A couple of weeks before Christmas, I was in a Glasgow taxi and got chatting to the driver about Billy Connolly. The comedian had recently announced that, at the age of 76, he was withdrawing from live performances. A career spanning more than five decades was at an end and we were both rather sad about that.
The driver and I agreed the news was hardly surprising, though. Five years earlier, Billy had explained he was receiving treatment for Parkinson’s Disease. His announcement that his performing days were over was inevitable, wasn’t it?
The driver and I talked about our favourite Billy Connolly moments; those magnificent appearances in the 1970s on Michael Parkinson’s chat show that not only helped catapult him to national stardom but influenced a new generation of stand-ups; the breathtakingly funny Audience With… ITV special (which, having watched a VHS copy endless times during the 1980s, I can remember in minute detail); those albums – Cop Yer Whack For This and Get Right Intae Him – passed around among friends, illegally taped, and played over and over, the stories and songs contained within never losing their power to reduce us to tears of helpless laughter, no matter how often we listened.
Everyone in the city, said the driver, had a Billy story to tell. There was always someone with an uncle who’d worked beside him in the shipyards or an auntie who’d sung on the folk circuit alongside him.
I’ve a couple of those, myself.
Some time in the 1970s, my late mother was doing some Christmas shopping in Fraser’s department store in Glasgow. The store was rammed and the queues were long and glacially slow.
After 20 minutes or so, she was almost at the till. Just one shopper – Connolly, by then already the most instantly recognisable Glaswegian on the planet – stood between her and the cashier.
“Do you have any identification, sir?” asked the shop assistant when Billy produced his cheque book.
“Not on me, no,” he replied. The young woman explained that, without the necessary ID, she wouldn’t be able to put through the sale. No amount of Connolly charm would change her mind.
My mother, exasperated and desperate to escape the crowded department store, stepped forward. Pointing at the comedian, she snapped, “For Christ’s sake, hen, it’s Billy Connolly. Look at him.”
The cashier relented and my mother left with a precious story about how she’d helped Billy Connolly buy his Christmas presents.
Last week, during a BBC programme about his life and career, Connolly spoke about the impact of his illness. “My life,’ he said, “is slipping away and I can feel it and I should. I’m a damned sight nearer the end than I am the beginning
“But it doesn’t frighten me – it’s an adventure and it’s quite interesting to see myself slipping away, as bits slip off and leave me, talents leave and attributes leave.”
I can’t imagine anyone listening to those words and not feeling a profound sadness. Connolly has been such a towering figure in our culture for so long that the very idea that he might not always be so seems terribly wrong.
We Scots are proud and protective of this brilliant (every idiot, myself included, who reckons he can do a Connolly will mangle that word – brrrilliant – in the process), complex man. His comedy – unlike that of so many others who rose to fame alongside him in the early 1970s – was never cruel. Instead, his love of people, his empathy shone through the stories he told.
We love Connolly not only because he’s exceptionally funny but because we reckon he’s on our side.
We don’t always get the chance to tell people what they meant to us. Too often, words of praise come in obituaries and eulogies. We can – and should – be sure to let Sir Billy Connolly know just what he means to us while we have the opportunity.
In that spirit, perhaps you’ll indulge the second of my little stories. Twenty years ago, while I was reporter with a Scottish tabloid newspaper, I was sent by my news editor to a press conference at which the comedian was launching Tickety-Boo Tea, the profits from the sale of which were to be directed to helping orphans in India and other disadvantaged children around the world.
In those days, Billy had a pretty dreadful relationship with the Scottish press – a situation largely created by an older generation of hacks who enjoyed tormenting anyone who dared become a success – but in the name of ensuring his charity was a success, he ceased hostilities for the afternoon.
I stood on the deck of a boat on the River Clyde, along with a dozen or so fellow journalists, and, once the customary question and answer session was over, listened, rapt, as Connolly began telling stories.
For the next 40 minutes, we saw a master at work. He made us roar with laughter as he spoke of golfers in their c*** clothes, he teased us about how we might write up the afternoon’s events, and he spoke about the friends who meant he’d always come back to Glasgow even though he was a pretty big deal these days.
Seeing an opportunity to build bridges between my newspaper and the comedian, I called the news desk and breathlessly reported that Billy was on sensational form. He seemed, I ventured, friendly and relaxed and perhaps it would be a good idea for one of the showbiz reporters to come along before he left. There was no harm in someone saying hello. Maybe Connolly and the paper could be pals, again.
A member of the features team was promptly dispatched from the office, arriving just as Connolly was leaving.
“Hi Billy,” he said, “I’m from The Daily Record.”
“Oh, aye,” said Connolly. “F**k off.”
It wasn’t quite the outcome I’d hoped for but it tickled me to the tips of my toes.
Sir Billy Connolly, you peerless practitioner of the high art of comedy, thank you very much, indeed.