It's not easy having a conversation with Billy Connolly.
There's that unmistakable voice, the perpetual one-liners uttered
from a mouth that's hard to keep up with. Now, it's Billy
Connolly, Legitimate Movie Actor or perhaps, Potential Oscar
Nominee? One wonders whether this working-class lad from Glasgow
ever imagined the day that there'd even be talk about an Oscar
nomination, never alone the real possibility. "I'm amazed
that it's taken so long", Billy replies in true form.
"I'm an eternal optimist; I've always been wanting an Oscar
despite never having even made a movie. I've even had my speech
ready since I was 12." And the content of this speech?
"Oh, plenty of bile."
"I'm overjoyed to be
in the same sentence as 'Academy Award'"
But there's no joking around as far as the American
distributor is concerned - Connolly is in Los Angeles
re-promoting Mrs Brown in readiness for the whole Oscar circus.
"I'm actually very confused about the whole affair; it's the
last thing on earth I thought was going to happen to this little
film. And I'm overjoyed to be in the same sentence as 'Academy
Award' – it’s a lovely thing. I think of Marlon Brando
saying: ‘I could have been a contender.’"
It's telling that Connolly talks in such modest terms. His
background is hardly the stuff of Academy Award winning movie
stars. Born on the 24th November 1942, his mother, Mary, gave
birth to him on the kitchen floor of their tenement flat in
working-class Glasgow. His father, William, was the son of an
Irish immigrant, and worked as an optical instrument technician.
After the birth of another child, Connolly's sister Florence,
William senior went off to serve in the RAF, and the trials of
separation caused the marriage to break up in 1946, leaving
William to bring up the two children. The time being what it was,
the task of looking after the two youngsters fells to William's
two sisters, Mona and Margaret. These two aunts were to be the
major female figures in Connolly's young life. The comedian
recently opened up about these formative years, and admits that
it was not a happy time for him. "I didn't enjoy it at all,
it was awful because my aunts began to regret it. They were both
single and in their twenties, I guess, then, and one was just out
of the army."
"The shipyards would
prove to be his training ground for comedy."
Connolly left school at fifteen, with his engineering
certificates which overqualified him for a job as an engineer, so
he became a welder instead. " I'm glad that happened",
he recalls, "because I think if I'd become an engineer, I
would have gone to sea, and that would have been the end of that,
or I'd probably now be working up on the oil rigs as an engineer.
But I became a welder, and I loved it, because they called us the
Black Squad, the welders, cokers, platers, riveters, and other
guys that get dirty. I loved their company, and their patter was
great. I loved working in the shipyards very much." It was a
formative time for Connolly the would-be humorist, and the
shipyards would prove to be his training ground for comedy.
It was also during this time that he joined the Parachute
regiment of the Territorial Army, seeking adventure, and trying
to make himself windswept and interesting. He claims that at the
medical examination, the doctor remarked 'You're not very big
downstairs, are you?' to which Billy quipped 'I thought we were
only going to fight them'. During his time there, he completed
seventeen parachute jumps. Though Billy had been toying with the
mouth organ up to this time, he began to take a serious interest
in the banjo. Thus he began drifting into the musical world,
before discovering success as a stand-up comic. His working-class
brand of humour has left indelible impressions in a generation of
audiences the world over, and slowly but surely, made the odd
impression in films such as Muppet Treasure Island.
"There's nothing more
joyless than Presbyterianism on a cold, wet Sunday in
But now, Connolly has turned dramatist, starring opposite Judi
Dench in the acclaimed historical drama, Mrs Brown. Set in the
mid-1860s, the film revolves around Queen Victoria (Dench) who
held her court, and to an extent all of England, prisoners of her
grief, following the untimely death of her husband. She wore
black for years and often broke down in reluctant regal tears.
Her family and closest advisers desperately tried to bring her
out of her despondency to no avail. In 1864, her husband's old
stable hand, a brash Highlander named John Brown, (Connolly)
returned to court and single-handedly moved her to live again.
Their intimate friendship, and Brown's unwashed and unapologetic
manner (he often addressed the Queen as "woman!"),
became the stuff of scandal and gossip that threatened the
stability of the crown.
One could say that the role of John Brown is the comic's
answer to playing Hamlet, perhaps. "Not Hamlet; King Lear is
more to my liking. But I DO like the darker side of films",
he adds on a serious note. But when asked what it is he taps into
in order to bring out the dark side of a character such as John
Brown, he doesn't take his time to respond. "Definitely
Presbyterianism", he quips unflinchingly. "There's
nothing more joyless than Presbyterianism on a cold, wet Sunday
in Scotland. There's a Scottish word called 'dreich' which
describes those grey wet Sundays where they lock up the swings in
the park. That's what I keyed into to play Brown, because he was
a Scottish Protestant, and I wanted the darkness of him, that
staunchness. In Scotland, if you're a Catholic they say you're a
DEVOUT Catholic; if you're a Protestant, though, you're a STAUNCH
Protestant, and it's that staunch, tunnel-vision mentality, that
I got into for Brown."
"He's such a handsome
bugger, which is another reason they wanted me." on the
role in Mrs Brown
Connolly was offered the part even before the script was
written. The producers, he recalls, probably thought him right
for the part "because of my anarchy. I have taken a very
male stance on most things that I've done, and that's what they
wanted from me, that male arrogance." Not much is known
about the real John Brown, but some pictures of him survived.
It's therefore clear why Connolly was cast. "He's such a
handsome bugger, which is another reason they wanted me. In the
pictures of him he looked so much like Gregory Peck. And the way
he's lounging around for the photograph, he always thinks he's a
pretty good looking guy."
Making the film presented a considerable challenge to the
actor, least of all working with the indomitable Dame Judi Dench.
"I learnt an awful lot from her. For instance, I was
astounded to find that she learns her lines very quickly, and she
can click straight into it, which is very impressive."
"I wasn't determined to be
a film star or an actor, but I WAS determined to do something
It's surprising that this film has been as successful as it
has, especially outside of Britain. No one is more surprised by
it all than Mr. Connolly. "You would think that Queen
Victoria was a boring, wee person, but the amount of books that
are sold with her name on them, is breathtaking." It could
be because the film touches on broader themes outside of royalty.
"I think there's always a fascination with people whose
lives are mapped out for them, and how they react within the
tramlines of that, whether it's royalty, military or
Connolly is gratified that the critical acclaim has come, that
audiences "recognise a depth that they've never seen before.
I always knew I wanted to do it [acting] well. I wasn't
determined to be a film star or an actor, but I WAS determined to
do something really well."
That includes the comedy; after all, Billy the comedian is
still alive and kicking, and continues to find something fresh in
his humour. "I try to be as interested in it as I always was
and try to get as much JOY out of it, as I did in the pubs with
the guys. That has always been my ambition, to be as funny as
ordinary people are, to take that thing that everybody's got and
take it onto the stage."
"I kind of fancy
myself as a dying swan."
In the meantime, Connolly is a wee busy lad, what with
promoting his Oscar potential for Mrs Brown, preparing to do
several films in the UK early next year, and still finding time
for wife Pamela Stevenson, who's now a regarded clinical
psychologist. "Yeah, she went back to uni, did her PhD, and
now she's a clinical psychologist, and a damn good one." As
for Connolly's ambitions. "Ballet", he quickly
responds. "I kind of fancy myself as a dying swan."
MRS BROWN OPENS ON BOXING DAY.