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
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