Billy and Us****

BBC Scotland, 10pm

DO you recall when it happened? Did the one o’clock gun sound, was there an RAF flypast, a ceremonial casting in gold of his big banana boots?

I’m talking about the moment when Billy Connolly went from Scottish outlaw, frightening the horses and scandalising the church, to national treasure.

His current status as the Elvis/Archie Gemmill of comedy was demonstrated by Billy and Us, a new series that is the centrepiece of a celebration of all things Connolly on the BBC Scotland channel.

From Down Among the Big Boys to Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland, the season is a “chance to enjoy again” (ie see repeats of) some of the many dramas and documentaries the Glaswegian has been involved in down the years.

Billy and Us was produced by BBC Studios Documentary Unit. A blend of contemporary interview and archive footage (plenty of Parky, check), it divides Connolly’s life and work into six sections, starting last night with his childhood years.

READ MORE: Screen Shot - Sir Billy's life celebrated

As is well known by now, behind the jokes about coats on the bed and being smacked in rhythm (“Don’t. You. Ever. Let. Me. See. You. Doing. That. Again!”) was a real-life horror show of beatings and sexual abuse. The film addressed this, but wisely it did not dwell any longer than was necessary. This had been a part of Connolly's early life. A significant, terrible, desperately sad part, but a part nonetheless.

There were other stories fans may have heard before, and some new tales (new to me, anyway). I did not know his nickname at school was “Cuddles”, so called after he was the one caught passing round info about a game called “Cupid’s Cuddling Circle”. The teacher called him out to the front, looked at the piece of paper, and said: “Okay, Cuddles, sit down.”

It was the worst nickname in the world, said Connolly. “It lasted about a year then it mercifully went away. I was terrified it would last.”

At one point Connolly was asked about his 1984 appearance on Open to Question, the Question Time-style show in which Scots pupils would quiz a prominent figure. On this occasion, the questions were almost universally hostile. “Why do you play Glaswegians as ignorant bigoted morons?” was one typical query.

The film had a minor scoop in BBC journalist Allan Little, who was a researcher on Open To Question, blowing the whistle on the production team for “schooling” the pupils in how to ask pointed, awkward questions. It had been an ambush, but one Connolly fought off with, what else, humour.

Mr Little, who went on to become a special correspondent for the BBC, praised Connolly for the way he dealt with the situation. “He defused it very well, just by being funny and self-deprecating and self-interrogating. He handled it absolutely masterfully.”

READ MORE: The night Billy Connolly walked into a BBC ambush

He went on to give an impromptu concert for the teenagers. By the end the youngsters were in fits of laughter.

Connolly recalled not enjoying the Open to Question session.

“When I speak to school kids I always try to encourage them to think for themselves and be proud of where you come from,” he said. “But don’t let it be a leash round your neck.”

The film cut away to a chat between a writer-comedian and his young son about Connolly’s style. I wondered what the point of this was, then remembered the show’s title. Billy and Us is about what Scotland means to Connolly and vice versa.

Later, we had a comedian reminiscing about his alcoholic grandparents playing Connolly albums.

He recalled, too, singing the welly boot song to defuse family fights. Ah, wha’s like us, eh? I remain to be convinced these talking heads are going to add much, and are not just there to pad the material out to a series.

Throughout the half hour, Connolly sat in a cinema, watching the clips and commentating on them. Now 77, with hair as white as an Old Testament prophet’s, he wore a denim jacket with a bright red hankie hanging jauntily from the chest pocket. His face was still and expressionless, “masked” by the Parkinson’s he has lived with for almost a decade.

But when a smile broke through, and it did often, the light travelled quickly to his eyes, still twinkly with devilment.

There was plenty of harshness and darkness in his childhood, he acknowledged, but joy too. He ended on a story, set on a train to London. One of the train staff came up to Connolly and said how much he loved his stuff, how his mother was a big fan, and so on. “In the middle of it he burst into tears. He was a big tattoed man. The stuff I did about childhood has had a profound effect . That’s not why I did it. I did it ‘cause I thought it was funny.”

This was a handsome, thoughtful, astute piece of filmmaking, made with care and shot through with obvious affection, make that love, for its subject.

The BBC in Scotland might have ambushed Connolly once but hey, it is a new era, a channel, a new Scotland. We have all grown up a bit. Except for Connolly, who remains as young at heart as ever.

Cuddles. I think it suits him.

Available on iPlayer