How long will Scotland tolerate Billy Connolly’s jokes?


By Kenneth Roy

Suddenly, there is hope for us all. In one of the many disobliging ‘profiles’ of Billy Connolly following his walk-out in Scarborough and Blackpool, he is described as a man in late middle age. Mr Connolly is 69. If this now qualifies as late middle age, I’m going with the theory that the district nurse and Saga Tours won’t be troubling us until we have safely negotiated our 75th birthday and that a mid-life crisis is possible at 72. How exciting.

Actuarially, however, most people in Glasgow will miss their mid-life crisis because most people in Glasgow will be dead by 72. The few survivors will be left to pay for the Commonwealth Games until the moderately old age of 130.

But Billy Connolly – that’s another story. He’s always been another story.

He was right to walk out on the odious northerners who heckled him, went to the lavatory, strolled off to the bar, or otherwise behaved disgustingly during his turn. Absolutely. Someone has to take a stand against the vileness of modern audiences, who conduct themselves as they would in front of their own television sets. A man in late middle age, only moderately rich, with a wife and castle to support, who is prepared to contemplate a night in Blackpool, even for payment, is entitled to a bit of respect.

I understand that he terminated the performance at 9.40pm. That is quite late enough. Some of us are habitually in bed by 9.40pm, happily perusing the memorial services column of The Oldie or wondering what on earth to write about the following morning, short of yet another piece about yon question.

Although I am several years younger than Mr Connolly, I am late middle aged enough to remember him when he was an unknown folk singer and banjoist. In the Scotia Bar, someone – Adam MacNaughtan, perhaps – pointed to a forlorn figure in the corner with the assurance that he was a musician of the highest promise. The Big Yin (as he then wasn’t called) had a look of amused melancholy beyond wistful. Clearly the day had not been kind to him, and it was not quite one o’clock.

Not long after this, his star was born overnight in the exuberant ‘Great Northern Welly Boot Show’ at the Edinburgh Festival. What a night that was. I believe Bridget McConnell still has Billy Connolly’s wellies – though maybe only one of of them; the cuts – on show in one of her many museums. They have become a Glasgow artefact in the same class as the traffic cone which rests at a jaunty angle on the top of the Duke of Wellington’s head.

I like to imagine the new Scotland as an inclusive sort of place, cultured and confident, open to dissenters of any height. But the portents are not always encouraging.

For Mr Connolly, there was no going back. Or, rather, there was.

In the only serious conversation I have ever had with him – apart from a twitchy one before Jimmy Reid’s funeral when we both had duties to perform – I was surprised by his bitter resentment of his treatment by sections of the Scottish press. He named names. He even gave one of them a funny, poisonous nicknake. But why? They were people of no significance, and he was brilliant, the talk of many towns, enjoying an acclaim far beyond his native Scotland. Yet still, in some mysterious way, they got to him. If it was a battle in the first place, maybe he had allowed them to win.

The edgy ambivalence about Scotland extends beyond a loathing of various hacks. He has also been scornful of our political aspirations with his irreverent digs at our ‘pretendy wee parliament’. The way things are going it will soon be an unpretendy big parliament, so he could have been wrong. He remains, however, not at all in thrall to the project.

How will people like Mr Connolly be treated in future? I like to imagine the new Scotland as an inclusive sort of place, cultured and confident, open to dissenters of any height. But the portents are not always encouraging. It was mildly disturbing, for example, that supporters of the project responded to my defence of the businesswoman Michelle Mone, who opposes independence, by drawing my attention to the fact that she had recently been photographed without many clothes on.

It is possible, then, that the new Scotland will disappoint me by being prim and censorious and Kirk-driven; that Michelle Mone will require to be attired as the late Flora Macdonald; that Billy Connolly will be instructed to clean up his act; and that the Scottish Review’s occasional affectionate references to Mr Salmond as the first midgie will be prohibited by act of the pretendy wee parliament, which will have become the unpretendy big parliament, and quite scary with it.

The other Scot who was not in a good place at the end of last week – Mr Connolly having been in Blackpool, you may remember – was Mr Salmond himself. He should have been at a place called Murrayfield, assisting the BBC with the commentary on the Rugby, a game imported from some English public school. It seems at first glance – the only glance I have been prepared to give it over the years – to involve a deal of manly hugging and fumbling. Erotic, absurd, both or neither – it is hard to say. But then the BBC took cold feet and banned Mr Salmond from the commentary box. I know how infuriating this can be. When I opened the Sunday Mail one morning, I came upon the headline, ‘Beeb Bad Boy Banned’, a clever alliterative reference to myself.

Mr Salmond, a mere boy at 57, will have many further opportunities to appear on BBC Television in the unlikely event that he should wish to do so. The Rugby ban may even prove to be fortuitous. A vacancy will soon arise in the BBC’s golf team, for Peter Alliss, pushing 81, may be considered to be in the foothills of the elderly and cannot go on for ever. Mr Salmond, with his reassuring burr and deep knowledge of the game, would make an admirable successor, leaving him ample time to organise the odd referendum and answer the feeble questions put to him in the pretendy wee parliament.

I will see what I can do. Possibly not much.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review