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Respect for local hero who aspired to be a big yin

IT was as the 1960s morphed into the 1970s that I first clapped eyes on Billy Connolly, the recipient this week of an overdue Scottish Bafta gong for his outstanding contribution to film and television.

The venue was a pub in Edinburgh's Lothian Road which was then something of a Mecca for folk music devotees.

Connolly was part of a group whose other personnel included Gerry Rafferty and Rab Noakes, both serious musicians. The microphone was Connolly's property though he hardly needed one. Brought up in Glasgow, where a pneumatic drill struggles to be heard above the din, you could probably have heard him in Lesmahagow.

Though he played the banjo rather well he obviously preferred talking and, as the night wore on, his introductions grew ever longer, prompting a dark cloud to envelope Rafferty, who was itching to play. Many in the audience were likewise irritated but many more laughed until they hiccuped.

At the time I had never visited Glasgow. Growing up in the east we were warned against it. Glasgow, we were told, was where unspeakable things happened. From the top of Arthur's Seat on a clear day you could just about make it out, shrouded in smoke. Those weren't hills we could see but bings.

That Connolly was a denizen of such a place was no surprise. Had they no barbers there? Every sentence was sauteed with swear words, which tumbled out of his mouth like salt from a cellar. He was the antithesis of Edinburgh, describing in The Jobbie Weecha the soulless suburb of Corstorphine as the capital's "Spam Belt". He looked wild and, by all accounts, he was.

In hindsight, I realise what I had witnessed was Connolly about to transform himself from musician to comedian. In due course he released a double album – recorded in Airdrie's answer to Abbey Road – in which he combined repartee with a song or two. Its piece de resistance was The Crucifixion, in which a young girl working in a Glasgow printer's inserted a misprint in the Bible, thus relocating the Last Supper to the Gallowgate's Saracen's Head, "quite a popular place for a cocktail of an evening".

Such blasphemous nonsense roused the Holy Willies into a froth of indignation, ensuring a hike in sales. Soon Connolly could not walk down Sauchiehall Street without being accosted. He was the "big yin", recognised by all, Glasgow's own Lennie Bruce. Then, in 1975, came that appearance on Michael Parkinson's chat show, when he launched into a story about a man who'd murdered his wife and buried her bottom up in order to have somewhere to park his bike.

Overnight Connolly went from local hero to national celebrity at which point, it has been argued, Scots did what they invariably do when one of their own makes it elsewhere, and insisted he was not much cop anyhow. Nor has this attitude entirely gone away. His sins are deemed to be many. He no longer lives in a tenement; he hobnobs with the royals; he once advertised alcohol-free lager; he is a teetotaller; he married an Australian; he lives in a castle, not Castlemilk; he once described Holyrood as a "wee pretendy Parliament"; success has changed him.

This last charge is often levelled at our fellow countrymen and women, from Sir Sean to Sir Alex, who, like cream, have risen to the top. You are damned if you do and damned if you don't. The fact is that Connolly always wanted to be a star and astutely adapted his act to ensure he became one. You begin by mimicking those you admire, in Connolly's case Hank Williams, and then find your own special talent if you possess it.

For many years Connolly played the professional Glaswegian until he'd sucked it dry. But eventually, you have to move on, reinvent yourself, test yourself in deeper water. Thus his sitcom adventures in America and his emergence as a film star. His latest film is called Quartet, directed by Dustin Hoffman who, on Desert Island Discs recently, mentioned Connolly in the same laudatory breath as Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Tom Courtney. Not bad going for a lad from Dover Street, Anderston.

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