It was an invitation not to be refused. Billy Connolly, a friend since long before fame struck, was going to play Dublin and Belfast. It took all of five seconds to assure him I would love to join the party.

When the story appeared recently about a film of the Irish gigs having resurfaced, it brought back memories of laughter by the planeload but also the courage and sensitivity which Billy displayed. These days in Ireland were formative on his path to greatness.

At this distance in time, it is difficult to overstate the significance of Billy going ahead with the shows in Belfast. It was a terrible year of the Troubles with a steady flow of sectarian murders, internecine paramilitary killings and IRA bombings in Britain.

For the avoidance of doubt that entertainers might be immune, the Miami Showband was ambushed by the Ulster Volunteer Force as they headed home after playing in Banbridge, County Down. Two UVF men blew themselves up with a bomb intended for the band’s van while another two shot dead three of the musicians. That was in July.

The Herald: Billy Connolly on stageBilly Connolly on stage (Image: free)

In succeeding months, the killings continued. Pubs and places of entertainment were favoured targets for bombings. On October 2nd, 12 people died in UVF attacks across Northern Ireland and it was declared a proscribed organisation. In the Republic, the kidnapping of Tiede Herrema, a Dutch industrialist, by the Provisional IRA dominated headlines.

No other entertainer of prominence had been prepared to walk into this cauldron of hate, murder and criminality. Following the Miami Showband massacre, Johnny Cash pulled out of a Belfast gig. Yet Billy Connolly, with a CV more likely than most to alienate the mindless, opted to do so.

By that time, I had started writing for The Herald and I committed to phoning over three pieces from the expedition. For the benefit of younger readers, that’s the way we did it in these days – phones and copytakers!

I joined up in London by which point Billy had been on the road for seven weeks. The tour came off the back of his first appearance on the Parkinson show, in February 1975, which took him to new levels of acclaim and recognition. He played a week of full houses and rave reviews at the New Victoria Theatre. Vanessa Redgrave was one of many celebs who appeared backstage to pay homage to this new phenomenon. I remember Billy saying she bore a bag of winkles, doubtless as a proletarian credential, and “stank the place out”.

The tour had been a heady success and London an all-conquering triumph while Dublin and Belfast still lay in wait. We set off for Heathrow where a private plane was to convey us to Dublin, but didn’t get far. As I wrote in The Herald: “Seekers after nightingales in Berkeley Square might have been surprised this morning to see a well publicised face trying to be sick, as discreetly as circumstances allowed. Drink was not a factor.


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‘The nervous tension over the past week in London has been incredible’, explained Connolly. ‘I can go on for so long, but it’s building up all the time. Now London is over and I’ve started feeling terrible. I should be going home now’. Instead he is in Dublin”.

Getting there was Billy’s introduction (and mine) to the world of private planes though the particular model was a bit underwhelming. “More Amelia Erhardt than Hugh Heffner”, he observed. At Dublin airport, two “greats” of Scottish film-making, Murray Grigor and David Peat, were on hand to take up the story that became the film, Big Banana Feet.

When the DVD is launched at the British Film Institute in London later this month, I’m looking forward to a reunion with Billy’s “super-roadie”, Billy Johnstone, ‘Trendy Bill frae Maryhill’ and a very funny man in his own right – and Duncan Campbell who had been commissioned to write a book: “Billy Connolly; the Authorised Version”. Billy’s then manager, the late Frank Lynch, was also on board.

The Dublin gigs were in the Carlton Cinema on O’Connell Street and I observed at the time that there were fewer Scots in attendance than anywhere else, Ireland having claimed Billy as one of their own. He knew exactly where that line needed to be drawn. When a clown in the audience shouted “Up the IRA”, Billy responded: “You’re very brave down there in the dark. Try shouting that in the middle of Ibrox Park …”.

We were staying across the road in the Gresham Hotel and, as one would expect, the Dublin leg concluded with one hell of a party. In the early hours, I remembered that I had undertaken to do a “straight read” into Good Morning Scotland. By then, writing anything was out the question.

The BBC studio was a converted bedroom in the Royal Hibernian Hotel down by the Liffey. I asked hopefully if the presenter could interview me instead of the “straight read”. To my horror, I was told it was a one way line so I would need to cobble something together, pronto.

The Herald: Big Banana FeetBig Banana Feet (Image: free)

All this time, there was a real BBC man in the corner, waiting to do a serious piece into the Today programme about the Herrema kidnapping. As I slunk out having delivered my somewhat incoherent account of the Connolly tour so far, the most cutting BBC accent asked: “You weren’t doing that live, were you?”. Almost half a century later, I recall a lesson learned – never do that again!

Then it was on to Belfast. In my Herald dispatch, I wrote: “It is an itinerary that has its own inevitable tensions built into it. Nobody talks about these but everyone knows they are there.

The path has not exactly been smoothed by a recent article in a music paper which had Connolly declaiming on the subject of Orangemen. ‘They got it wrong’, he says. ‘What I hate is bigotry from either or any quarter”.

We landed at Aldergrove which was bristling with military presence and there was a heightened sense of just how precarious this could be. There were to be two sold-out shows in the ABC cinema which had seen nothing like it in years. The question was whether any of the multiple factions would see Billy’s presence as a high profile opportunity rather than an act of solidarity with a beleaguered city.

The rest, as they say, is history. I wrote: “According to the Irish promoter, the audience included the Official IRA’s Northern chief of staff, a leading Provisional; the chairman of Protestant Action Group; a Unionist MP and the public relations officer for Long Kesh. ‘What a job that must be’, observed Connolly”.

There was a powerful number in Billy’s repertoire called “Sergeant, Where’s Mine” which reflected the thoughts of a wounded soldier. Billy’s decision not to sing it in Belfast had, I believe, a wider significance. At that point in his career, he could have tipped over into becoming what he described as “a celebrated man of opinion”. He had the wisdom and foresight, encapsulated in that moment in Belfast, to eschew the role.

“I only decided to drop it as the show went along. Here were people who live with politics 365 days of the year. They were searched coming in. They couldn’t leave during the show. It would have been a bit presumptuous of me to arrive and give them a lecture just so I could feel good about it. My job was to make them laugh”. And so it remained.

Ninety minutes after the adulation subsided, we were back in the air. I wrote: “A planeful of elation took off from Belfast in the early hours of yesterday morning. As it headed in the direction of Glasgow. Billy Connolly was composing his own reviews. ‘The man is incredibly talented for a Papist’, he bellowed in a perfect mimic of Ian Paisley”.

The Herald: The documentary is being screened in cinemasThe documentary is being screened in cinemas (Image: free)

Billy had pulled off an extraordinary achievement. “Now, by word and by example”, I wrote, “he will tell the rest of the entertainment world that they should follow in his footsteps”.

To some extent, that happened but in other respects, the lives of the same people whom Billy had brought together in laughter reverted to what they had been before.

That night in the ABC cinema offered a glimpse of what was possible. Thinking back to it now, I also feel a sense of great sadness that for almost another quarter century, that same city and province had to live with the realities of murder and mayhem, to no good end. If only the laughter had prevailed.

Back in Glasgow, there was an emotional party in the dressing rooms of Frank Lynch’s Apollo. Relief that it had all gone so well was uncorked. Billy was reunited with family and friends, after his two months on the road. “I badly need time to think about the direction I should take next”, he said. To which I added: “The possibilities are limitless” – as indeed they proved to be.

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