Everybody told Billy Connolly he shouldn’t go to Belfast. Everybody. It was 1975. Too dangerous, they said. Think of your wife and two children at home in Scotland. But he sold records in Belfast, and they kept inviting him. So what did Billy do? Billy went to Belfast.

You can see what happened next in Big Banana Feet, the much talked about but rarely seen film of his trip to Dublin and Belfast. Newly restored by the BFI, the 77-minute documentary returns to the Glasgow Film Theatre this month after a sold-out world premiere at the city’s film festival, and ahead of its DVD/Blu-ray release.

Director Murray Grigor and cinematographer David Peat wanted to make a tour film in the same spirit as DA Pennebaker’s 1967 Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back. 

These were the days when comedy wasn’t the new rock and roll, or whatever they called it when comics became so big they played the Hydro and Wembley. This was year when Connolly broke big, but for now he was still playing picture halls where wee women served him tea between gigs. 

The film opens with his arrival in Dublin. His entourage, such as it is, consists of his manager and a few others. He stands on the tarmac looking windswept and interesting, his Hair Bear Bunch locks blowing this way and that. There’s a welcoming committee waiting inside the terminal. Like the Irish media, they have plenty of advice on what Connolly should and shouldn’t say when he is in town. Everyone’s a critic, just like back home. 

The Herald: Billy Connolly with his famous banjoBilly Connolly with his famous banjo (Image: free)

“I’ve never been in a city where they warn you so much before you go on stage,” he says. “Even Edinburgh didn’t do that.”

They’ve given him the best suite in the hotel. This is the one the stars say in, says the manager. Burton and Taylor slept here. Rod Stewart and his girlfriend. (Though not all at the same time presumably.) “All the famous Scottish people stay here.”

Later that evening Connolly, dressed in his new banana boots by Edmund Smith and wearing an all-body leotard that advertises his masculinity, tells the Dublin audience about the uproar he’s been causing at home. The Scottish press are up in arms because he talked about willies, and his routines on religion have seen him branded a blasphemer. Even talking about toilets has caused a stink.

But everyone’s laughing here — everyone except the heckler who has just shouted “IRA” at Connolly. 

"That's really brave," Connolly tells the man. "I'd love to see you do that at Ibrox." The crowd roars its approval.

“If I’ve got a microphone and I’m sober I should beat [hecklers] every time,” he tells a reporter. Connolly has asked to meet the press after the gig. Says he’s fed up explaining what he does. Best to let them see the show and talk after. None of them waits, but he’s polite enough, answering the same questions about causing offence. “Leave, get your money and go,” is his advice. 

He resists journalistic attempts to label him as a comedian or a musician. Grigor and Peat see him as both, giving equal space to the songs and the patter, and of course the banjo. 


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There’s one moment when the camera simply stands still and watches him play his beloved banjo. Those long piano player fingers are busy plucking and sliding. He’s lost in the moment, the music.

It’s a heartbreaker of a scene, knowing as we do that Parkinson’s will one day rob him of his ability to play, and much else besides. 

Back in 1975, he strolls his way through the songs that one day every Glaswegian of a certain age will be able to quote verbatim. For now they’re new, and still funny. The patter is familiar too, the rubber men drunk in George Square, doing the one-legged walk as they try to eat a fish supper. 

The startling thing, however, is how politically edgy Connolly is. He talks about youngsters joining the army, lured by pictures of discos and computers in the window of the recruitment office. Then he segues into Sergeant, Where’s Mine?, the song of a wounded soldier wondering what happened to that great life he was promised. All this as Connolly stands on stage at the ABC Cinema in Belfast. He’s fearless. Dylan, for all his radicalism and era-defining songs, would never have done this. 

Nor, mind you, would Dylan have cracked jokes about snotters and farting. Even after all these years the scatological side of Connolly’s early comedy still brings out the Miss Jean Brodie in me. The audience in Belfast love it. 

Decades later it will emerge that dozens of weapons had been confiscated from the audience before the show started, and that the Special Branch officer assigned to protect Connolly was so drunk most of the time the comic feared he was going to be shot by accident.

Big Banana Feet, like Don’t Look Back before it, captures perfectly an artist still trying out his genius for size. He’s a cocky so-and-so, a big beautiful man who is not going to be pushed around by anybody. Connolly is 33-years old and everything is before him. The past will eventually rear its head and it will be shocking and tragic, but not yet, not yet.

The Herald: Billy Connolly arrives in BelfastBilly Connolly arrives in Belfast (Image: free)

The only quiet moment in the film finds Connolly sitting in his dressing room, alone save for the film crew, just before the show starts. He takes a swig from a bottle, rolls a fag between his fingers, gets into the zone. He’s a man off to his work and he’s deadly serious about this comedy business.

An hour and a half on he wraps the Belfast show with the wellies song, and the cheer from the crowd near takes the roof off. After several return trips to the stage for more curtain calls he’s back in the dressing room ready for that cuppa. 

His parting words to the ABC crowd were, “Thanks Belfast, it’s been amazing.” He promised to return.

He was as good as his word, though in future he would be playing the arenas too. The king of comedy would be bigger and braver than all of them in time, for hadn’t he gone to Belfast when everyone said he shouldn’t?

Big Banana Feet is screening in selected cinemas, including the GFT, from May 10.