What inspired the TV show?

WHEN it comes to Billy Connolly, it is fair to say that Mike Reilly knows the inner workings of the Glasgow-born comedy legend better than most. As a director and documentary maker, Reilly has spent a fair bit of time in the company of “the Big Yin” over the years.

They first worked together on the travelogue Billy Connolly’s Route 66 in 2011 before going on to make hit shows such as Billy Connolly’s Big Send Off, Billy Connolly’s Tracks Across America and Billy Connolly: Made In Scotland.

Most recently the pair have teamed up on the third series of Billy Connolly Does … due to begin on Gold this week. The three-episode run will take a sideways look at some of the subjects that have helped inspire Connolly’s comedy material in a career spanning more than half a century.

“I have known Billy for a while now,” says Reilly. “He is still really sharp, still really funny and he has still got great stories to tell. He is still telling me stories that I have never heard before and that absolutely floor me.”

Interviews and nostlagia

Billy Connolly Does … is packed with memories and milestone moments from the star’s life, featuring nostalgia-inducing archive footage from his stand-up performances and TV appearances, alongside brand-new insightful interviews conducted by Reilly.

The opening episode delves into the fascinating/hilarious topic of “Scottish pride”, serving up a humorous smorgasbord of viewpoints from Connolly on everything from tartan and clan history to midges, Clyde shipbuilding and Super Gran.

It also shines a spotlight on what some media commentators have dubbed the “Scottish cringe”. While Connolly, 81, doesn’t use that specific term, he does allude to its essence as he discusses how the kilt has enjoyed newfound affection in more recent times.

Or as Connolly puts it: “When I grew up, the kilt was a joke. If you saw a guy in a kilt when you were a little boy, you’d shout: ‘Kilty, kilty cold bum!’ “You would no more get married in a kilt, than get married in a bloody parachute, you know? It’s true. Get married in a kilt? You’re joking. But now, it’s just everybody doing it. Now it’s the thing to put on a kilt and talk s*** about the roots of it all.”

The Herald: Billy Connolly on ParkinsonBilly Connolly on Parkinson (Image: free)

One archive clip shows Connolly and the late great trade union activist Jimmy Reid as guests on the BBC’s Parkinson in 1979. The pair articulately joined forces to give short shrift to stereotypes about Scots culture, what Reid describes as “Tartanalia” and “porridge in your sporran and a caber up your kilt”.

Super gran 

There is a fondness in his voice as Connolly recounts this moment in the Gold series.

“He got me on the Parkinson show, it was Jimmy Reid,” he says. “People began to say, ‘I can do this.’ The working class began to say, ‘I can be an actor, I can be a poet, I can be whatever the hell I like.’”

We also see Connolly playing up – tongue-firmly-in-cheek – to those kilt-wearing, shortbread tin-esque cliches as he reminisces about his role in 1980s TV staple Super Gran, the children’s comedy series for which he also sang the catchy theme tune.

It was interesting to hear Connolly’s perspective, says Reilly, on how attitudes have changed and evolved throughout the span of his life and career. “He has got that perfect mix of Scottish pride and obviously he loves being Scottish,” says the director.

Classic 1970s childhood

Reilly speaks with a Welsh lilt, but, as he himself says, don’t let the accent fool you.

“I am actually from Glasgow originally,” he explains.

“All my family are Glaswegian, so I had that classic 1970s childhood where my dad had the [Billy Connolly] LPs and my mum was tut-tutting in the background if they were played too loudly because of the swearing. This is a common bonding thing with so many people I have met over the years.

“To have been six or seven, listening surreptitiously in the background [to the LPs], to actually sitting there with him, having a cup of tea, is the easiest thing in the world.”

Connolly and Reilly have worked together regularly since 2011. How would the director describe their relationship? “It is friendship, but still grounded in a degree of professionalism,” he says. “Billy has been a big part of my life in the last couple of years and I love him dearly.

“He has been really kind to me and his family have been as well. There is a mutual trust. It is professional, but you have each other’s best interests at heart. I feel very privileged to be able to spend time with him.”

Yet, that doesn’t mean Reilly hasn’t had his share of “pinch me” scenarios. He recounts one memorable evening in San Francisco while shooting the 2014 documentary series Billy Connolly’s Big Send Off.

“Everyone had the night off and I bumped into Billy in the hotel lobby. He said, ‘Would you like to come out for a bite to eat?’ And we ended up going to the most unexpected place. A little curry house in San Francisco with plastic tables and bright strip lighting.

“I had only recently become a father. We were talking about being fathers and Billy was being so open and generous. And you still find yourself in the middle of that conversation going, ‘Oh my God, I am having a conversation with Billy f****** Connolly.’”

He's like a god in Scotland

These quiet moments are in sharp contrast to what usually unfolds when the comedian goes out in public. Something that Reilly witnessed first-hand while they were filming Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland, which aired in 2018 and 2019.

“It was like walking around with a deity,” says Reilly, with a laugh. “People were literally running up to him, giving their babies to him and stuff like that. I have never experienced anything like that. But he wears it with so much lightness. That is what is incredible about him.

The Herald: Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty in the Scotia bar in GlasgowBilly Connolly and Gerry Rafferty in the Scotia bar in Glasgow (Image: Newsquest)

“I was talking to his daughter once and she was telling me that if they are in a restaurant, he doesn’t mind the conversations that happen on the journey to the toilet and on the journey back.

“He is the only person in the world that will take 40 minutes to get to the toilet because he is shaking hands and saying, ‘hi’. I think he genuinely likes that, and you can’t say that about a lot of people. In that respect, he is pretty special.”

There is much laughter in the on-screen conversations between Connolly and Reilly. As a viewer this is infectious, and you find yourself joining in.

“I have learned so much from him,” reflects Reilly. “The first thing I ever did with Billy was on Route 66. He changed how I directed from there on basically. He gave me a completely different understanding of how I was going to make shows with big personalities and real talent.

“There is a difference between being a presenter and a real talent like Billy. I learned working with Billy to put my ego aside. Great comedians feed off a good audience. My job is to be an audience.”

Billy changed my life

Connolly has always worn his heart on his sleeve and lived life as an open book. He has a finely honed bulls*** detector too? Reilly grins. “Yeah, f***, yeah,” he says.

As a director and documentary maker, is that refreshing? “Absolutely,” attests Reilly. “That’s what I mean about the impact he had on me as a director. I stopped bulls***ing people after that.”

Connolly has been living with Parkinson’s Disease since 2013. He has spoken in the past about the impact it has had on his health and daily life. Yet, insists Reilly, it hasn’t blunted the comedian’s wit and humour.

“Not in the slightest. To his daughters, he always refers to himself as being Superman because he is nails. He is hard as nails. He has had Parkinson’s for a long time. Obviously, his energy isn’t anywhere near what it once was, but his faculties are still tremendous. His recall is unbelievable.

“One of the things I loved about doing this series and wanted to make part of it, is that he doesn’t hide the Parkinson’s. He never veers away from what it is or talking about it, but at the same time, it doesn’t define him.”

It is wonderful to see Connolly – who announced his retirement from live comedy performances in 2018 – back on our TV screens. Does working with such a much-beloved Scottish national treasure bring an added layer of pressure to a project like this?

“No, because he makes it easy,” says Reilly. “He genuinely makes it easy in that regard. He knows who he is and doesn’t take it for granted, but he does have a real understanding of his place in Scotland’s heart.”

Where to watch it

Billy Connolly Does… series three is on Gold now