Oh, I must tell you!
William 'Billy' Connolly is a Scottish stand-up comedian, playwright, musician, presenter and actor. He is instantly recognisable by his bright trousers, goatee beard and colourful language. He also has nipple piercings that were made when he was fifty, but these are only visible to the public when he streaks. At first glimpse, he may seem to be just a tramp, but as his wife said, 'My husband is a tramp, except he's a windswept and interesting one who tramps around the world on jumbo jets'. He also constantly uses expletives, which puts some people off him. However, given time, many people warm to the delightful, delectable 'Big Yin' (The Big One)1. In 2007, Connolly topped a Channel 4 poll as Britain's best stand-up comedian.
Connolly has that ability to swear in a very ingratiating way—it's never aggressive and always done with a twinkle in his eye.
Laughter's infectious - he does it with laughter in his eyes. He doesn't tell jokes, he shares them. And he has a sort of boyish mischief that has charm and innocence...
He exposes everyone's secrets in his jokes, publicises thoughts that we would never dream of sharing. I pee [in] my pants everytime I watch him but am very conscious of the fact that I envy his freedom; his lack of social binding, if you like... and yes, I know he has paid a terrible price for the privilege... The accent helps too, as do his physical antics.
—Some h2g2 Researchers
Connolly went from entertaining the lads at work as a welder to performing as part of The Humblebums. His comedy made the transition from one-liners to more observational humour. He talks about ageing, his upbringing and his hobbies and travels, as well as what is going on in his life, as if he were a young boy. 'I never really became a man, which is probably why much of my comedy revolves around bodily functions,' he admits. He still gets nervous when giving a show, but the adrenaline buzz kicks in when he is on stage, allowing the comedy to flow.
Whereas lots of comedians go out on stage with set material and then go off on a tangent from time to time, Billy has a back catalogue so vast and a memory so good that he can be different every night.
Connolly is renowned for taking off on a side-topic for over two hours before returning to his original point, and he can continue to do this for five nights straight without repeating a joke. His tendency to go off on tangents is particularly noticeable in his touring acts. To date, he has toured Scotland, the Arctic Circle, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, Wales and Ireland, with many parts of these tours being shown by the BBC. Since his father passed away, Connolly has begun to shed light on his childhood (once shrouded in mystery) through two biographies and a variety of sketches.
Connolly drew on much of his childhood experiences for his routine, making them of interest to fans.
Connolly was born on 24 November, 1942, an 11 lb baby, to Mary and William Connolly in Anderston, Glasgow. Soon after, his father was sent away to the war in Burma and his mother, unable to cope, abandoned him and his sister Florence, leaving them to fend for themselves.
It was the middle of the war and I've never held it against her, never. I think I might have done the same. She was a teenager, Germans were bombing the town. My father was in India and we lived in a slum in Glasgow.
After a few days the children were found and sent to live with his father's sisters Margaret and Mona, who beat Connolly2 up. Connolly also shared a sofabed with his father, when his father returned from war. For five years, Connolly's father often came home drunk and sexually abused him.
I remember it happening a lot, not every night, but every night you were in a state thinking it was going to happen, you'd be awakened by it.
During this time, Connolly attended St Peter's Primary School in Glasgow and St Gerard's Secondary School in Govan. His peers thought him weird because he liked visiting graveyards while his teachers believed he was stupid. Connolly was around ten years old when he first decided he wanted to be comedian. He felt that he would be the new Hank Williams, or even Hank Williams's alter ego, Luke the Drifter. One day, a teacher asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. Connolly answered 'a comedian'. The teacher thought he was more football material. Connolly dropped out of school at the age of 15 and became a delivery boy at a bookshop, followed by a stint at a bakery. Then in 1960, he took up a five-year apprenticeship as a shipyard welder, where he made his colleagues laugh with his impressions of drunks.
They're not red-nosed drunks with broken cigarettes. Not jolly drunks. My drunks were serious—they're proper drunks.
—Billy Connolly (Desert Island Discs)
He also joined the Territorial Army's Parachute Regiment, where he made 17 parachute jumps. Connolly remembers his military medical exam vividly. The doctor said 'You're not very big downstairs, are you?' to which Connolly retorted, 'I thought we were only going to fight them.' In 1965, Connolly finished his time as a welder and got a ten-week job helping construct an oil rig in Biafra, Nigeria.
My name's Billy Connolly, and I'm humble. This is Tam Harvey, he's a bum.
On returning home from Nigeria, Connolly was influenced so much by blues singer Pete Seeger and The Beverly Hillbillies that he bought himself a banjo for £2 10s. He played the banjo and a guitar at venues in and around Glasgow with a variety of different bands, including The Skillet Lickers. After a while, Tam Harvey (a rock guitarist) and Connolly collaborated to create The Humblebums. Eventually, pop singer Gerry Rafferty joined. Between songs, Connolly would make jokes, which were much loved by their audiences. In all, The Humblebums created four albums with Transatlantic Records before they split up in London during 1971 over an argument about Connolly dominating their act with his comedy.
- First Collection of Merry Melodies (Transatlantic TRA 186, 1969)
- The Humblebums (Transatlantic TRA 201, 1969)
- Open Up the Door (Transatlantic TRA 218, 1970)
- The Exciting World of Transatlantic (Contour 2870 315, c1972)
It didn't surprise me that he went on to achieve great solo success, but I was surprised by the scale of it. He was so much rooted in the west of Scotland; I imagined he might not travel very far. I was fundamentally wrong.
On finding himself a solo performer, Connolly was very nervous. This surprised Rafferty, who strongly believed he would become very successful. Connolly's first solo album was Billy Connolly Live! recorded by Transatlantic Records. Connolly created many parodies of well-known songs such as the Village People's 'YMCA' and Rolf Harris's 'Two Little Boys'. Despite these amusing parodies, the head of Transatlantic Records believed Connolly would be better off as a stand-up comedian. Connolly obligingly embarked on several tours, becoming a huge hit among the people of Britain.
Connolly Meets Parkinson
One day a taxi-driver met Michael Parkinson and asked him if he had heard of Billy Connolly. Parkinson said no and the taxi driver handed him a copy of Connolly's sketch 'The Crucifixion'3 which spoofs Christ's last supper as a drunken night out in Glasgow. However, Parkinson did not listen to the sketch until his son Andrew begged him to. Parkinson was so taken by Connolly that he took the cassette tape to his producer and gave Connolly his first television break in 1975. Despite his boss's warning not to tell the joke about a man who killed his wife only to end up using her bottom as a bike rack, Connolly couldn't resist; to his boss's astonishment, Connolly's joke was a huge success. His interview with Parkinson led to a two-month, sell-out solo UK tour called the Big Wee Tour, and secured a further eight appearances on Parkinson's show. Once in a while, Parkinson and Connolly also shared quite a few nights out on the town.
Connolly Meets Elton John
In Washington, some guy threw a pipe and it hit me right between my eyes. It wasn't my audience. They made me feel about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit.
—Connolly on Parkinson two years after the event in America.
In 1976 Connolly supported Elton John on a tour of the US, but his comedy act failed to win over the Americans. They could barely understand him, didn't approve of his humour and were only at the event for one thing: to see Elton John. During his trip around America with Elton, 'Maureen' (Elton's name for Connolly) was offered cocaine. Although the drug helped Connolly stay focused, it also led to addiction. Connolly was a man who liked his drink too, and the two combined could knock him out. For a couple of days Connolly wouldn't remember what he had done during the time he was drunk, and he scared many a friend, including Elton, who once found Connolly unconscious. Despite the fact that he frightened and upset his friends, Connolly was hooked and dependent on both drugs and drink to keep him going.
Connolly and his Concoctions
After a disastrous trip to the US, Connolly embarked upon another, to Australia. Parkinson had accompanied Connolly to Australia and one night they had both got quite drunk and ended up in a brawl with some locals, which left them quite unpopular down under. On returning home to the UK, Connolly put in another appearance on Parkinson's show and embarked upon a three-month concert tour called The Billy Connolly Extravaganza. Instead of his tours running for ten nights, as most performers' did, Connolly's could run for as long as 89. Connolly also tried his hand at playwriting; his first was An' Me Wi' A Bad Leg Tae, written in 1977, which was a complete disaster. In 1978, he took a rest from stand-up comedy to appear in the Scottish Opera production of Die Fledermaus. He also appeared in the thriller Absolution (1979) and participated in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with another play called The Red Runner.
I like the Festival generally, I like the entire Festival, any excuse to be in Edinburgh.
Connolly is estimated to be among the top earning entertainers in Britain, but he has been known to share his wealth with the less fortunate.
Billy could earn a lot more from this but I suspect some of it will go to the Indian orphanage which he and Pamela support.
—A friend of Connolly's for the Scotsman
Connolly first started contributing to charity in 1979, when he was approached by Martin Lewis to appear in The Secret Policeman's Ball for Amnesty International. Despite not being an Oxbridge alumnus like the other comedians, Connolly was an instant hit and John Cleese and Peter Cook were keen to appear alongside him again in 1981. Connolly also supported Live Aid in 1985 by performing at a concert in Wembley just before Elton John played. He has helped Comic Relief by visiting an African hospital in Somaliland, where he was sawn in half by Pamela in order to make two dwarves. Connolly also stripped naked and ran around London's Piccadilly one Red Nose Day to raise money for the cause. (He seems to enjoy taking his clothes off for charity - he's also stripped naked to do a bungee jump in New Zealand and has ridden his motorcycle naked around the world).
It's great fun on the motorbike and all that. I love meeting the bikers, like the Hell's Angels, especially in Australia. They're a jolly bunch.
Connolly and Pam
Marriage to Pam didn't change me, it saved me, I was going to die. I was on a downwards spiral and enjoying every second of it. Not only was I dying, but I was looking forward to it.
Connolly first met New Zealand-born comedian Pamela Stephenson when he was interviewed by her in the guise of Janet Street-Porter on Not the Nine O'clock News. When Connolly's first marriage4 came to a close in the 1980s, resulting in Connolly winning custody of his children, he grew closer to Pamela. On 20 December, 1989 the couple tied the knot in Fiji. Together they have three children: Daisy, Amy and Scarlett.
Recovery from Drink
Pam was aware of her partner's love for alcohol and encouraged him to stop drinking. He did, but a year into being completely sober, his wife's help nearly backfired when she gave him a gift to celebrate.
I stopped for a year and she gave me a bottle of champagne and I was one glass into it and thought: this is a mistake, I was enjoying not drinking, so I stopped again a month later and that was it, that was 21 years ago.
Fortunately for Connolly, he was happier when not drinking. He was so scared at the thought of being a Jekyll and Hyde character and the memory lapses that accompanied drinking binges, that he didn't want to consume alcohol again. Today (2007), Connolly has been free from alcohol for 22 years.
Connolly as an Actor
Anyone can do what I'm doing now: all you've got to do is want it.
Not content on just being a stand-up comedian, Connolly has become an actor both on television and in films.
When Connolly appeared in 'Freedomfest: Nelson Mandela's 70th Birthday Celebration' in 1988, he caught HBO's5 eye. He was invited to America, where he appeared alongside Whoopi Goldberg in 'Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Connolly in Performance' at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Finally, Connolly was accepted by the Americans, and when Howard Hesseman left ABC sitcom Head of the Class, Connolly was asked to replace him. Connolly acted as an Oxford-educated professor capable of handling the geniuses in class. However, very few Americans could understand his thick Scottish accent, and interest in him waned. Before returning to his home country, Connolly appeared in 'Billy Connolly: Pale Blue Scottish Person', an HBO stand-up performance that enabled him to have his own sitcom Billy in 1992.
In the Movies
Back in Britain, Connolly furthered his acting career by appearing in the period drama Mrs Brown, for which he was nominated for a BAFTA award. He then went on to play the starring role in Deacon Brodie, which tells the story of a man who is sentenced to death on the gallows, having been found defrauding the city's Customs and Excise offices in Edinburgh. Connolly's acting career has continued into the next century too, such as White Oleander, which concerns a woman coming of age in foster care; Timeline, in which history and modern day life intertwine; The Last Samurai (2003), a martial arts film co-starring Tom Cruise; and A Series of Unfortunate Events, which tells the tale of orphaned children and their villainous uncle.
Connolly as an Author
When Connolly first rose to fame with The Humblebums, little was known about the background of the performer, but by 2001 his wife Pam worked to dispel the myths surrounding him. She revealed the truth about his life in her book Billy and in a sequel called Bravemouth: Living with Billy Connolly. Pam says that writing about his true life story 'brought us closer together by allowing us to discuss things that were unspoken for so long'. Connolly seems to have found the whole process cathartic.
I am out of jail. It's a lovely feeling. It's difficult to describe—it's like there was a film over me and it's gone.
Pam is not the only one in the marriage to have written a book; Connolly has written two: Billy Connolly and Gullible's Travels, which reflect on his work. He has also written books about his travels, particularly the World Tours he has undertaken with the BBC. However, Connolly believes his comedy doesn't work on the printed page and is therefore rather shy about being called an author.
In October, 2004, Connolly did a stand-up comedy act at the Hammersmith Apollo which made front page news due to his jokes about an Iraq hostage called Mr Kenneth Bigley. In his act he reportedly said 'Don't you just wish they would just get on with it?' and 'What is it with him and that young Asian wife?' that left many of his fans disgusted by him. Despite this, Connolly was voted 8th in The Comedian's Comedian list by fellow comedians, and he came first in a poll called 'Britain's Favourite Comedian' by Channel Five.
In 2004 he also put on benefit concerts at the Oxford New Theatre in remembrance of his tour manager and sound engineer Malcolm Kingsnorth, made the last World Tour for the BBC and in the year that followed sold his home in Hollywood and bought a place in Aberdeenshire and a yacht. As of 2006, Connolly embarked on the Too Old To Die Young tour.
- Honorary Doctor of Letters degree by the University of Glasgow on 11 July, 2001.
- BAFTA Lifetime Achievement award (2003)
- CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List (2003)
- Honorary doctorate by Glasgow's Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) for his service to performing arts. (4 July, 2006)
- Knighted (2017)