Monday, 23 July 2012

Billy Connolly on Brave, betrayal and the buzz of stand-up

Interview by Herald Scotland
The guitar man waits backstage, having a beer and a fag and a moment. The fingers holding the cigarette are stubby and calloused. When they go under the spotlight these hands will be transformed, like the rest of the guitar man, into objects of grace. No sun was ever warmer than that light. Stuff the past where the sun don't shine; all that matters is now.

Watching Big Banana Feet, David Peat's documentary about Billy Connolly's tour of Belfast and Dublin, one is struck by the sheer bloody nerve of the man. It is the fear-ingrained 1970s in Northern Ireland, but gallus doesn't begin to describe it as Connolly walks through a guard of squaddies to reach the stage, or deals with the heckler who shouts "IRA" at him. "That's really brave," Connolly bats back. "I'd love to see you do that at Ibrox."

Decades later it will emerge that dozens of weapons had been confiscated from the audience, and that the Special Branch officer assigned to protect him was so drunk most of the time Connolly was sure he was going to be shot by accident.

Today, Belfast is a different place and Connolly is in a different place – 10,500 miles away in Sydney, Australia, to be exact. That's about as close as he likes to get to the Scottish press these days. But he has said yes to a telephone interview with The Herald Magazine and, in honour of the occasion, and in keeping with the 5.30am hour, I'm wearing my best pyjamas. History does not relate what the other party is wearing. Given Connolly's sartorial track record of Lycra bodysuits and electric pink trews, I don't ask.

He is on the line to talk about Brave, the new Disney/Pixar animated film set in the Highlands. Over the course of a chat that runs over time we also take in snow globes, education, independence, the Scottish media, hecklers, the tango, and the joys of turning 70. Oh, and the matter of Rangers comes up as well. Ally McCoist may want to read on.

In Brave, Connolly is the voice of King Fergus, father to Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a princess who rebels against convention only to reap terrible consequences. The latest in a long line of gorgeously rendered Pixar spectaculars including Toy Story and Finding Nemo, Brave is manna from heaven to VisitScotland, which is spending £7 million on an advertising campaign piggybacking the film, and to the Scottish Government, which has its own reasons for wanting to see Scotland depicted as the home of brave hearts.

Like the rest of the Scots cast, Connolly was encouraged to add to the script. "All my favourite words, like sleekit and glaikit," he says. "Sleekit must be my favourite of all Scottish words."

From Brigadoon to Local Hero, cinema has drunk deep from Scotland's spring. Scotland the brand sells globally, says Connolly, because it is spectacular to look at and "it makes a noise". He doesn't just mean bagpipes. "The fiddle music and the singing and the Gaelic singing, the poetry of Scotland, the general ambience. It's fantastic and undersold. They tend to sell a wee tiny bit of it. A thing that's always amazed me in Scotland is that, like the Irish, the Scots buy the tourist bulls*** for themselves. A wee kiltie in a snow globe, you'll find it in a Scottish house.

"They bought into the Loch Ness monster and Scotland The Brave and all that, and missed out on what's actually there and belongs to them. When people hear the real thing they treat it the way they treat single-malt whisky – they can't believe how nice it is."

Connolly did not come over for the film's Edinburgh International Film Festival première as he was in New Zealand filming The Hobbit (hence the dawn phone call to Australia, where he was having a break). Perhaps it is just as well, given that he would have had to share a red carpet with Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister. Just as New Labour didn't "do" God, and dogs don't "do" cats, so Connolly doesn't "do" nationalism.

Describing himself as "an old hippie", he says, "I don't like nationalism, I think it's a backward step. It's time the world got together, not separated. It's a kind of utopian idea I work on. We've got much more in common than we have apart." Just in case the Better Together campaign think their lottery numbers have come up, Connolly, who still has a home in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, will not be getting involved with any campaign to preserve the Union.

"You find yourself in bed with some horrible people," he says by way of explanation. Speaking of horrible people, I say, let's get on to you and the Scottish press. His laughter blows down the line and across continents. Does he hate the Scottish press? "I don't hate them, I just have nothing to do with them."

The cuttings file is full of spats between Connolly and the ink mob. "His hostility is an occupational hazard for any reporter who goes near him," sighed The Herald after one attempt at an interview in 1992.

I remember the stories, especially around the time his first marriage broke up. Of his children being approached near their home in Drymen and asked about their mum and dad's separation. Of his mother, the mother who abandoned him, talking to the press. Connolly, in his time, has sold a lot of papers. I know why he might have a beef, but I ask him anyway. This time it's a splutter of disbelief coming down the line.

"You know why, you can't be blind. I just don't trust them. I think I have very, very good reason not to trust them. If you go back through the cuttings of every Scottish newspaper you'll find all my reasons for not trusting them. What I've found over the years is I've trusted people and they've really let me down. I've said, 'Och, let's let bygones be bygones,' and I talk to them, then they come out with a load of s*** about me. I think, 'Oh, come on, not again.'"

Even in Big Banana Feet, when, like any new face, he should have been courting publicity, Connolly is clearly wary of journalists. This wariness was soon to turn to warfare. It is not just the media. Over the years, parts of the Scottish public, too, have wondered whether Connolly, with his celebrity and royal pals, had become too big for his banana boots. Connolly is like Andy Murray in reverse, embraced by the Home Counties, viewed sceptically by the home crowd.

If you were not brought up in a Scotland where scything tall poppies is a national sport second only to football, such a take on Connolly and his success would be absurd. Far from Connolly having a hang-up about his roots, it could be argued that Scotland has a hang-up about Connolly because of his roots. Instead of being something to be applauded, his success sometimes aroused hostility. Who did this long streak of swagger think he was?

Connolly did get above himself. Survival dictated that he had to. When you are born on the floor of a room and kitchen in Anderston, when you have the kind of childhood he had, the only way is up. As for his achievements, here is the guy who didn't just practise stand-up comedy, he was one of its founding fathers. What did Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks ever have to say about tenement life in Glasgow? When did they ever have an audience not crying with self-pity but greetin' with laughter? In a Channel 4 list of the top 100 comedians, Connolly, by common consent of his peers, was voted No.1. (Of the current generation of comedians, Connolly singles out Clydebank's Kevin Bridges as "brilliant".)

Connolly's staunchest defender, besides his beloved sister Florence, has been his second wife, the comedian-turned-psychologist Pamela Stephenson. Stephenson, with whom he has three daughters to add to a son and daughter from his first marriage, wrote Billy, a candid biography of her husband. Though it has a touch of the Stanley and Livingstone in places – she calls the Barras "a bustling place for street vending" and the Saracen's Head pub "charming" – it is an astute book that shines with love and insight. It was Stephenson's biography that ripped the scab from Connolly's early days: the abandonment, the beatings from his aunt, the molestation by his father and, later, his own drinking. It is a dreadful story, but by the end it becomes a tale of victory. Stephenson, he agrees, saved his life. "She took the place of my big sister," he laughs. "I've always needed a roadie, somebody to look after me."

What he said to his wife for the book aside, you will never find Connolly speaking of his childhood traumas. Self-pity comes under the same category as the press, as I find out when I ask about his school days while we're talking about the work of the Celtic Foundation charity, of which he is patron. Connolly says there is something special about the club's charity work, and particularly the way it helps people back into school. "That really appeals to me."

That would suggest he got a bad deal from the Scottish education system, but he's not having that. "Anything that didn't happen to me was my own fault," he says. "I didn't try a leg. I don't think it was all totally my fault but I think I've got the kind of brain that doesn't respond to certain ways of teaching."

He left school to work in John Smith's bookshop then at Bilslands Bread. Next stop, his comedy home, the shipyards. "I was very happy," he says. "I was a happy welder. I didn't feel as if something terrible had happened to me when I became a welder. I didn't lie around wishing I was a history teacher."

All that is history now, but it still informs the way Connolly works. It was the shipyards, he said, that taught him a skill more useful (and lucrative) than welding – "how to be funny without telling a joke".

We move on to what is happening with Rangers. As a Celtic man born and raised, one might think Connolly wouldn't be the first in line offering tea, sympathy and a leg-up back into the SPL. Nothing about Connolly is that simple, though.

"It gets more shocking with everything I read," he says. "Half of my family are Rangers supporters, all the McLeans on my mother's side. They're so bewildered – they feel so cheated. They see people coming in and taking millions and walking away and they say, 'Wait a minute, what's happening here?' I feel really sorry for the supporters. And I feel sorry for Ally McCoist, he's a pal of mine. A noble and good man and he has to front it up."

It terrifies him, he says, what is going to happen to Scottish football if all this can happen to Rangers. There can, of course, be a Celtic without a Rangers, he says, but what of the rest? "There can be a Hearts and there can be an Aberdeen but can there be a Motherwell and a Dunfermline, the wee guys? I don't know if they can still exist."

Trying to look for an upside to the Rangers meltdown, Connolly says, "It might be the best thing that ever happened. It might make people sit up and say let's manage football better, the way Fergie [Sir Alex Ferguson] did when he was at Aberdeen. Aberdeen were a world-conquering team when Fergie was there, they were beating Real Madrid. There's absolutely no reason why it shouldn't happen again. Dunfermline were a European team. It's time they got back to thinking like that instead of settling for the middle of the league and just trundling forward."

Prior to Brave, Connolly's last contact with the British paying public was not an altogether happy one. He ended two gigs early, in Blackpool and Scarborough, after being heckled. One disappointed audience member told a newspaper: "He's a great hero of comedy of mine but I don't think it's unfair to say he's getting fed up with comedy, because that's the impression he gave." Another said: "What a diva."

Hard to believe the Connolly of Big Banana Feet would let hecklers get to him. "They don't bother me," he says. "It was bulls***. I've got hecklers on albums for God's sake." True to form, he had one on the Belfast leg of the tour. Orange T-shirt, lots of tattoos. "I think I woke him up. He was shouting and bawling. I said, 'Oh look, a talking mural.'"

After Brave Connolly will be seen next playing a retired opera singer living in a care home. The film is called Quartet, it is Dustin Hoffman's directorial début, and Connolly's co-stars include Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon. Then comes the juggernaut that is The Hobbit, all two parts of it, to be released later this year and next. Courtesy of special effects, the Big Yin plays dwarf warrior Dain Ironfoot.

Also on the to-do list is learning the tango. Stephenson, after her appearance on Strictly Come Dancing, grew rather fond of the dance, and he is keen to join the club. "She dances at night with these Brylcreemed Lotharios and I'm not there."

Connolly turns 70 in November. If he had stayed in Glasgow, and in work, he would have retired five years ago, though the pension wouldn't have been as good. With his wages from films in mind, one wonders why he keeps hitting the road. Isn't he feeling his age?

"I feel lovely," he says. "I feel as if I'm 37. I've never really given much credence to the age thing. I don't have a bus pass and I don't intend getting one. I don't feel old. I think the trick is not to grow up. It's growing up that causes the problem – people do that growing-up stuff and start thinking in beige."

Still, what about going on tour when he doesn't need to? "It's my job. It's what I do. It's what I was born to do and I love doing it. It makes me feel good. Plus, ye cannae go fishing every day."

We need to wrap up the interview now or I'll be going to work in pyjamas. "If you see anybody I know, say hello," he says by way of a cheerio. Dear Scotland: Billy Connolly says hello. n

Brave (PG) opens in Scotland on August 3.

Source: Herald Scotland


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