Ever hear the one about the comedian who got serious?
He may play a retiree in 'Quartet', but at 70, a serene Billy Connolly still shines bright, writes Edel Coffey
It's hard to believe Billy Connolly, Scottish comedy king, is 70 years old. He's still large and rangy, still has an unruly mane of hair and scraggly goatee, although both are now snowy white, and could pass for a man 10 years younger.
We meet on a cold evening, just before Christmas, and he is dressed in a monochrome take on his wacky wardrobe of tartans. His trousers bear a grey-and-black pattern and his patched woollen jacket is perfectly mis-matched (he picked it up at a vintage store in LA, where he lives, for '15 bucks').
Connolly is in town to promote his new film, the Dustin Hoffman-directed Quartet, which is about a retirement home for ageing opera singers and musicians. The cast can only be described as stellar – Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins and Sheridan Smith. Connolly, however, looks a little too young and vibrant to play Wilf, a retired singer who has had a stroke.
"I'm not too young for the part but I look too young. That was the worry for Dustin, that's why he pondered for a long time. It was supposed to be Albert Finney and he was sick and then he went to Peter O'Toole but he doesn't want to make movies any more so then he came back to me and said, would you mind cutting your hair. So they cut my hair and gave me a moustache.
"Being around so many old people every day making the movie did make me think about it. I don't normally think about ageing because I'm 37," he says with the sudden flash of the gnashers that reminds you of the Billy Connolly made famous from countless YouTube clips.
Does he think there should be more films like Quartet or last year's Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, both of which deal exclusively with characters post-retirement? "I don't think there should be a rush to make movies about old people but I think people of all ages and genders should be used in movies. It should reflect society much more than it does . . . instead of people f***ing running about and chasing vampires that bore you shiteless."
Connolly may not look his age but he has, inevitably, aged. His savage wit was the kind that used to make audience members afraid to go to the bathroom during his shows, for fear they would be heckled there and back, but today, Connolly is sedate, almost to a fault.
He seems to be fishing his words from great depths, looking mostly at a fixed point in the distance while doing so and hauling his gaze back to make eye contact only occasionally.
He repeats stories that he's told previously on chat shows, which might just be down to the fact that he's been on the publicity mill for years now and can't be bothered coming up with new tricks but it might also be down to what one Twitter wag suggested was Connolly's passage into his 'anecdotage'.
Connolly still tours but when he's not working, his life sounds as serene as his demeanour. "I like my life the way it is – smoking cigars and fishing and playing the banjo. I work when I need to. I work quite hard. I tour the way I always did.
'Being (on tour) live is like being dead. People say, 'Are you still in the business?' when I've been in the Far East and Australia and it's taken me a year to do it, so they think I'm out of the business. Other people are on telly doing three-minute spots and they look busy. They're not nearly as busy as me." He does seem to get a lot done, as well as the acting and the comedy he has also taken up art and has even exhibited his work – felt-tip pen drawings of mysterious bound figures – and plays music every day. The extraordinary anger and outrage that defined his early shows seems entirely dissipated.
I wonder has that got anything to do with him having addressed the fact that his father sexually abused him as a child, which he spoke about in his biography Billy, written by his wife, psychologist Pamela Stephenson (pictured below).
"A lot of people carry it around like a big rucksack full of bricks. You can put it down and walk away from it. You're the victim! And then there's forgiveness, which is brilliant. To forgive the person takes a huge load off you. It's dead easy. It's a bit like prayer. It's not difficult to do but it's kind of awkward at first or difficult to believe that anything's happening. Whereas if you believe it's happening, it is."
That kind of belief played a part in his determination to become a comedian from a young age. "You must have this kind of profound belief before it works, you talk yourself into it, I suppose. A little light shines somewhere.
"You have to constantly nurture it because you're your own mother. Some people have mothers and fathers who encourage them– I didn't. You have to believe it until you can't bear the thought of life without it."
Quartet is in cinemas now