Billy Connolly: Old age is a weird and nasty surprise. I don’t know if we should tell people about it
In his most intimate interview yet in The Irish Times, by his wife Pamela Stephenson Connolly, the comedian talks about living with Parkinson’s, the secret of ageing and the changing nature of comedy
William Connolly, aka Billy Connolly, aka the Big Yin, the Glaswegian welder-turned-folk-singer-turned-comedian has been my partner for more than 40 years. When Billy and I met, I was a comedian appearing in the BBC’s popular topical comedy programme Not The Nine O’Clock News, but since then I have become a psychologist, author, dance enthusiast and regular Guardian columnist.
Billy and I have five children between us. We married in Fiji (my mother’s birthplace) then settled in the United States in the late 80s, living first in California, where Billy was under contract to Warner Brothers. We subsequently moved to New York after our children finished school, and we currently reside in the Florida Keys, where the “fishing is easy” and (in Billy’s words) “the sun comes clattering down”. Our move to Florida was prompted by a need to situate Billy in a more relaxed place, without the extremes of temperature one experiences in New York. As is the case in Billy’s beloved Glasgow, for him a cold winter is accompanied by the likelihood of his slipping on ice and “falling on my arse”. So for now, our alternative environmental hazards are hurricanes, aggressive grackles and iguana poop.
Billy has had an extraordinary career. Aside from the many years of live concerts that made him a much-adored performer in many countries around the world, he has made about 50 movies and hundreds of TV shows. He survived prostate cancer and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about 10 years ago, but that hasn’t stopped him continuing to develop his creative talents. Although performing live is no longer an option, in recent years Billy started making wonderful drawings and became a celebrated artist. He also began to write books. His successful first autobiography, Windswept and Interesting, has been followed by his latest memoir, Rambling Man – an ode to the restless soul, chronicling Billy’s lifetime wanderings in his usual charming, irreverent and hilarious style.
As my 80-year-old husband’s main caregiver, I try to reduce his stress, so this interview has been conducted via a series of questions sent over by the Guardian, the answers to which I recorded in a relaxed conversation between the two of us.
Pamela Stephenson Connolly
Your career has taken you to so many different places. What are the best and the worst places you’ve ever been to?
And the best place?
B: Australia’s a great place. It looks good. It’s clean and bright and healthy. And the people seem happy and delighted to be there … and they don’t waste any time telling you that.
Pamela: Plus, Australia produces the best wives …
B [laughing]: Of course it does. It does a fine line in wives …
P: Was that why you married me? Because I’m Australian?
P: Ah yes. Minimal expectations …
What has been your favourite adventure that you went on together?
B: Our wedding in Fiji.
P: Yeah. What was the highlight for you?
B: The highlight for me was putting my city clothes away and knowing that I’d be wearing a … what d’you call that thing?
P: A sulu.
B: Wearing a sulu for the rest of the time and feeling comfortable and happy.
P: What about the food? We ate sea snake, didn’t we?
B: There were a lot of snakes. They looked like Newcastle United players … black and white stripes.
P [laughing]: That’s good. We had a weird group of people with us, didn’t we? And you had a series of scuba mishaps.
B: I dropped my weights.
P: That’s right! Your weight belt dropped to the bottom. And that little dive guide was desperately trying to hold on to you ‘cos you were shooting upwards dangerously fast. Perhaps a place is improved when you add a near-death experience.
Which place that you’ve revisited has changed the most since your first visit?
B: New Zealand. New Zealand had changed for the better. By far.
Aside from the Florida Keys, where you live now, if you had to settle in one place that you’d visited, where would it be?
P: You b**tard.
P: You even promised me one hot Christmas (Australia) and one cold Christmas (Scotland), but it never happened. So now you’re saying you would have lived there?
P: Let’s move to Byron Bay.
You say in the book that the Rambling Man doesn’t discuss political hot potatoes. Do you talk politics at home?
B: We just point out pr*cks when we see them on TV.
P: Yeah. We usually agree on pr*cks.
B: No shortage of them here …
Florida’s politics has become more tumultuous. Do you have views on Ron DeSantis?
B: He should be f**ked and burned.
P: We’re not that aware of those attitudes where we live. Most people around us are more liberal …
B: But there are people nearby who put [Donald] Trump decorations on their Christmas trees.
P: That’s true. We do see his name in lights in our street. Yeah. There are people driving crazy Trump trucks with flags everywhere.
Parkinson’s is cruel, but sometimes I get little gifts. I try drawing while shaking and the wriggly lines make it turn out nice
— Billy Connolly
B: My friend whom I used to watch shooting lizards has told me that he’s preparing for the civil war. But unfortunately, his family have taken him away so I can’t find him any more. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Since retiring from live performance, what do you miss most about it?
B: The fact that it doesn’t matter what kind of day you’re having; you’re gonna have a great night.
P: That’s good. That’s very good.
B: You become this other guy … and have a great night that will last till the following day.
B: Pamela dresses me in the morning …
P: Is it really that different? I mean, when you were home before, you more or less did a lot of the same sort of things, you know – sat and watched football. People brought you cups of tea …
B: I have to get lifts everywhere. I can’t drive any more.
P: Well, you do have a fabulous Australian chauffeur.
P: With superior driving skills …
B: Aye, the less said about that the better.
You’ve written about the re-entry problems; when you came back to normal domestic life after being on tour for a long time, it was hard to re-enter.
B: Yeah – you keep dialling nine for an outside line. And try to call room service.
How hard has it been for you as a natural traveller to be at home – during the various lockdowns, as well as due to your illness?
B: It’s been brilliant! It’s been one of the great surprises of my life! I was told to stay home, I did it and I loved it. Even my dogs loved it. Although we were very lucky because we live on a canal, so we could go for walks in a tropical paradise.
P: And even now … for example, two nights ago you were sitting fishing just outside your back door. The higher the sea level rises, the closer the fishing’s going to be … so you’ll soon be a fishing Rambling Man without even leaving the house.
B: There’s something in my Scottish nature that makes me look forward to global warming: “High f**king time!”
P: You used to say a long time ago – when we bought the Highlands house – that you always wanted to be able to go fishing in your slippers, and finally you can do it.
How has your Parkinson’s diagnosis evolved over time?
B: It’s very difficult to see the progression exactly, because a lot of things come and go. Recently I’ve noticed a deterioration in my balance. That was never such a problem before, but in the last year that has come and it has stayed. For some reason, I thought it would go away, because a lot of symptoms have come and gone away … just to defy the symptom spotters. The shaking has reappeared …
P: Not much though …
B: … and the inability to get out of certain types of chairs.
P: The balance issue has been most significant, hasn’t it? Especially since, unfortunately, it resulted in you having a couple of serious falls …
B: It’s funny, that fall I had when I landed on my jaw reminded me of a thing I used to do on stage. I used to say: “I fell out of bed, but luckily my face broke my fall …”
P: It wasn’t so funny when you broke your hip.
I found a new Pamela. And it’s worked out great
— Billy Connolly
B: It’s just added to the list of things that hold me back. I feel like I want to go for a walk, but I go for 50 yards and I want to go home, because I’m tired. I’m being encroached upon by this disease. It’s creeping up behind me and stopping me doing things. It’s a cruel disease.
P: It’s been pretty slow-moving, though.
B: Really, really slow-moving, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant.
P: Of course not.
B: What I find is that sometimes I get little gifts. When I’m fed up with shaking, I try drawing while shaking and the wriggly lines make it turn out nice.
P: Yeah, it’s amazing that you still draw. Incredible.
B: I did a great shaking one the other day. It’s lovely.
A lot of people will relate to the change a relationship undergoes when one person has to care for the other person physically …
P What are your thoughts about that, Billy?
B: It’s lovely. I found a new you. I found a new Pamela. And it’s worked out great. I never thought that you’d be able to look after me the way you do. I thought it would annoy you terribly. You were such an independent “look after yourself” kind of person. But you’ve rallied round to looking after me. And it suits you great. And it sure suits me lovely.
P: Well, you’d do the same if I got Parkinson’s or something else.
B: Course I would.
B: I could be a caretaker. There were a lot of mistakes made by people in summing me up, because of my rebellious clothing and haircut and beard … and because of my kind of humour. But the audience never found me rebellious – at least not against them. They joined in the rebellion. Thought it was a rather good idea. So I’ve never been the rebellious person that people think.
P: You invited the audience to join you in being rebellious against things that deserved to be rebelled against, right?
B: I was just a working man – a welder who was sick and tired of some things and thought they should be spoken about it.
What do you think of old age – how it’s perceived and how society treats it?
B: It’s a cunning ploy that awaits you. The surprise is f**king nerve-racking. That suddenly you can’t walk any more. Can’t run. Can’t jump. It’s a weird and nasty surprise. I don’t know if we should tell people about it, or just let it be their surprise when they come to it. But I think to prepare for it would be depressing.
P: A lot of people think that you’re going to be bent over with a stick by the time you’re 50.
B: That’s right. [Laughing] I’m bent over with a stick and I’m well past 50. And I do have an array of very nice sticks. Growing old is a secret everybody keeps. It isn’t a jolly thing. But I often think of old men that I knew when I was a boy. They were younger than I am now and I thought they were very old. And I’m not like them. I don’t look like them and I don’t behave like them. Something has come over us all – the people who were born in the 20th century. From the war on, we’re a different species. We don’t complain as much as people think we do.
What things have you lost that you regret?
P: Do you think you could still play the banjo if you tried?
P: I think you could, too, if you just practised.
B: Yeah, I could do a little.
P: And you’ve taken up the mouth organ.
B: Yeah. I’m getting better at the harmonica. Blues. What was the question?
P: What things can’t you do now that you used to be able to do? That you regret.
B: Run. Sometimes I’d like to run. I’d like to dance. But apart from that, everything fits me lovely. People seem to drive me places. And that’s great. As long as they leave me alone when they get there. I want them to just drop me then get going.
Billy, what do you make of show business these days? Who and what makes you laugh?
B: Well, that’s hard.
P: What about that TV show – you’re always talking about loving the people who are so unpolitically correct?
B: Oh yeah … there’s a school of black comedians who are generally in their 50s or 60s, and they are so politically incorrect it almost doesn’t bear watching. It’s fantastically good for you. They just say it like it is – it’s breathtaking. That’s wonderful and I’m glad they exist, because the social worker-ation that has passed through comedy is vomit-inducing. Comedians never used to worry about what was correct to say. You said it, and you soon found out whether it was correct or not. And then you got on with it. And that was a good enough rule for me.
What TV or films do you watch together?
B: I went to see Oppenheimer but I forgot my hearing aids. I could sort of hear, but not as well as I thought I could, and I thought it was a rather dull film. But then with a stroke of genius I decided to go and see it again with my hearing aids – and discovered it was a great film. There were jokes in it! Such a joy. It taught me a great lesson – to take my hearing aids everywhere. Oh, and I saw Barbie and I stayed till the end! It was extraordinary.
P: And then we saw Passages …
B: … about the gay couple? I thoroughly enjoyed that. We were with a gay man at the time, a friend of ours. I had been politically incorrect with him on the occasion when I mistook his husband for his brother. He forgave me and still finds it very funny. And there was a lovely bit during the film when one of the people involved said: “We’re all brothers!”
Billy, what’s it like being married to a psychologist?
B: It’s easy. She never brings up psychology when she’s near me. Although I’ve seen her looking over my shoulder when I’m drawing, and heard the weird sighing noise that she makes, knowing that she’s gonna have to analyse it at some point.
P: Oh, please! The other day I was looking askance at someone shooting his mouth off in the gym and he said to me: “Are you analysing me?” I said: “No, I’m not analysing you, I’m judging you.” He laughed, so I followed up with: “D’you know the difference between analysis and judgment? It’s $350 an hour.”
B [laughing]: Yes, I’ve noticed that you do a kind of sighing thing, which I’m supposed to hear and adjust my behaviour accordingly.
P: Glad you recognise the message, Billy …