When you’re interviewing someone you think you’ll start off with a couple of easy questions, get them talking before you hit them with the intrusive ones. But with Billy Connolly, despite the fact he’s been making us laugh for 40 years, there aren’t many easy ones.
On my list there’s his illness – prostate cancer and the revelation he has Parkinson’s Disease, the sexual abuse he suffered, the suicide of one of his best friends, Robin Williams, abandonment by his mother and the referendum. Best then, to start with his new film. An uplifting, funny, family movie – about divorce and terminal illness.
“Yes, I die in lots of films,” says the 71-year-old cheerfully. “My children are fed up with it.”
His advice if you want to catch him in a big screen performance is to be there for the first 15 minutes and don’t expect to see him in the sequel. He also claims to be the only person to die in a Muppet movie.
“Yes. That’s true. Billy Bones, in Muppet Treasure Island. With a good death as well, telling people not to run with scissors, beware of pointy things and all that, famous last words.” He slips into character.
“‘Jim, Jim, Jimmy, Jim, Jim ...’ I’m often recognised in restaurants by children in America. They hear my voice when I’m speaking with Pam or whoever I’m with and they come wandering over.”
In his latest film, What We Did On Our Holiday, which is released this week, he plays a grandfather who has gathered his family together in Scotland to celebrate his 75th birthday, knowing it will be his last.
His son, played by David Tennant and daughter-in-law Rosamund Pike, are scared to break the news of their divorce so enlist the help of their three children in keeping up appearances. From the writers and directors of Outnumbered, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, the film manages both heartbreaking and heartwarming and is sure to be a hit.
“I liked the cast, the location and the script looked pretty good to me. I found it funny. And I was intrigued. They kept telling me they get the children to improvise and I thought, Oh God, I think I know those children; they’re from the obnoxious academy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They were stunning.”
Even someone as down to earth and robust as Connolly might have found the subject matter of the film difficult, playing a grandfather with cancer when you’re actually a grandfather with cancer. After filming, Connolly had successful surgery on his prostate and he now has the all clear. It was also announced in September last year that he had been diagnosed with the initial symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Did he never find the subject matter a little too close to home?
“No, it was actually very good. I hadn’t said to anybody that I had cancer, and I said it to my little girly in the film, Amelia, and it felt very profound when I said it, you know. It was absolutely real, all ad libbed. It was the truth, and she didn’t know I was telling the truth. None of the film people knew, I didn’t tell anybody.
“That was the first time I’d said it. They didn’t know until after I was away home and I emailed them.”
Connolly kept quiet about his condition because he didn’t want to talk about it and didn’t want it to change how people perceive him, which is similar to how he feels about his Parkinson’s diagnosis.
“I didn’t want to be judged by it. I didn’t want it to define who I was.”
Do people treat him differently now that he has Parkinson’s?
“No, I don’t let them,” he says, defiant.
This is true. When water is delivered to our table I want to breenge in and pour it into the two glasses in front of us but Connolly is straight on it and I sit on my hands. Although I can’t resist pouring the tea. After all, this is the man who said, “Never trust a man who when left alone with a tea cosy doesn’t try it on.” Sadly London’s swish Soho Hotel, where we meet, isn’t really tea cosy territory.
Sitting opposite Connolly you wouldn’t know he had Parkinson’s if you hadn’t read about it. Perhaps there’s a stillness, more of an air of calm about him than before. The wild man of comedy is quieter these days, though no less funny.
His snow white hair is bobbed to shoulder length and whiskers neatly trimmed.
Round green glasses, framing eyes that dance with impudence, give him the look of a snowy owl, wise and wry, waiting to pounce on your questions.
“The cancer’s fixed, which is lovely. You know it’s funny, I went to the hospital after I’d been diagnosed and the surgeon was explaining everything, and he said first of all, you’re not going to die. And I was shocked. I said to myself of course I’m not going to die. Maybe I’m stupid or something but it never crossed my mind. It was just an inconvenience as far as I was concerned. I knew that Frank Zappa had died from it, and various people had died from it, but that just wasn’t part of my plan. And that’s the same just now, even with Parkinson’s – that’s gradually growing – but I don’t give a f**k, it’s no’ in charge, I’m in charge.”
Thankfully, the removal of his prostate gland hasn’t interfered with his sex life.
“I can still have sex, but there’s no damp patch. Because you don’t ejaculate, but you do have the woah, woah, woah, yeah! You get the good bit. I think it should be replaced by a noise or something. I told Robin Williams and he made a noise like an electric kettle [Connolly makes a hissing coming to the boil noise, hisses and whistles] but I can’t do it.”
Connolly had no idea about the Parkinson’s until an off duty doctor approached him in a hotel in Tasmania and told him he could see by his gait that he was showing early signs of the disease.
“He told me to see my doctor. He did me a favour, but I thought he was wrong and that it was a bit chancy to go around saying that to folk when you didn’t know what you were talking about. But he was right. I didn’t know his name. He lives in Tasmania, and I fish in Tasmania, so I’ll probably see him when I’m there this year,” he says.
“I think I’ve had it for a while because I looked at Route 66 [the TV show of his epic 2,488-mile journey on motorised trike from Chicago to Santa Monica, filmed in 2010] and I can see myself moving differently. I can see that I had it then and didn’t know.”
At the end of the month Connolly sets off on another journey with his sell-out 21-date tour around Scotland, kicking off in Aberdeen. During an absence of four years, he voiced the part of King Fergus in the animation Brave, reprised his role as Dain Ironfoot, a dwarf in another Hobbit film, and appears in the next episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, in which he discovers his great-great-great grandfather married a 13-year-old Indian girl when serving in the country as a gunner in the Royal Horse Artillery. Now he feels the time is right to return to his roots with another stand-up tour.
“I’ve been trying to think of why, and there is no why, it’s just my job and I keep on doing it, because I think you should do what you do. You meet people on the road, smoke cigars and travel to familiar towns and see how they have changed and all that keeps you alive.”
Why is it called the high horse tour?
“I was ranting on stage one night about some subject or other and I said to the audience ‘sometimes there is not a horse high enough for me’. And I had made a drawing of a horse, so it’s the backdrop. I always threatened to breed high horses.
“The show is some old stuff and some new. That’s the way it always is because I don’t write the stuff that I do. It just comes to me. Sometimes in huge lumps – there’s one about a wildebeest that’s 15 or 20 minutes long – sometimes it’s just a word.”
A word like Rumblethumple, as Connolly prefers to call the referendum. In the run up he refrained from offering an opinion on the vote, saying he didn’t get one and didn’t want one. Now, in the aftermath, he explains his silence.
“What I’ve found is that I was on both sides,” he says. “And I didn’t think it was one argument. I didn’t think independence was such a great idea, although if you think it is a great idea, it is, but having said that, I didn’t fancy being stuck with Nigel Farage and all that other crowd of wankers and being lorded over by Eton boys for the rest of time. I didn’t like the idea that no matter how you vote, you get them, so that angered me.”
Later he tells journalists, “If Mr Cameron keeps up his promises we should be OK. If he doesn’t there’ll be all hell to pay.”
Connolly’s daughter Cara, from his first marriage, lives in Glasgow and he followed the debate with great interest.
“So I found myself on both sides, and I thought it would sound limp-wristed to say that, as if I was not taking any chances, saying ‘please love me I’m Billy Connolly, I’m on both sides.’ Now that wasn’t my attitude at all. I’d thought it out. It’s so complex and a lot of it had to do with ...”
At this point his mobile rings and he asks if I mind if he takes it. It’s his doctor. Connolly says he’ll call him back and hangs up.
“He’s desperate to take out my gall bladder,” he says, almost gleeful.
Is that necessary?
“Aye, I think so. It had stones in it; it was the most painful thing I’ve ever known.”
Then he’s off musing about having gallstones made into jewellery. They’d be a great match with the huge skull knuckleduster he’s wearing on one finger, a quirky detail along with his mismatched shoelaces and spotty denim jacket.
Back to the Rumblethumple and I say if you had been living in Scotland, you would have had to choose, you couldn’t say I like both sides...
“Yes you could,” he shoots back.
No, because it would be a spoilt paper, I say.
“I know. A spoilt paper’s a very valid vote. I remember once on stage saying ‘don’t vote, it only encourages the bastards,’ and I was backstage afterwards, and my daughter Cara was in the room. An older guy, an old political activist, came back and he said ‘I thought you were a bit off there, encouraging people not to vote.’ He said ‘people died to give you that vote.’ And my daughter said, ‘people died to give you the choice.’ She’s a good thinker,” he says.
Connolly has five grown up children, Jamie and Cara from his first marriage and three with psychiatrist and former comedian Pamela Stephenson, Daisy, Amy and Scarlett. These days the couple divide their time between homes in New York and Gozo, the island off Malta, when they’re not on the road.
Stephenson is currently on tour with the Brazilian dance show Brazouka, that she developed with choreographer Arlene Phillips.
Does he miss Candacraig, the Scottish home they bought from Anita Roddick in 1998 and sold for £3 million this summer? It was there he entertained showbiz pals Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Ewan McGregor and Dame Judi Dench.
“No. I miss it a wee bit, but nothing... Houses are just things. You have to get over it. It’s like giving your car a name, Harry or something like that, you start thinking you’d miss it. It’s not good for you.”
As we’re talking about Robin Williams I ask Connolly what he means when he says he wishes he could have helped him a bit more. What could he have done?
“I don’t know. I just wish that whatever it was, I could have done it. He used to phone and we talked about it. I wanted to reassure him that it’s OK. But depression is such a rotten thing...”
Was Williams afraid when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s?
“He was very scared about the degenerative side,” says Connolly. “He was a super fit guy. He used to cycle with Lance Armstrong and all that, he was no stooge. All muscles, like a frog. So that part scared him.”
But Connolly listened and counselled Williams, what else does he think he could he have done, I venture again?
“I don’t know. I haven’t worked it out yet,” he says quietly.
Having a wife who is a shrink might help Connolly with his thoughts, but he says while she is the one he confides in about his troubles, she’s not a shrink at home.
He talked to her about his father’s sexual abuse of him between the ages of 11 and 15 and she wrote about it in her biographies of her husband, but he never discussed it with his father.
“It never arose and that’s quite common. I think people get all upset when I say I love him, I loved him then and I love him now. It’s a very complex situation. It’s like my mother. She left, but there was a war on, and she was a teenager with two children. She would be 19 when I was a baby, living in a flat in Anderston down at the docks, the Germans bombing them with monotonous regularity and my father’s in India. Some guy comes up and says I love you, oh yeah, that sounds OK to me. You know?”
Connolly met her when she came backstage to a Humblebums concert, the band he was in with Gerry Rafferty in the 1970s, in Dunoon. What did she say?
“Well it was OK,” he smiles. “She said, ‘do you know me?’ I said we’d better go into the lounge bar and she said, ‘I hope you don’t drink too much’. What!? A birthday card would have been nice.”
Does he mean she was taking on a mother’s role that she had abrogated when she left him to be brought up by his father’s two sisters, women whose resentment boiled over into neglect at best, cruelty at worst.
“Aye. But I’ll tell you the weirdest thing that happened... I was listening to a Peter McDougall play and there was a line that said you never forget your mother’s smell, and I remember kissing her. I kissed her on the neck, and my nose would be about the back of her shoulders there, and I went, ding, she’s telling the truth, it is her! You know?”
His wife has written two volumes of Connolly biography, Billy and Bravemouth, but isn’t it time he wrote an autobiography?
“I might. Aye, I’d like to. I’d like to put my cooking in, and my drawing and stuff like that, my music. Get everything in there.”
And with that he’s away, a premiere to attend, a red carpet moment.
• What We Did On Our Holiday is out now; Who Do You Think You Are? is on Thursday, BBC1, 9pm; for information on the High Horse tour go to www.billyconnolly.com