Windswept and Interesting by Billy Connolly review: the Big Yin's story – as told to his iPhone
Billy Connolly claims this is his first attempt at memoir, but much of it is already familiar from his stage shows, or from the excellent biography his wife, Pamela Stephenson, published in 2002. We know that he was born in a Glasgow tenement in 1942, abandoned by his mother when he was four, and brought up by his father, who sexually abused him.
He was useless at school and only really found happiness when he went to work in the Clyde shipyards, as an apprentice and then as a welder. He loved his fellow workers, especially the “patter merchants”, who had a way of being funny without actually telling jokes. It was a great day when he found he could make them laugh.
At the same time, he learnt to play the banjo and started going to folk gigs. He was in a duo, the Humblebums, which got plenty of bookings on the folk circuit, but then he went solo. Increasingly, he relied on talking rather than singing, because he loved making audiences laugh. He always took his banjo on stage (“It was my pal”), but seldom played it. His mother turned up at one of his shows – he had only seen her once since infancy – and took him back to her house and introduced him to her husband and children, but it felt weird. “I had just buried 20 years of longing and suffering and pretended to be a guest in her house.”
He married his girlfriend, Iris, when she became pregnant with their first child, in l968. But his career was taking off and he spent more and more time away touring, and also drinking: “I didn’t know how to be a good family man.”
On the rare occasions when he did come home, he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t ring for room service or why he should have to take out the rubbish. By then, he was a big star and relied on his manager for everything. He once rang his manager saying he was locked in a phone box but didn’t know where it was – his manager dutifully trawled the streets until he found him.
His marriage was effectively dead by the time he met Pamela Stephenson, when he was doing a guest spot on Not the Nine O’Clock News. They started dating and eventually living together. She said she couldn’t tolerate his drinking and so he gave up for good when their first daughter, Daisy, was born. They had three daughters and he also applied for custody of his first two children by Iris, so he was finally a family man.
The 1980s and 1990s were his glory years, when he was working non-stop, doing stage shows, television shows and also appearing in dozens of films, including Mrs Brown with Judi Dench. He and Pamela bought a Scottish estate and held their own Highland games, though they mainly lived in New York.
The first glimmer of Parkinson’s was when a stranger came up to him in a hotel lobby in LA and said, “Listen, I’m a doctor, and I’ve noticed... You have the gait of a man with Parkinson’s disease.” Connolly went to his doctor who ran some tests and said, “You’re fine.” But then Pam noticed that his hand was shaking, and he sometimes felt himself “freeze” momentarily when talking. So he went to a Parkinson’s specialist in New York who confirmed that, yes, he had Parkinson’s.
He found it scary at first, especially when he started having difficulty getting out of chairs, but now he says he’s used to it. It means he can’t appear on stage any more and is reluctant to fly, but he can still draw, which he loves doing. Pam moved them to the Florida Keys a few years ago, where he enjoys fishing and watching the manatees.
He dictated this book into his iPhone, which was meant to have dictation software to transcribe it, but it couldn’t cope with his Glaswegian accent, so his daughters had to do it. Anyway, he sounds remarkably cheerful at 78 – one might almost say smug. If you adore Billy Connolly you will love this book, but it’s still better to watch his old stage performances on YouTube.
Windswept and Interesting is published by Two Roads at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop