His trademark “Big Banana Boots” helped shoot him to fame in the mid-1970s. But now Billy Connolly has left even bigger boots to fill after deciding to call it a day from touring.
In some respects, it is no great surprise that Connolly has chosen to end a stage career that stretched all the way back to the 1960s, given he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013. Yet Connolly has refused to stop working since then, embarking on extensive international tours, making TV shows and writing an autobiography. In 2014, when I saw him perform at Aberdeen’s Music Hall at the start of a sold-out Scottish tour, Connolly made no effort to disguise the impact of illness. In fact, much of the show, which ran for nearly two hours, was devoted to confronting his predicament and the impact it had had.
But there was a nagging doubt in my mind that he would not be able to go on for too much long. I left the theatre convinced I would not be seeing him on stage again. While he left the door open to one-off appearances in an interview in these pages last month, the prospect of his fans ever being able to see him on stage seems remote. If that is the case, it is hard to recall any Scottish entertainer leaving such a gaping hole. Gerard Kelly, the stage and screen star, was only 51 when he died in 2010, just days after collapsing with a brain aneurysm.
He was a household name in Scotland thanks to his appearances on TV series like Scotch and Wry and City Lights, and his annual panto appearances at the King’s Theatre.
Rikki Fulton, Kelly’s long-time sparring partner on TV, was equally missed after retiring from the screen in 1999, three years after he and Jack Milroy took their final as Francie and Josie.
But neither had anything like the international appeal or level of recognition as Connolly, who juggled acting with comedy for decades.
The big question now is who on earth could replace Connolly in the nation’s affections.
Kevin Bridges, who unsurprisingly cites Connolly as his comedy hero, is the closest anyone has come to reaching The Big Yin’s level of popularity in Scotland. He may only be 32, but he now has 15 years of stand-up under his belt, including a decade’s worth of sold-out shows, a host of TV appearances and a best-selling book.
His most recent tour opened with a whopping 19 shows at the 12,000-capacity Hydro in Glasgow, where he has broken every box office record. He now has shows in Cologne, Oslo, Gothenberg and Reykjavik booked in for 2019.
Last month Bridges was named the UK’s top entertainment act by customers of Ticketmaster, the first ever comedian to achieve the honour. At this rate, he seems unstoppable.
But could the conditions be ripe for a complete newcomer to make their mark like Connolly and Bridges have done? The Scottish stand-up scene has been completely transformed over the last 20 years, thanks to the advent of new events, festivals and venues. But, perhaps more importantly, the digital world has opened up opportunities for comics to make their name without even getting a booking with a promoter.
The changing landscape and opportunities opening up were reflected in a month-long BBC Scotland initiative last month, aimed at providing multiple platforms for experimental comedy. This meant crucial exposure for relatively new faces like Fern Brady, Ashley Storrie, Larry Dean and Jim Smith. With comedy envisaged as a key element of BBC Scotland’s brand new channel, which is due to launch in February, the scene is set for a newcomer to make their mark.