Laugh­ter re­ally IS the best medicine!

As a new show cel­e­brates his 50-year ca­reer, Billy Con­nolly on how he copes with Parkin­son’s – and why he needs his wife Pamela more than ever

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - FRONT PAGE - By Re­becca Hardy

Billy Con­nolly was in a res­tau­rant with his daugh­ter Daisy the other night. It was the sort of Aus­tralian steak­house that serves deep-fried onions cut in two to look like flow­ers. Daisy, 33, who has learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties so con­tin­ues to live with Billy and his wife Pamela Stephen­son, loves the res­tau­rant. Billy doesn’t.

‘It’s ter­ri­ble. I have to sit there and pre­tend I’m en­joy­ing my­self,’ he says with a mer­ri­ment about his face that sug­gests he doesn’t have to pre­tend too hard. Billy adores his five grown-up chil­dren. So much so, you sense he’d pluck ev­ery hair from his dis­tinc­tive lion’s mane of flow­ing locks to see them happy.

‘So I’m sit­ting there and I got a pain in my left side,’ he says. ‘I thought, “I’m not go­ing to be able to get up from here and Daisy can’t help me.” So I was work­ing out a way to say to the waiter, “Ex­cuse me, can you help me out of the seat?” I was con­cerned. It was a thing that had never arisen in my life be­fore.

‘It was just one of those mo­ments. In the end I found the ta­ble was fixed to the floor so I could use it to pull on. But it was a question I’d never asked be­fore. I was wondering what kind of words I should put it in. “Should I tell him I’ve got Parkin­son’s or will I just ask him to help me?”’

Billy was di­ag­nosed with Parkin­son’s dis­ease, a pro­gres­sive neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­der that af­fects the ner­vous sys­tem, three-and-a-half years ago. Last year, when we met in New York to mark a Na­tional Tele­vi­sion Awards Spe­cial Recog­ni­tion Award for his 50 bril­liant years in com­edy, film, mu­sic and TV, the ef­fects of this cruel dis­ease were barely no­tice­able. To­day his left side shakes un­con­trol­lably. Pamela has come with him to the ho­tel in which we meet, which is a few blocks from their home in Florida where they moved four months ago.

We’re here to dis­cuss this week’s UTV spe­cial, Billy Con­nolly & Me, to mark those five decades en­ter­tain­ing us. The one-hour show fea­tures clas­sic clips through the years: Billy burst­ing onto the stage in Glas­gow in the black leo­tard and the big ba­nana boots that led to his showbusiness break in 1975, Billy danc­ing naked around the statue of Eros in Trafal­gar Square for Comic Re­lief, Billy on a boat, a bike and a bungee rope for his TV trav­el­ogues. Billy daz­zling. Elec­tri­fy­ing. Full of vim.

The change has been swift. A week ago, he ex­plains, he was put on some med­i­ca­tion that’s ‘shaken me up a bit. This is ac­tu­ally the first med­i­ca­tion I’ve been on. The spe­cial­ist here in Amer­ica kept me off it un­til I got to a cer­tain point and then she put me on it. There’s a whole lot of shak­ing go­ing on. It’s kind of weird, this in­sta­bil­ity. The only time it stops is when I’m in bed and then I can’t roll over.’ He pauses. Laughs. ‘I’m like a big log.’

Billy’s hu­mour is a ridicu­lously con­ta­gious thing that’s kept many of us laugh­ing for most of our lives. He loves be­ing funny. As a wee boy he’d sit in pud­dles to make peo­ple laugh. He’s now 74 but still likes noth­ing more than to plonk his bot­tom in the funny stuff of life. ‘I bought my kids a book at Christ­mas, The F*** It List: All The Things You Can Skip Be­fore You Die,’ he says. ‘It’s the things you have on your bucket list but have no in­ten­tion of do­ing, like sky­div­ing. I al­ways wanted to sky­dive be­cause I parachuted, but I’m not go­ing to do it now.

‘A sense of hu­mour is ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial. It’s the only thing that gets you through. Some­times I get kind of dark about it. It’s be­cause it’s for­ever, you know. It’s not like hav­ing pneu­mo­nia and you’re go­ing to get bet­ter. You’re not go­ing to get any bet­ter. A Rus­sian doc­tor said, “It’s in­cur­able.” I said, “Hey, try, we have yet to find a cure.” In­cur­able is so static and ter­ri­ble. There’s no es­cape.

‘It’s the first thing I think about in the morn­ing be­cause get­ting out of bed is quite hard. It’s a weird thing be­cause it stopped me play­ing the banjo and it stopped me smok­ing ci­gars. It seems to creep up on ev­ery­thing I like and take it away from me. It’s like be­ing tested, “Cope with that, cope with life with­out your banjo. Now I’m go­ing to make your hand shake so you can’t tie your fish­ing flies any more.”’

In his darker mo­ments does he ever think there’s a stage at which he’d de­cide enough is enough as his old friend Robin Wil­liams, who also suf­fered with Parkin­son’s, did three years ago? Billy was deeply up­set by his sui­cide. Robin was ‘a pal’ whom he loved dearly. ‘Ask­ing wait­ers to help you out from the ta­ble is one of those stages,’ he says with an hon­esty that de­fines this bril­liant man. ‘It’s like say­ing to your wife, “Could you help me up from the chair?”’ Which he’s done upon dis­cov­er­ing a chair is too low for him when he ar­rives.

‘It’s weird. I’m try­ing to stay on the light side be­cause the dark side is un­think­able.’ Does he ever get an­gry? ‘Aye,’ he says. ‘I apol­o­gised to Pam yes­ter­day. I said, “I’ve been a bit gruff.” She said, “Oh, you’re OK.” I just get fed up.’

Pamela and Billy met on the set of Not The Nine O’Clock News in 1979 and mar­ried ten years later. She’s now an em­i­nent clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and best­selling au­thor, but mostly, I sus­pect, she wor­ries about Billy. She stopped him ‘go­ing down with the ship’ with his heavy drink­ing when they first fell in love and would move heaven and earth to be able to do so now.

So much so that last year she de­cided they should leave their home of ten years in New York for a warmer cli­mate in Florida. He likes noth­ing more than to spend his days ‘on the boat fish­ing’ or draw­ing. ‘This one doesn’t shake,’ he says, hold­ing up his right hand. ‘So I can draw. I’ve had ex­hi­bi­tions. The other day I drew a half man, half frog. It’s lovely here, it makes me feel good, plus when we moved it was win­ter in New York and I didn’t want to be slid­ing all over the side­walk. I’m not very good with bal­ance. I walk like a drunk man. You have to take that all into con­sid­er­a­tion. Pamela ar­ranged it.’

Right now Pamela is off fetch­ing him some tea and honey. This morn­ing she brought him break­fast in bed. ‘I’d al­ready got up so I had to get back into bed, so I had to get out twice just to be nice.’ He laughs fit to burst. Again, it’s con­ta­gious. You just can’t help your­self around Billy. Then he stops. Pauses. Re­flects for a mo­ment.

‘It’s kind of drawn us to­gether,’ he says. ‘I’m re­ally de­pen­dent on her, you know phys­i­cally, whereas I used to be the strong guy. Which is kind of pleas­ant. It’s a pleas­ant thing to lose the strong guy. You don’t need it. So it’s nicer.’

In the past, time spent apart seemed to be the glue that held the two of them to­gether. Billy has al­ways been some­thing of an is­land – a man who likes to be alone. ‘I don’t re­ally be­long any­where,’ he

‘I’m re­ally de­pen­dent on Pamela phys­i­cally’

says. ‘I get along just fine on my own. Even in a crowd I sort of find my­self stand­ing quiet, alone, ob­serv­ing. I don’t like peo­ple I know next to me in the dress­ing room be­fore I go on stage.

‘My mind is away some­where else. So I’d ask Pamela not to come. She never un­der­stood it. She al­ways thinks it’s be­cause of the groupies – she calls them floozies. She’s off her head. It’s non­sense. I don’t floozie.’ Did you ever? His eyes light up like a pa­parazzi flash­bulb. ‘That’s one of the great side dishes of showbusiness,’ he says. ‘To deny you en­joyed it would be a sin. It’s like say­ing you feel noth­ing for your old girl­friends. I love them all. I think very fondly of them all and I think of them often.’

Hang on, Billy. Rewind. Were there lots of floozies? ‘Mil­lions,’ he says. ‘It was lovely, smash­ing. Men lie to them­selves with con­sum­mate ease. They just say, “Oh, it doesn’t mat­ter. It’s not the same thing.” I al­ways re­mem­ber the floozies as great fun. Although I was drunk most of the time so I don’t think I was a great lover.’

The floozies stopped when he met Pamela. ‘She’s the real thing,’ he says. ‘It was good for me in so many ways. It was time to change what I was or go down with the ship and she helped me by spot­ting I was in trou­ble. I didn’t think I was at all.

‘What it did was drag me into the new world by hav­ing chil­dren again [Billy had two, Jamie and Cara, from his first mar­riage to Iris Pres­sagh and three, Scar­lett, Amy and Daisy, with Pamela] and hav­ing to face it. So I had to stop do­ing ev­ery­thing in or­der to have the en­ergy to cope with these kids, and it turned out to be the best thing that ever hap­pened to me.’

Billy, born the youngest of two chil­dren in a ten­e­ment in Glas­gow, was four years old when his mother Mary upped and left the fam­ily home. He and his sis­ter Florence were bul­lied by two aunts who raised them and, when his fa­ther Wil­liam re­turned from serv­ing in the RAF in Burma, Billy was phys­i­cally and sex­u­ally abused by him too. Such is Billy’s way of look­ing at life, he’s never re­ally wal­lowed in self-pity. ‘There’s no need to be bit­ter about any­thing be­cause there are great ex­am­ples all around you,’ he says. ‘I al­ways re­mem­ber go­ing to my friends’ houses and how dif­fer­ent the at­mos­phere was there. So there was al­ways hope... in the dis­tance.’

Again he stops and thinks. ‘This Bud­dhist thing [Billy, who was raised a Catholic, ex­plored Bud­dhism af­ter meet­ing Pamela], this liv­ing in the mo­ment is very good for that. This is all there is. The past doesn’t ex­ist. You have to make it ex­ist by think­ing about it. Mo­ments are all cre­ated.’

These mo­ments have, by any mea­sure, been pretty ex­tra­or­di­nary even for a man gifted with an imag­i­na­tion as huge as Billy’s. Take, for ex­am­ple, the ‘pals’ he’s made along the way: leg­ends such as Eric Clap­ton, El­ton John and Eric Idle, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, the Duchess of York. ‘Prince Charles is a nice bloke. He’s got a soul,’ he says. ‘Most of the royals I’ve met have been re­ally nice. I like toffs. It’s like meet­ing PG Wode­house.

‘There was a doc­tor I knew in Lon­don who was a real toff. He and I were hav­ing a cup of tea with friends and some­one was say­ing some­thing about the work­ing class or trade unions. The doc­tor said, “Don’t say that in front of Billy. He’ll box our ears and call us clots.” I was help­less.’ Billy slips into a posh ac­cent. ‘You clot.’ His eyes are wet with tears of laugh­ter.

‘I re­mem­ber Fergie’s two girls Princesses Eu­ge­nie and Beatrice were in our house in Los An­ge­les where we lived be­fore mov­ing to New York. They were with my girls play­ing in the dress­ing-up box. They both came into the room and said, “Look, we’re Princesses.”’ He rolls his eyes in hu­mour.

‘When I was work­ing as a welder [Billy worked as an ap­pren­tice welder be­fore tak­ing up the banjo] I knew I was go­ing to be some­thing. I just didn’t know what it was. I re­mem­ber sit­ting on the pro­pel­ler shaft look­ing up the Clyde and de­sign­ing my al­bum sleeve. I didn’t even play the banjo then but I was de­sign­ing it in my head.’

When Billy de­cided upon the banjo in­stead of weld­ing at the age of 23 his grand­mother, one of the few peo­ple who showed him love in his child­hood, told him his head was ‘full of daber­ties’. ‘Daber­ties were sort of stick-on tat­toos that you licked and dabbed on your hand. It was the most Scot­tish thing I’ve ever heard. A daberty is noth­ing, so she meant my head was full of non­sense, which of course it is.’

Now Billy is loved the world over. As in­ter­views with fans on his UTV spe­cial show, they know him ev­ery­where from his na­tive Glas­gow to Tim­buktu. But it’s his en­dur­ing hu­mil­ity that makes him loved. Does he ever make ridicu­lous de­mands? ‘That’s a ter­ri­ble trap to fall into,’ he says. ‘Ap­par­ently El­ton does it.’ He says this fondly. El­ton is, of course, a dear pal. His eyes sparkle with hu­mour as he warms to his theme. ‘He gets white roses with all the sharp bits, the thorns, taken off.’

His eyes soften. ‘Aye, fame’s great but if you’re not care­ful you for­get what your aim is in life be­cause you’re un­der such pres­sure.’

Will he walk on stage again? ‘Aye, well...’ he stops. Starts the sen­tence again. ‘I’ll have to see how this medicine works out. Life’s good fun. You must never for­get it’s good fun as well. We used to say in Scot­land, “We never died a win­ter yet.” Win­ter comes and win­ter goes and it never killed us be­fore, so let’s get on with it.’

Billy smiles at the thought of this. It’s time to go. He needs to eat and rest. But as Pamela moves to help him up from his chair he says he’ll try it him­self. He man­ages it. Per­haps the med­i­ca­tion is sort­ing it­self out? ‘We live in hope,’ he says. We do.

Billy Con­nolly & Me: A Cel­e­bra­tion is on Tues­day at 9pm on UTV.

‘I try to stay on the light side – the dark side’s un­think­able’ ‘Parkin­son’s seems to take ev­ery­thing I like away’

Billy now and (far left) with Pamela in 1990

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.