Billy Connolly hasn’t exactly retired, but he’s winding down in Florida, coping with Parkinson’s, filling his days with drawing and enjoying his extended family and plotting a new travel documentary or two. The Big Yin talks to Janet Christie about life, politics and his new book Tall Tales and Wee Stories
The Big Yin is basking in the Florida heat, travelling in a car driven by his wife Pam, aka Pamela Stephenson, when he comes on the phone. Bafta winner and since 2017, Sir Billy, turns 77 this month and the comedian, musician, presenter, actor, former welder and most recently artist, is about to tell us about his new book, Tall Tales and Wee Stories.
“Hello!” It’s not so much a conversational greeting as an entrance, a stomp of a Banana Boot, a flick of his still wild mane (“winter plumage” he calls the white), that is repeated when we lose him somewhere over the Atlantic…
“Hello! Yeah, I’m soaking wet!”... “No, I’m in Key West – it’s lovely! Rather nice here today.”
Connolly decamped to Florida, after leaving his adopted home New York and selling his Scottish house a couple of years ago, for a climate kinder to his Parkinson’s. He was diagnosed in 2013 with the progressive neurological condition that causes muscle stiffness, slowness of movement, tremors, sleep disturbance and fatigue, but Connolly doesn’t care to be defined by it. Discussing the effects, the talk takes the first of many tangents and he tells me how it’s affected his yodelling.
“I used to be a very good yodeller,” he tells me, “but it’s starting to disappear. I think that happens with age anyway though. Chic Murray was a great yodeller, and women are good – the girl in The Cranberries, very good.”
Sleep disturbance is an issue and he isn’t great at jumping out of bed in the morning. What he’d really like is one of the multi-functional clocks invented by his hero, Scottish naturalist John Muir, better known as the founder of the American Great Parks.
“He handmade these alarm clocks, big pieces of furniture that woke you in the morning and flung you oot of bed. I could have it beside my bed, with a shute you slide doon, a... Sleepy Wheecher,” says the man who gave us Jobby Wheecher.
Muir made his “early-rising machine”, a timekeeper connected to a bedstead to set him on his feet, started fires, lit lamps, while still at school. It was a later machine accident that left him partially blind and pushed him outdoors, turning his attention to conservation of the natural landscape.
“He was way ahead of his time,” says Connolly, “a genius. He used to go to these national parks and stand behind the waterfalls – he was an old hippy a way ahead of his time,” says the comedian who has always been a bit of a hippy himself, with tattooed flowers on his feet and swallows on his hands.
“Chic Murray had swallows on his hands too,” he says of the childhood hero, later friend, which takes us off on another path about meeting your heroes. Connolly has met many of his, but his favourite is Bob Dylan.
“Because he never knows you the next time you meet him. It’s very odd. When you leave him you’re the best of friends, it’s “Cheerio Bob!’ and ‘All the best Billy!’ then you meet him again and he looks at you like he’s never seen you in his life!” Connolly chuckles.
Banned from the Traverse
Tall Tales and Wee Stories is a book of his sketches as told on stage, from The Last Supper to Incontinence Trousers to Shouting at Wildebeest, and tales – like the time he was banned from Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre for putting his willy in a G&T – and includes his black and white drawings.
Never one to write things down, his routine is always ad-libbed, riffing on stories and ideas in his head, which grow and are embellished in the telling, so no two shows were ever the same. Tall Tales and Wee Stories comes from the tapes and recording of shows.
“It was the publisher’s idea. I never thought about it. I’ve never written my stuff down and they went through my tapes and records and copied it down. I never wrote jokes, or stories either. I just went on stage and said stuff. Ad-libbed.”
Honesty has always been Connolly’s hallmark, about bodily functions or the taboo triumvirate of politics, religion and football, his popularity stemming from saying and doing exactly what he wants.
“The Last Supper and The Crucifixion were the most popular by far,” he says. “That got really quite extra-ord-inary (there’s nothing better than the multisyllabic relish Connolly takes in words). Until eventually I had to stop it. I couldn’t do it with a gun to my head. It was dominating everything and I had a desire to move on.”
So is the willy in the G&T tale at the Traverse tall or true?
“That’s true. I was banned. Then they had an exhibition of photographs and invited me in to see it and I said ‘but I’m banned’, so they lifted the ban for the night. Then they lifted it completely. So I’ve been back.”
But not repeated the offence?
“No I don’t stick my willy in a gin and tonic any more.”
So he’s grown out of that then?
“I gave up drinking. I still have the willy.”
‘She nagged me’
Growing up in Scotland
Connolly gave up drinking “years ago”, he says, when his wife of 30 years Pam, the New Zealand-born psychologist, writer and performer who shot to fame in BBC’s Not the Nine O’Clock News 1979 comedy sketch show, “saved him.”
How did she do that?
“She withheld sexual favours till I stopped. She nagged me.”
Growing up in Scotland, Connolly was steeped in pub culture, with its traditions of socialising and storytelling.
“I was never big on drugs, it always lasted too long. I always wanted it to go away once I had done it, but I was good at drinking. I loved the whole pub thing, getting pissed with the boys, telling stories into the night... And it was getting control, changing my personality. I became this other man. Pamela would say ‘bogey man has arrived’. And when it’s changing your personality you have to have a close look at it and do something about it. There’s nothing like the truth to put you right.”
His previous book, last year’s Made in Scotland, is a deeper look at his journey from child to grandfather, from shipyards to stage, folk music to funny, to film (Indecent Proposal, Muppet Treasure Island, Mrs Brown, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), making a sitcom, Billy, in America and settling with Pam to raise three of his daughters there.
The companion BBC TV show had record breaking ratings, while on ITV he continued taking us on his travels with Billy Connolly’s Great American Trail, and his Ultimate World Tour.
Did he find it hard to write because there’s a lot of up close and personal stuff in there, heartfelt as well as hilarious?
“Oh, I made it up,” he says and laughs.
When The Big Yin announced his retirement from stand-up last year it caused widespread consternation about the state of his health and prompted him to make a subsequent ‘Ah’m no deid yet’ announcement.
“I didn’t really die,” he says. “What happened was I did something on film and was talking about bits of my body that were failing to work any more and changing or weakening, and people thought I was dying. I was getting messages of condolence from all over the world. I had to go on telly and say ‘I’m no dead’, ‘I’m no dyin’, which is weird.”
Given the clamour for Connolly and the fact we just won’t leave him to retire in peace, will he be making a habit of such announcements?
He laughs. “I think I’ve covered the subject now.”
As long as he keeps making TV programmes, exhibiting his drawings, doesn’t go quiet on us, it’ll be fine.
“Absolutely, they’ll say ‘oh, he’s still there.’”
Despite his retirement announcement, the film of a gig from his final tour in 2015 is currently in cinemas and has prompted new speculation he might make a return to live performing.
“No, I won’t,” he says. “That’s over. I’ve no intention of doing stand-up again.”
What he will be doing is more TV, documentaries, travelogues. He’s got two or three ideas he’s toying with but it’s too early to talk about.
“And I keep threatening to write songs again, but I never seem to get round to it. I’ve written a load of stuff before, and I’m always threatening to do it again, but the trouble is I worked with great songwriters like Gerry Rafferty and mine always sound crap beside his. So I don’t bother.”
These days Connolly spends a lot of time on his art, unhampered by the Parkinson’s.
“I don’t shake on my right hand side so my drawing’s OK,” he says. “And I like doing it. I’m new to it and it’s successful which is lovely. People buy it. I’ve had three exhibitions – London, Manchester and Glasgow – and they’ve all sold out,” he says, chuffed.
Far from being a childhood talent – “I was crap, couldn’t draw,” – he only started drawing around ten years ago.
“I went for a walk in Montreal and it was freezin’ rain, that when it lands on you turns to ice, and I was really uncomfortable. So I went into a pet shop and fiddled aboot, then next door to an art shop and bought a sketch book and some felt tip pens and went back to my hotel and started to draw.
“I drew islands. Just little islands in the sea. When I came back I said to my wife, ‘look at these and tell me – don’t tell me they’re rotten, I know they’re rotten – but tell me if you think they’re getting better as they go along?’ She said ‘they’re definitely getting better’ so I stuck at it. And it was lovely, it turned out nice.”
Free of touring he has more time for drawing, his slightly surreal line drawings of characters becoming increasingly complex.
“Yes, I’ve got the time to focus, but I have trouble getting myself to start. I’m a very lazy person. And so I’d rather watch the telly.”
He enjoys political shows or feeding his addiction to programmes about murderers and prisons, (in Great American Trail he took cameras into Alcatraz) and has a particular fascination for tattoos.
“I’m fascinated by what people do when they’re left to their own devices. I like to see people with weird tattoos, doing life,” he jokes.
As for politics, always a Connolly staple, after coming out firmly against Brexit in Made in Scotland and writing “the most important thing for Scotland is to keep our contact with Europe. Scots voted to stay in Europe, and if the only way for us to do that is to become independent from England, that may just be the way to go”, Connolly is constantly being asked for his views on independence.
“I had been really vague,” he says. “They kept asking about it, and wouldn’t go away, and it’s a terribly difficult subject… Because I don’t live in Scotland, and don’t have a house there any more, I don’t get a vote. I don’t want to be one of those guys who lives in a sunny place and is patriotic then. So I just said whatever the people of Scotland want is OK by me.”
If Scotland wants it then you want it as well?
“That’s right. Scotland’s fed up voting for people and getting somebody else. They’re fed up voting for one party and being lumbered with another. You end up with Boris Johnson.
“And if people want to stay in Europe that sounds like a sensible idea to me. I don’t understand Brexit, haven’t a clue what it means, what will happen if you come out of Europe. I would try and read about it and lose the will to live.”
Most days in Key West start with Connolly doing his exercises “if I can face it. Or I get up and saunter about, after breakfast in bed. Pamela brings me breakfast in bed every day. And fixes my pillows at night. She’s brilliant. She’s very good to me,” he says.
“After sauntering about and maybe doing the stretching exercises for my back, I come indoors and if I’m in the mood I’ll draw, have a cup of tea. Yes, I have a very busy life.”
He’s joking but he does have five children to keep up with, two with first wife Iris Pressagh, and three with Stephenson, all of them now grown up and making Connolly a grandad.
“It’s great to see yourself going down the tree of life, amazing,” he says, particularly pleased to have spotted a physical resemblance in grandson Walter.
“He’s got the exact same feet as me. I-dent-ical!”
Time to get him his own pair of Banana Boots?
“I think I’ll have to,” he says.
Or Walter could saunter along to the People’s Palace and claim his grandad’s.
“Yes, they’re in the museum. You feel duty bound to be dead when you’re in a museum...” he muses.
Let’s not start that again. Especially since it’s time to stop – Billy is getting the wave to go – but before he does, will he be heading back to Scotland anytime soon?
“I’ve no plans at the moment because I’ve just been, but yes, I’ll be back. I’m looking forward to that,” he says. “Thank you. Cheer-io!” n