Billy Connolly: the one man comedy “revolution”

He was the original Glasgow patter merchant who shook up the comedy establishment with a brand of Scottish humour that allowed us to laugh at ourselves – and laugh like never before.

Billy Connolly, a former boiler maker in he Clyde shipyards, is credited with “revolutionising” comedy during the mid-1970s, then the domain of tuxedo-wearing stand ups, with his ribald songs and stories of ordinary life.

Bottoms, farts and the church were among his favourite early topics with his story of the Last Supper, set not in Galilee but a pub in the Gallowgate, among his most famous yarns.

Billy Connolly on the road in the US

Billy Connolly on the road in the US

Tommy Sheppard MP, founder of the Stand Comedy Club, said Connolly was the first alternative comic on the scene, arriving even before alternative comedy had become a thing.

He said: “By the mid 1970s comedy had become staid, boring, sexist, racist establishment awfulness.

“It was just guys in tuxes and dickie bow telling mother-in-law jokes and even really old mother-in-law jokes that they had just recycled. There was no sense of wit.

“I can remember being a teenager and getting hands on some Billy Connolly LPs and it was like having some sort of epiphany.

“Here was someone talking about things that ordinary people talked about but he was also savaging the political and religious authorities and using sweary words to do it. He was using language that you would here at school or down the pub.

Connolly with his wife, psychologist Pamela Stephenson. Picture: Getty

Connolly with his wife, psychologist Pamela Stephenson. Picture: Getty

“Up until then, it was really only middle class people who got on the television or people were some sort of cardboard cut out caricature of the working classes.

“Connolly was a breath of fresh air. It was the first time a lot of people had seen people on telly who were like them.

“In the mid 1970’s this was revolutionary.”

Upbringing 

Born in Anderston, Glasgow, in 1942, Connolly was raised by two aunts after being abandoned by his mother while his father fought in the Burma War.

Connolly has since spoken openly about his disturbed childhood, the meanness of the school nuns, the beatings of his aunts and the sexual abuse of his father.

“I was raised a Catholic. I have a Grade A in guilt,” Connolly once joked.

Connolly joined the shipyards at 15 as a boiler maker and it was it was here he soaked up the “merciless” Glasgow humour and the art of storytelling, which were to become the trademarks of his routines.

“Connolly had this wonderful ability to provide a narrative, to take a shaggy dog story and punctuate it with gag every half a minute. You didn’t have to wait for some big pay off line, it was funny all the way through,” Sheppard said.

He left his job, seeking life and a living on the folk scene and released three albums with Gerry Rafferty as the Humblebums.

The Cottage Theatre in Cumbernauld hosted his first solo show and shortly afterwards his managers took the rare step to release a double album of his live routine.

Solo Concert was enough to propel him from relative obscurity to a nationwide audience. Regular appearances on chat show Parkinson were to follow.

By 1980, Connolly had turned a corner and was at the call of the world, which he has since crossed several times over with his schedule of tours, television documentaries and more than 40 film appearances, the most famous being his 1997 part in Mrs Brown, when he starred opposite Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria.

Connolly has long left Scotland, claiming he needed to leave to grow. He now lives in Los Angeles with his second wife Pamela Stephenson, whom he claims saved him from alcoholism and the dark spirals set by his childhood.

Four years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease but keeps working to keep his mind off the illness.

After more than 50 years in the business, Connolly still remains typically self-deprecating about his success.

On receiving a lifetime achievement award from the National Television Awards last year, he said: “I am so deeply moved. It’s a precious thing. I don’t feel I deserve it.

“When I see all these other stars parading up I don’t feel like them. I feel like a welder.”

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