Billy Connolly - comedy's great survivor
After 40 years in the business, the Big Yin Billy Connolly is still blazing a trial - this time across America.
It feels apt to reconsider the appeal and achievement of Billy Connolly ahead of his new ITV show trailing across America along the epic, and almost mythic, Route 66. For in essence the hook of that programme - pitting his unmistakable salt-of-the-earth personality against a vast, changing, wonder-inducing landscape - sums up a crucial, enduring aspect of his popularity as a comedian.
Where many stand-ups relay what they’ve seen and done with a very British sense of detachment, cynicism and reserve, Connolly - or the Big Yin, or in fact “Billy” as we can’t help but call him - exudes a greater, more inspiring sense of being on a quest, of roving the world prepared to be taken aback.
This doesn’t succumb to hippy-trippy goonishness - you sense his early working experience for one thing, when he left school and became a welder in the Glasgow docks, acted as a lasting brake on pretension. He wants to be amused as well as awed, and to share that amusement. Yet there’s an affirmative quality about the way he observes life that people from all backgrounds, and whatever their class, identify strongly with.
When you see him in action, on stage or screen (his acting roles excepted), you’re always conscious of where he has come from - those tough tenement roots - but he always seems to be going somewhere too. He refers to childhood often, and we know, thanks to the autobiographical revelations that his wife Pamela Stephenson has brought into the public domain, just how horrible and abusive those early days were.
But he carries with him, in the twinkly-eyed charm and worldly wisdom that offsets his rough-hewn, expletive-ready conversational manner, a desire to “move on”, to bust through the confinements of his checkered personal history.
There is damage there, but there’s also the unfettered curiosity of childhood: we tend to use the word “kidult” disparagingly, but Connolly is a supreme example of the boy who grew up - he’ll be 70 next year - without losing some of boyhood’s most endearing features.
Things that we might barely notice, or dismiss as rubbish, he’ll seize on as brilliant. Having sidestepped into comedy from the world of folk music, he retains a troubador spirit. That must be partly why TV-makers seem to view him as a natural fit for the travelogue format - his BBC World Tour series was an enjoyably harmonious marriage of gigging with roamaround riffing.
His place in the pantheon of British comedy? He’s clearly a crucial figure. These days he doesn’t especially set the agenda - unless he’s putting his foot in his mouth, as he did in a notorious and roundly condemned quip about Kenneth Bigley in October 2004, days before the British hostage in Iraq was murdered.
Yet he stands as the grand old man and chief forerunner of British “alternative” comedy. He came to prominence in the mid-70s bringing a healthy blast of bawdy into living-rooms grown stale with pleasing and pedestrian light entertainment yet he was never some turn-for-hire from the working-men’s clubs of that era; there was a freshness and a frankness about his shtick, which by and large he has retained.
What people - comedians too - admire is his ability to make it look so easy, to tell a yarn - and digress within a yarn - and still hold the crowd. “The trick is to keep flannelling til you remember what you were talking about in the first place,” he told an audience at the Royal Albert Hall in 1987. My main bugbear is his insistence on enjoying it overly as he’s doing it - I don’t mind the effing and blinding so much as his manner of bending double, creasing up, chortling mid-flow; it’s a tic verging on, well, a trick. And sometimes the shaggy shambles becomes too shambolic.
For every duff patch in a show of his, though, there’s almost always something that leaves the competition standing. It’s hard to think of many comedians who’ve been going that long you could say the same about. He is, almost 40 years after his first solo comedy album, a survivor like few others, still a major contender and obviously a great Scot.
'Billy Connolly’s Route 66’ starts tonight on ITV1 at 9pm
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