HALF a century on from being denounced in the pulpits and pilloried for being a “blasphemous buffoon”, Billy Connolly remains unrepentant over his controversial routines lampooning religion.

In a new interview for the BBC Scotland series Billy and Us, the retired stand-up recalls his mid-1970s gigs being picketed by Pastor Jack Glass.

Glass had demanded an apology for Connolly’s Last Supper and Crucifixion routine, in which the comedian imagined the final days of Jesus beginning with a drinking session in a pub on Glasgow’s Gallowgate.

“There’s something appalling about being asked to apologise for having a point of view,” Connolly tells the programme. “Something quite fascist about it. I refused to apologise and I refuse to this day to apologise.”

In a career noted for busting taboos on everything from sex to sectarianism, few of Connolly’s routines have caused more controversy. Connolly says the row led to his name being “removed from the books” at his primary school, St Peters’ Girls and Infants, in Glasgow. Glass said at the time: “If the Forth was lava, I would throw him in.”

Connolly says the routine stemmed from a pal’s joke. “The disciples were in a pub and they were eating Chinese takeaway. Jesus came in and said ‘Where did you get that?’ One said, ‘Oh, Judas bought them, he seems to have come into some money.’ That was the joke. I thought it was hysterical. That night I told it on stage and I expanded on it.”

The routine featured in Connolly’s best-selling album, Billy Connolly Live. The resulting furore put his name in the papers, which led to his first booking on the BBC chat show, Parkinson, in 1975. He never looked back.

“It was the making of me,” says Connolly of the sketch.

In the documentary, part of a season celebrating Connolly’s career, the now 77-year-old discusses what he calls his “lifelong love affair” with sending up organised religion.

“Religion is rife with comedy material and I can’t resist having a go at it.”

Born in Partick, Glasgow, in 1942, Connolly says he believed in God in his early years. But by the time he reached his teens and early 20s he began questioning his faith and has never stopped. “I’ve offended most religions. I didn’t set out to do that but they take offence so easily. All you’ve got to do is talk about them, what they do, and they’ll find offence in it.”

Introducing religion into his routines was another way Connolly broke the mould. Once voted “the comedians’ comedian” in a poll of his peers, Connolly says the difference between him and traditional comics of the time was that they were happy to do racist, sexist, homophobic material, and he was not.

“You didn’t speak about religion or politics. It was considered bad manners.”

Kevin McKenna, columnist for The Herald, says the Crucifixion routine presented a lot of west of Scotland households with a difficult choice.

“You had these parents who of course found it hilarious, but up and down the country priests were telling them, ‘That’s mocking the central tenet of our faith. It’s apostasy.”

He believes the sketch was misunderstood at the time and since.

“It’s warm and affectionate and, speaking as a Christian, I don’t think it is cruel and I don’t think it is mocking.”

As archive footage shows, not everyone agreed. Pastor Glass and protesters are seen handing out a newsletter, Scottish Protestant View, denouncing Connolly. One banner calls the comedian a “blasphemous buffoon”. Another takes him to task for calling the crown of thorns “a jaggy bunnet” and describing Jesus in “a drunken state”.

“If he makes a public apology we would be happy to end our campaign,” says Glass.

The preacher died in 2004. According to Connolly, he could be menacing at times.

“He became kind of evil, Jack. He would come up beside me and say, what would you do if Christ was to judge you now? Crucify Christ again, he would say, and hand me three nails.”

Connolly, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013, now lives in Florida. Just as his persona has shifted from scourge of the church to beloved Sir Billy, so the film reveals his attitude towards religion softening.

“There’s a side of religion I really like. The side that comforts the lonely, that encourages art. It explained the world to a lot of people for a long time. But I think we’ve found other ways to explain the world now.”

As for religion’s role in his career, he says: “I knew it was having a profound effect on my audiences, but when I say a profound effect they were roaring with laughter. I didn’t think they were going out to tear down churches or set fire to them. I knew they were falling about laughing and that suited me lovely. It’s all I ever wanted.”

BBC Scotland, tomorrow, 10pm, and on iPlayer