela Stephenson, the comedy star he married after his messy divorce from Iris, he swore at them. They have been swearing back ever since.

Connolly's estranged mother, who had come backstage at the Ashfield Club in Glasgow in 1972 and asked 'Which one of you is Billy Connolly. I think I'm your mother,' told the story of her disappointment in her son to the Sunday Mail. Connolly left Scotland and has never lived there since.

The years that followed, in the view of the Connolly cognoscenti, were not the best. For a while the scatological vein, which in vintage Connolly is like the spice that points up the flavour, took over and the sharpness was lost. Connolly and Stephenson moved to California, had three children and tried to recreate the celebrity there with mixed success: a comedy series, Billy, was axed after 13 shows. Various excursions into celluloid have died ignominious deaths.

But it requires the eye of malice to regard this as obscurity. Malice there is in plenty, fed by the couple's much decried friendship in the Eighties with the Yorks and the Waleses and Connolly's refusal to apologise for that or anything else. If America has disappointed him professionally, he doesn't seem to feel it: he has a show on cable, still hopes to make it as a serious actor and has regularly returned to Scotland to see old friends and to work up new material on tour.

The current TV series is a curious business. It confirms that his elemental genius as a performer is more than intact, but poses more questions than it answers about Connolly's relationship with Scotland. The offstage sequences, which take up much of the time, are a celebration of the Scotland of the tourist brochure: the helicopter shots of luscious landscape and romantic castles, of quaint locals produced like stage props for a whisky advertisement. It is the Scotland of the man who has moved out of the city.

Connolly's old friends say he is the man they remember, only richer and a touch more guarded. He is loyal to his friends, but the bruising of the early years has left him thin-skinned and prone to take offence. 'There is always,' said one old friend, 'a percentage of the eye movement that's ready for trouble. Who's that over there? Who are you looking at? I think there is also, in every working-class boy who made it, a feeling that never quite leaves you. It's just not the others asking, What right do you have to be there? There's a bit of you that asks it, too.'