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Issue 67 - The Life & Times of the Big Yin

Scotland Magazine Issue 67
February 2013


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The Life & Times of the Big Yin

Stephen Milton talks to Billy Connolly about the Commonwealth Games, music and his love for Scotland.

How does it feel to be the world’s most famous Glaswegian?
[laughing] Well I think Fergie [Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson] might have a problem with you saying that. But if someone wants to think that, I’ve no problem.

Was it an honour to be presented with the Freedom of the City in 2010?
It was wonderful, although I never realised they did that in Glasgow. Edinburgh, I always assumed but the Freedom of the City in Glasgow, I only found out about it when I got the call. Wasn’t that a lovely way to find out. I thought I was getting a key to open every door in the place, but that was explained to me it wasn’t the case. I felt a bit duped.

Now you’re an official ambassador for the
Commonwealth Games…
they’ll be making me mayor of the place before you know it [laughing]. I’m very proud of this too, and the way I see it, London had its fun with the Olympics and put on a spectacular show, but just wait till you see what Glasgow can do. It will be a fantastic event for Scotland, you can already feel the excitement brewing.

What are your early memories of Scotland?
There was a lot of rain [laughing], always raining!

I think of my schooldays in Govan, trying my best to be the class clown and failing miserably. I hadn’t a clue where I would end up and that probably lent itself to my early starts, working in the welder in the shipyards in Clydeside, working as a boilermaker later on. Ultimately it wasn’t making me happy.

When I think of Glasgow, I just see Renfield Street, with the rain and the cobbles, where I used to spend so much time, the place looks very different now to how I remember it then. Not necessarily a bad thing. I remember the Scotia [pub] being a special place, finding music there, finally setting myself on the path I knew was right for me.

You’ve said in the past that you were happy to leave Scotland for the States but you now spend much of the year at your home in Strathdon in Aberdeenshire. What changed?
At the time when I left, was it 30 years ago, I needed a break. I think many people go through that mentality of getting away from home and you know, it wasn’t Scotland, it was a million things that lead to my departure. I wanted to get away from the media over here, have a clean getaway and America represented that for me.

And now?
I have homes in New York, Malta and Aberdeenshire and because I’m moving around so much, people wonder where I consider home. And I have thought about that, pondered that though. And of course, it’s Scotland. I probably spend more time in New York, more to do with the fact that I’ve children who live there now and are technically American themselves.

But it’s very special up in Aberdeenshire, you can do all your battery recharging there and when I head up to the West coast, I get this tingly feeling, it’s this feeling that that’s where I belong. So that’s where I call home…yes, that home.

You’re not far from your 50th anniversary in the entertainment business. What do you think when you look back?
How on earth did I make it this far? It’s the world longest running joke [laughing]. I think I’ve been very lucky, very blessed particularly that I had the chance and choice to try so many different things out. Music, stand-up, movies, it’s been extraordinary really.

You’re probably best known as a comedian but of course music offered your first taste of success. Do you think you’ll ever return to it?
Oh no, no no! That chapter of my life is long over, I can’t really sing anymore and the only time I ever play is when I go over to Steve Martin’s house. He’s a Blue Grass man, I’m just an old timer, and we used to always get together at his house in LA when I lived out there. He’s really the only one who hears me play anymore.

Your movie career, which started out relatively late has gone from strength to strength over the years. Last 18 months, you’ve had Gulliver's Travels, Brave, The Hobbit… …aye, I’ve been having a great year, the time of my life to be honest. The Hobbit was a dream job to get. I love travel and getting to stay down in New Zealand, playing this warrior dwarf with a red Mohawk, hair down to my arse, tattoos, suit of armour, it’s been wonderful.

The great thing is I’ve to go down there again in the New Year to shoot for the next two movies as I only made a brief cameo in the first film, so I’ll look forward to that.

Was it special for you to be part of a significant Scottish film like Brave?
Did you see it? Isn’t it a beautiful, gorgeous film? My heart sang when I saw it, the colours and the way it painted the Highlands. Of course I was so proud when they asked me to be King Fergus, it’s one of the films that will be watched again and again.

We are now seeing you working alongside Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins and Maggie Smith in Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet. What was it like working with such an esteemed cast?
The story, about these retired opera singers, living in a nursing home, thought really intrigued me but when he told me who was in it, I wanted to say ‘no’. I was scared I wouldn’t match-up. But I remember working Judi Dench, on Oscar nominated drama, Mrs Brown] and remembering how working with these people brings out the best in you. So I said, ‘yes lets do it.

Will we hear you attempting any opera in the film?
There’s a scene at the end where the quartet get together for the first performance in years and we actually underwent extensive singing training for this scene. In the end we performed it for Dustin, and he wept with joy. He was astounded so we can’t have done half bad a job. You’ll see how it’s portrayed in the end, it’s beautiful.

What’s coming up next for you?
I’ve got two lives shows in San Francisco and New York and then I’m going down to New Zealand for The Hobbit. After that I don’t plan any further than that to be honest.

Your wife Pamela was fantastic on Strictly come Dancing a couple years ago? Would you ever consider something similar?
[laughing] Well she’s a dancing pro, she’s always tangoing and waltzing around the house. They did ask me to do Strictly and I straight out said, ‘no’. I don’t know, there this massive pressure with a show like that, I don’t think I’d want to join something like that. Although they can ask me again in a few years, I might have changed my mind at that point.