One of the UK’s most beloved stand-up comedians, Billy Connolly is recognized around the world for his HBO comedy specials and roles in movies like The Boondock Saints and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. An inspiration to generations of British comedians, including such stars as Eddie Izzard, Billy is known simply as “The Big Yin” in his native Scotland. But his road to success was anything but easy. Abandoned by his mother in a Glasgow tenement, abused by his father and the cruel aunt who became his caretaker, he would seem to have little chance of survival let alone meteoric success.
Billy, the revelatory, poignant, and wildly entertaining biography is written by the woman who knows him best—his wife. Pamela Stephenson, a clinical psychologist, takes us through the heartbreaking and hilarious life of this comic legend, providing an intimate window into what made him the man he is today.
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'JESUS IS DEAD, AND IT'S YOUR FAULT!'
Billy Connolly, King of Comedy, Master of Mirth, Chancellor of Chortling, as his children have been instructed to address him, is quivering in the wings of the spectacularly cavernous Hammersmith Apollo theatre.
'Pamela, what the hell am I going to say to these people?'
Horrified, I turn to face him. Oh God, here we go ... he's not bluffing. Now there are two of us heading for a full-blown fight-or-flight fit. Is it possible that this time, the first in history, he might actually freeze, forget, stammer, storm off stage or batter someone? I do not fancy witnessing his death by four thousand excitable Londoners. They begin to roar as his name is announced, clapping in unison and stamping their feet. It's the start of tonight's war, the one he always declares then dreads.
'You'll be OK ...'
I watch him arm himself mentally with an opening shot. As usual, he'll take no prisoners. I'm a white-knuckled wimp when the enemy's battle cry reaches its pitch ... then suddenly he's off. A blinding circle of light assaults him and I see his face change to a fighting calm. 'Scot of the Anarchic' is stepping out fearlessly into the front line. He might be gone for quite some time.
The bastard's done it again. Frightened me to death, and he's going to win after all. I peer out into the centre of the fray and witness a beautiful armistice, achieved in the first few disarming sentences from his scowling, apologetic mouth. There is always such a peace for him out there in that spotlight, probably the only place he's truly happy. Each time, it seems he's given another chance, a chance he's driven endlessly to re-create; it's a chance to gain mastery, to triumph over – he can almost see their faces out there in the audience – Mamie, William, Mona, Rosie. I notice that tonight it is especially Rosie who must be slain as he launches into hilariously savage tales of algebra and abject humiliation.
He is strutting, striding, tilting at windmills. I'm thinking, how weird that he is so aroused, furious and vindictive, yet his face at times seems almost beatific. Swathed in disgustingly musty wing velvets, I peek out at the front row. As individuals, these are hardly soldiers: T-shirted people, they are settled in comfortably to be transported to places where petrol prices, the babysitter, the in-laws, are replaced by tyrants and tenement buildings, by little old ladies in fat, furry coats, and the ubiquitous, noisy farts. It will all end in tears and some very sore bellies. I can finally breathe. He is blessed; encircled most brightly not by forty thousand watts but by his own fiery, evangelical fuck-youness.
* * *
Ironically, Billy's very earliest memory is one of being terrified by a circle of light. Until he was three years old, he and his beloved sister Florence slept in a curtained-off alcove in the kitchen. One evening she aimed a mirror reflection onto the wall, allowing it to pirouette and chase him until he screamed for mercy.
He had been born right next to that alcove on the kitchen floor, all eleven pounds of him plopping out onto freezing linoleum. The rage that followed this unceremonious introduction to the world has never left him, although it was a serendipitous launching for a future enemy of the bourgeoisie. For eight months he nestled in a wooden drawer with not one Fisher-Price contraption in sight.
His family's living arrangements were similar to those of thousands of other inhabitants of Glasgow, a city that had come to be defined by row upon row of late-nineteenth-century apartment buildings known as 'the tenements'. These fine architectural soldiers had originally been created by Glasgow's Improvement Trust, as model housing for working-class families. But by the time the Connollys moved into half of the third floor of 65 Dover Street in Anderston, many of them had deteriorated into rotting slums that would need more than a spot of paint to 'take the bad look off them', as Billy would say.
The classically derived elevations in red or yellow sandstone were usually pleasant enough, but the interiors were thoroughly depressing. A dingy central staircase, stinking of cabbage and cat piss, spiralled upwards to the flats. Two or more poky apartments were squeezed into each floor, usually with just two rooms apiece, and a communal lavatory out on the landing. Some families were lumbered with the 'coffin end', or corner apartment, which was even smaller than the rest.
The buildings themselves butted right onto the street and were usually entered via an interior alleyway known as a close. The 'Wally' closes, as some were called, were beautifully tiled halfway up the wall, with a leafy motif running along the top. Such finery, however, ended abruptly at the threshold of a darker, often treacherous, tunnel known as the 'dunny' (short for dungeon), that dead-ended in an enclosed rear courtyard, itself a veritable assault-course of broken bicycles, flapping knickers, and reeking middens.
Considering it now through a haze of nostalgia, Billy says the Glasgow tenement is a New York brownstone without a fire escape. Some of the buildings certainly had grandeur and, like their New York counterparts, are now sought after by the well-to-do. Billy's first home was not one of those. The Dover Street flat had only two rooms: a kitchen-living room, with a niche where the children slept, and another room for their parents. The entire family bathed in the kitchen sink and there was no hot water at all. As an enduring legacy of his early cramped existence, Billy is now quite uncomfortable in large living spaces. He sighs over the phone to me from fabulous hotels all over the world: 'They've gone and upgraded me again. Bloody Presidential Suite this time.'
I let him off lightly, because I know it's a genuine problem for him. Others who achieve renown cannot wait to sprawl sideways on a California King four-poster with a big-screen TV in every corner and a whirlpool on the deck, but not Billy. He has never really liked our Los Angeles house because of its unfamiliar spaciousness, and prefers to hide out in his tiny study for hours on end, drinking gallons of tea and plunking on his banjo.
* * *
It is 5.30 a.m. in wintertime Glasgow, 2001. On my way to the airport for a transatlantic flight, I ask Jim the taxi driver to make a detour.
'You know Dover Street?' I inquire. 'It's around here somewhere.'
The fact that the Hilton Hotel is now in Anderston speaks to the gentrification of the place. We cruise along Finnieston Street, now home of a Citroën dealership, PC World and the golden arches. 'It's quite a decent area ...' Jim is eager to be informative. 'Not as rough as it used to be.'
Argyle Street is now split in two by the motorway. As we approach Singh's corner shop, on the ground floor of an original tenement building at one end of Dover Street, it becomes evident that all the houses on one side of the street have been pulled down. In their place is a small, grassy square that faces a fashionable business centre on the next parallel street. Several modern buildings have replaced tenements on the other side of Dover Street itself, pale-brick imitations of the sandstone originals.
I search around in the drizzle and I am relieved to find that No.3 and No.5 Dover Street are still standing. The grimy, four-stor-eyed blocks of flats are graced with white lace curtains that deter me from peering into the street-level apartments. While Jim smokes patiently in the cab, I stand in the silent street trying to evoke the past. It's easy to become fanciful in the early light, seeing the spectre of Billy's mother, fast-wheeling the rain-soaked pram around Singh's corner to get herself and the weans into the shelter of the close.
When I arrive in Los Angeles, I describe the scene to Billy. He is unmoved. 'Yeah, they pulled my first house down and I'm upset,' he jokes. 'Now where are they gonna put the plaque?'
* * *
As an infant, William Connolly junior was a blond, brown-eyed puddin' with a face that would 'get a piece at any windy', as they say in Glasgow if you look pitiful enough to score free sandwiches. He was a war baby, born on 24 November 1942, just as his father was preparing to leave for Burma.
At twenty-three years old, William Connolly senior had been conscripted into the Royal Air Force, a fate that interrupted his career as an optical instrument maker at Barr and Stroud's. He always considered himself very lucky to have been accepted as an apprentice at that firm. If he had not been dux of St Peter's School in Partick, he might have been one of the many jobless victims of the rampant anti-Irish feeling that existed all around Glasgow at the time.
His father, Jack, was an Irishman whose family members were among the seven million victims of the potato famine, grinding poverty and relentless discrimination, who had been emigrating from Ireland since the seventeenth century. Many had sailed to the United States and Canada, risking typhus and dysentery in the 'coffin ships' and New World quarantine camps, but Jack's Connemara-born family had sailed to Scotland and settled in Glasgow in the 1920s. It was probably the better choice. The average length of life for Irish refugees who reached the Americas was six years after landing. The American streets were not paved with gold after all, but rather Irish immigrants were expected to pave the streets themselves and to do so for very low wages.
Expectations of Scotland-bound Irish emigrants were not so fanciful, yet Glasgow society echoed the Yankees in being highly prejudiced against the Irish, due to religious, racial, cultural and economic differences. In Glasgow, there was also the fear that jobs would be lost to the incomers. In America, the 'Know Nothing' hate group murdered Irish immigrants and destroyed their property; in Glasgow there was a concerted effort to deny them jobs and lodgings. One of the most popular songs of the 1870s said it all:
'I am a decent Irishman and I come from Ballyfad And I want a situation and I want it mighty bad. A position I saw advertised is a thing for me, says I, But the dirty spouting ended with "No Irish Need Apply".'
Similar exclusionary signs were out in force in Glasgow in the 1930s when Billy's father was looking for work, hung in places where jobs were available for Protestants only. The notice outside Barr and Stroud's was only a little less overt than usual. 'Apprentices wanted' it read, 'Boys' Brigade Welcome'. Being Catholic and half-Irish, William had not been a candidate for membership of the staunchly Protestant Boys' Brigade, an organization founded with evangelical zeal in the previous century by one William Smith who wished to promote health, constructive activity, and a moral soundness among Glaswegian youth.
Jack Connolly had married Jane McLuskey, a Glaswegian lass from a devoutly Catholic family, who bore him seven children, six of whom survived. William, born in 1919, was the youngest child after Charlie, John, James, Mona and Margaret; while a younger sister named Mary died of tuberculosis when she was only eight. William himself was a sickly child, spoiled by his mother and bossed by his oldest sister, Mona. He had problems with his eyes, and needed several pairs of chunky, brown-framed spectacles. He was passionate about football, and insisted on the supremacy of the Celtic team until the day he died. Even though he had been promising at school, children of the depression had little opportunity for further education, so he taught himself logarithms, and how to speak Italian and German.
William was a strict Catholic, but it is unlikely that his tortured aspect and taciturn nature were entirely due to religion. His father Jack may have passed on some of his formidable qualities to his son for he was the epitome of stoicism and pride, as illustrated by a family story that has been handed down from the 1920s. The tale is set just before the pubs closed one New Year's Eve, or Hogmanay as they call it in Scotland, 'the same as other people's Christmas, but without God to knacker the proceedings', as Billy puts it. Jack, who was extremely fond of a drink, bought a 'Hogmanay carry-out': a paper bag with a bottle of whisky and a few bottles of Guinness in it. On his way out of the pub, he made the mistake of putting his parcel on the beer-soaked floor. He strode home to see out the old year and welcome in the new with a skinful of Guinness, not realizing that the brown paper had become sodden and weak. A few streets from home, the bottom fell out of the bag and, to his horror, the contents smashed and spilled into the gutter. Jack returned home empty-handed and recounted the sad story to his wife.
'What in heaven's name did you do?' she asked, appalled. Quite apart from the personal embarrassment, Hogmanay is the most important of all Scottish celebrations and there would have been no time or spare cash to replace his loss. The man stared into the middle distance, chin in the air. 'Jack walked on,' he declared.
Jack was a slim, good-looking man with a handlebar moustache. He managed to support his wife and children by working as a labourer, a plater's helper in the shipyards. The job required great strength so, despite his thin frame, he must have been quite wiry. His son William was also svelte as a youth, but he eventually tumesced into a bloated man with the biggest neck in the world. Nowadays, Billy always complains, 'I don't want to wear a tie. I'll look like a man with a head transplant!' He got that look from his father.
At Barr and Stroud's in 1940, William had not been fully focused on his work. At twenty years old he had met a teenager called Mamie McLean, of the McLean of Duart clan from the isle of Mull, who returned to her mother's house every evening with hands covered in fine red dust from polishing the lenses of rangefinders. She was a handsome and volatile sixteen-year-old, with long, dark hair and a forthright expression. The only girl in the family, Mamie had developed a strong personality and a self-protective sense of humour. She had a fine ability to stand up for herself, although that may be an understatement; some say she was the type of woman who could start a fight in an empty house. She was fast on her feet, and would always streak out ahead of her brothers, Neil, John, Edward (Teddy) and Hugh, in their holiday seafront races. At the Protestant Kent Road School in Glasgow, Mamie had shown herself to be bright, but with a war on there was generally little emphasis on education, and so she went to work.
Wartime Glasgow was a sinister place to 'court a lassie'. As evening fell, a sickly, green light spread through the streets as people scurried to get home before the blackout. Bombers occasionally dumped their lethal loads on the city, the worst occasions being two nights of non-stop bombing on 13 and 14 March 1941, which were devastating for citizens from the industrial areas of the River Clyde. The 'Clydebank Blitz' left two-thirds of that town's population homeless, and killed or wounded thousands, but the only casualty in the McLean household was their pet canary, who perished when a land mine blew open the shutters. Mamie's father, Neil McLean, was an air-raid warden and, before a local air-raid shelter was built, everyone in the largely Irish Catholic neighbourhood would sprint to relative safety in the bottom floor of his tenement. Every time there was even a hint of a bang or whistle from the skies above, Mamie and her brothers would be deafened by exhortations from their fellow refugees. 'Mary, mother of God, Jesus and Joseph and all the saints!'
They were nearly drowned in holy water. This must have been particularly irksome for Neil, a Protestant whose own father had been a Boys' Brigade officer. A diminutive Highlander from the west of Scotland, Neil's father looked out of place in Glasgow, still wearing his navy, deep-sea cap with a shiny peak. He had even hung fish to dry on a small rope outside his city tenement window.
'Well, Mr McLean,' the Catholic corner boys would bait Neil, imitating his 'teuchter', or country, accent, 'did you find the Lord today?'
'I wasn't aware I'd lost him.'
The 'corner boys' were the casualties of the jobless depression years. With no money and nowhere to go, men would stand around in clumps at every intersection of the city, just blethering and shooting the breeze. Neil McLean, however, was never one to be idle. He had been a warehouseman for McFarren, Smith and Glass, but when he lost his job he spent his time cycling and running a football team. They were hard times for him and the family, but unlike many of his contemporaries, Neil kept his standards and avoided strong drink. They were able to eat because his wife, Flora, managed to make a living cleaning houses and offices. One of her employers was a Highland woman, a Mrs Morrison.
'And what does your husband do, Flora?' she asked one day.
'Well, Ma'am, he has no work.'
'Did he ever think of trying to get into the Corporation?'
'Och, no one gets into the Corporation today.'
'I'll speak to Mr McKinnon.'
In those days, every bus and tramcar of the Glasgow Transport Corporation had 'General Manager: L. McKinnon' written on its side. Out of the gloom of the depression, Lachie McKinnon found Neil a job as a conductor. He was eventually promoted to an inspector and was with the company for forty years until he retired.
Neil, or 'Big Neilly' as he became known, was a rigid man, a strict disciplinarian who frightened the life out of his subordinates and caused his children to wish he would take a drink from time to time. He stood straight, walked like a guardsman, and never left for work without a starched collar, black tie, and gleaming buttons. Despite all that, it was rumoured that he was secretly quite timid, 'a big fearty' as they say in Glasgow, and would send Flora to the door whenever he was called upon in his role as air-raid warden.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Billy"
Copyright © 2001 Pamela Stephenson.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1: 'Jesus is Dead, and It's Your Fault!',
2: 'He's Got Candles in His Loaf!',
3: In Search of a Duck's Arse,
4: Oxyacetylene Antics,
5: Shaving Round the Acne,
6: Windswept and Interesting,
7: 'I Want to Be a Beatnik',
8: 'See You, Judas, You're Getting on My Tits!',
9: Big Banana Feet,
10: Stairway to Hell,
11: Captain Demento and the Barracuda,
12: 'That Nikon's Going Up Your Arse!',
13: Legless in Manhattan,
14: There's Holes in Your Willie,
15: Pale Blue Scottish Person,
16: Nipple Rings and Fart Machines,
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"Billy Connolly is my inspiration."