You could certainly argue that Connolly’s take on the world would never have been so acute, so wonderfully perverse, had he not suffered so much in his childhood. Born in 1942, he was abandoned by his mother four years later, and in 2001 he revealed that he had been ­physically and sexually abused by his father. It might have been an incredibly active ­imagination that led to him becoming such a hopeless dreamer at school – or simply an unbridled, understandable desire to get away from the world around him.

Connolly’s young head was clearly confused in the late 1950s. He considered joining the Merchant Navy, but his father warned against “the homosexuals”. When he said he’d love to become an actor, his father said the same thing. Connolly later said it was as if “the only hedge against homosexuality was to become a welder”. Yet although he surrendered to a job in the Glasgow shipyards and working-class convention, he still sought escape. It arrived in the form of the Territorial Army – even though the peace-loving, part-time soldier was far from ever becoming a killing machine.


Connolly was a natural hippy, out of sync with the surrounding world, in harmony with the gentle rebels and occasional hedonists. Through the folk-club scene he was to discover a corner of the world in which he could be comfortable.

Gradually the folk-hippy learned how to tackle an audience, and left the shipyards after eight years in an attempt at a professional musical career with the Humblebums, alongside Tam Harvey and later Gerry Rafferty. Soon, though, Connolly’s views on life began to take over from the music, and the banjo played second fiddle to the stream-of-consciousness gags, the acute observations. Unconvinced he could make it as a performer, he wrote in order to prove to himself and to those who knew him that his imagination was in fact his strength.

In 1972 he made his theatrical debut, at the Cottage Theatre, Cumbernauld, with a revue called Connolly’s Glasgow Flourish. He followed this with The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, co-written with the poet Tom Buchan, and was a huge success at the Edinburgh Fringe with a set and costumes designed by the artist and writer John Byrne.

Connolly was ecstatic. At the age of 30, he’d turned a corner.


The writing continued but Connolly’s confidence as a performer soared. Scots flocked to see him, and in 1974 he sold out the Pavilion in ­Glasgow. A live album, Solo Concert, was released, containing the now infamous set-piece The Last Supper and Crucifixion.

The comic took ­Glasgow life and laughed at it. He was funny enough, and honest enough, to produce humour that allowed Glaswegians to be able to laugh at themselves, getting away with lines such as “The great thing about Glasgow is that if there’s a nuclear attack it’ll look exactly the same afterwards” because most Glaswegians agreed. The watching world was in on the joke, and they flocked to see his sell-out shows. His stand-out moment came when he appeared at the Apollo Theatre in 1975 for an incredible 14 shows in 12 nights.

Billy Connolly was now a star – in Scotland, at least.


UK-wide fame, however, had yet to arrive. Then came the moment that was to change the face of comedy in Britain. Connolly’s management secured a booking on Michael Parkinson’s chat show, which at the time attracted 15 million viewers. Connolly went on, and told The Joke – the one about the bloke who murders his wife and buries her body in the dunny, but leaves the bum sticking out. The punchline – “Well, I needed somewhere to park my bike” – turned Parky’s face into a river of tears.

“It was incredibly edgy for its time,” Connolly has said of the 1975 show. “My manager, on the way over, warned me not to do it, but it was a great joke and the interview was going so well I thought, oh, f— that. I don’t know where I got the courage in those days, but Michael did put confidence in me.”

Connolly’s profile soared around the world – or at least the parts of the world ­occupied by expats. Suddenly, being Scottish was in favour. Scots in Toronto with hybrid accents were now listening to Solo Concert, repeating the pastiches to their pals and relearning the patter. They’d start to call each other Big Yin and go to their local 7-Eleven to ask why there was no Irn Bru on sale.

However, Connolly’s career trajectory wasn’t vertical. When Elton John offered him a leg up with an invite to appear at his US concerts, American pop fans reckoned it was all too incongruous. “In Washington, some guy threw a pipe and it hit me right between my eyes,” said Connolly. “It wasn’t my audience. They made me feel about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit.”


Britain wasn’t slow to appreciate the depth of the former shipyard worker’s talents. In 1975, Connolly appeared in Just Another Saturday, a television play written by his pal Peter McDougall. And on November 1 his song D.I.V.O.R.C.E went to number one, a parody of Tammy Wynette’s torturous tale of marital break-up, rewritten with a vet-biting dog as the central character. Topping the hit parade left Connolly feeling on top of the world. Although he’d had strong record sales in the past, suddenly the folkie comedian was so much more.

More importantly, Connolly had single-handedly ­redefined the image of the ­Glaswegian. Until this point, dialect was barely tolerated in the UK. The No Mean City legacy prevailed. Now, thanks to his success, aggressive Scots could be regarded as funny. The Glasgow genie was out of the bottle.


At times Connolly is an extremely private individual, but there is no doubt that for most of his adult life he has been an inveterate attention-seeker. The unreconstructed-hippy presentation is his default position, but he can’t resist looking foppish, wild, strange and colourful.

In the mid-1970s he was wearing ponchos in Glasgow – a time when only Clint ­Eastwood and teenage girls wore them. Crocheted ones. His iconic Banana Boots, created by John Byrne, sum up Connolly perfectly: outrageous, bold and surreal. Since wearing them, he’s wallowed in the opportunity to show the world his banjo and flower tattoos, his nipple rings, his painted toenails – and the green hair he once showed up with at Celtic Park.


In 1976, Connolly was in raptures when his play, An’ Me wi’ a Bad Leg, Tae, opened in Irvine and toured in London. He was recognised as a Scottish writer who had produced a legacy. However, he had also developed a taste for cocaine, which escalated his already considerable alcohol intake. In London, full of cocaine and wine, he collapsed on the floor of a ­recording studio.

In 1979, Billy embarked on the Big Wee Tour of Britain – 69 dates in 84 days. Backstage in Brighton, he met the comedian Pamela Stephenson for the second time, having already appeared with her on Not the Nine O’Clock News. He told her that he was desperately unhappy and that his marriage to Iris Pressagh, whom he had married in 1969, was over. Back at his hotel, where they began their affair, he reportedly drank 30 brandies.

“What I saw of him – particularly in that dressing room – was that he was about to die,” Stephenson has said. “He was very suicidal. He was throwing everything away, desperately trying to feel no pain at all. You know how you get a sense from some people when they are very self-destructive that there is something they are trying to bury? They’ve got something they are trying to forget, or they are trying to drown their sorrows? He was hurting in a very deep way. I thought, ‘If I leave this man, he’s going to die.’”

Connolly was clear about the impact of meeting Stephenson. “Marriage to Pam didn’t change me: it saved me. I was going to die. I was on a downwards spiral and enjoying every second of it. Not only was I dying, but I was looking forward to it.” He may have come up with the great anti-marriage one-liner “Marriage is a wonderful invention: then again, so is a bicycle repair kit”, yet he still can’t believe his luck in marrying Stephenson in Fiji in 1989, where a local choir sang Loch Lomond and the theme from The Archers. Dame Edna Everage gave the bride away.


One of Connolly’s favourite moments was being awarded his seat at Celtic Park. He and Rod Stewart are the only two people who have seats for life at the ground. He is also now the patron of the Celtic Foundation, which is his visible face of charity – but he’s unlikely to be found talking about the charitable work he carries out unnoticed: the support for orphanages, children’s homes, boys’ clubs; the strangers who’ve been desperate and found the comedian to be their saviour.

There’s no doubt that Connolly is touched by the plight of others – and, just as ­importantly, their stoicism. It was at Parkhead that he met Joseph Mearns, a little boy from the east end of Glasgow who was born without arms, and the meeting left the entertainer humbled yet inspired. Those who witnessed him hug the boy couldn’t fail to be moved by the incredible display of raw emotion that emerged.


Poverty, a feature of Connolly’s life until the early 1970s, ensured that many of life’s luxuries, such as varied nutritional food, were unavailable. Porridge was the exception, and he cooked it in every possible form. When he became a regular earner, he delighted in the knowledge that oats would be a dietary option rather than a necessity.

When he began to make really big money via his international tours or films, including Mrs Brown (1997), The Man Who Sued God (2001), White Oleander (2002), The Last Samurai (2003) and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), he was never driven by materialistic urges. Displays of ostentatious spending have been remarkably contained. Yes, he’s bought himself nice houses in Beverly Hills and Manhattan, and he has his estate in Aberdeenshire, but there are no signs of footballer-style excess. He’s never thought of buying a Bentley Continental – he owns a basic 4x4. And who could begrudge the man a three-wheel motorbike? His treats to himself are rare – such as a new fishing rod, because Connolly’s idea of heaven is standing in a swollen river in New Zealand wearing waders.

“I didn’t make it till I was over 30,” he said. “I wasn’t a 17-year-old rock ’n’ roll singer. Of course I’ve got all the trappings of success, but it hurts when friends treat me like some circus freak. I think success and money change other people more than the lucky man who’s got them.”


In 2001, the comedian was awarded an ­honorary doctorate by the University of Glasgow, a fabulous moment. He may have once been the schoolboy who “became an expert on the sex-life of pigeons”, having spent his days staring out of the window at them, but now he was recognised as having a serious intellect.

“My aunts [Margaret and Mona, who brought him up after his mother abandoned him] constantly told me I was stupid, which still affects me today pretty badly,” he once said. “It’s just a belief that I’m not quite as good as anyone else. It gets worse as you get older. I’m a happy man now but I still have the scars of that.

“I’d always been scared of people with tertiary education and high intellects in case they found me wanting. I thought they viewed me as just a welder who knew a few jokes.”

In 2006 he was also awarded an honorary doctorate by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, but the elevated status has in no way diminished his capacity for caustic, crude but funny comment. At the ceremony he proved he could still laugh in the face – or in this case the backside – of conventional behaviour. “A strange voice called out behind us,” recalled Stephenson. “‘Dr Connolly?’” We both turned around. Another of the university dignitaries was approaching to congratulate him on receiving the honorary doctorate. “‘I had expected you to be much taller,’” she gushed, loudly. I moved swiftly to intervene as I heard him mutter: “‘And I expected your arse to be much smaller.’”


Billy Connolly’s greatest moments ever have featured the birth of his children: Jamie, Cara, Daisy, Amy and Scarlett.

In 2001 he became a grandfather when Cara had a baby son, Walter.


The birthday celebrations in 2002 were all about being thankful. Thankful he had a nice house at Candacraig in which he could hold a fantastic party for his friends. Thankful he was still alive, in spite of the ravages his body had endured during his drinking years.

And the make-up of the party was a neat metaphor for the contradictory character into which Connolly had evolved – the anti-royalist who was chums with Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles; the Scot determined to live at least part of the year in his home country, in spite of the split opinions the nation seemed to have of him; the man who formed strong friendships with showbiz elite such as Robin Williams and Steve Martin yet stayed close and fiercely loyal to Glasgow pals of old.

Connolly had the time of his life at the party. And he is planning even bigger celebrations for his 70th birthday in 2012.

Of course, his 60th also offered the opportunity for sagely advice to others on reaching such a milestone: “Never pass up a chance to have a pee.”

Billy Connolly Live is at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh (September 19-September 23, not 21), Aberdeen Music Hall (September 25), Dundee Caird Hall (September 26) and Perth Concert Hall (September 28). A 10-night run at the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, begins on October 1.