Billy Connolly Does … review – criminally entertaining yarns from the Big Yin | Television

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From his home in Key West, Florida, Billy Connolly describes what he used to get up to after a standup gig had finished. He would continue on into the night, and “find some tavern where people were happy to listen to a tale or two”. Billy Connolly Does … (Gold) is just that: prodded by his long-time director Mike Reilly, he reminisces about the past, telling tales gathered together on a certain theme, illustrated by a pacy mix of animation, library clips and archive footage.

Sometimes these hybrid compilation/interview shows work well – French and Saunders did a great one on women in comedy last year – and sometimes they feel like a long-expired rock band repackaging their greatest hits for the ninth time. Connolly is such a charmer that this one works beautifully. Subsequent episodes will cover fatherhood, marriage and home, but the theme tonight is bad behaviour, which shows off Connolly at his most raucous, and allows for a spot of profound reflection at the end.

Reilly explains that he has made this show because he has worked with Connolly for 10 years, and all anyone wants to know from him is: “What’s Billy Connolly like?” His answer? “He’s everything you want him to be.” Connolly retired from standup in 2018, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013, but after 50 years of shows, there is plenty of material to look back on. What’s striking is how familiar much of it is, how woven into the fabric of British comedy culture his work has been.

Bad behaviour is a great topic because it gives him free rein to cover all the naughty stuff. He talks about getting sidetracked by lesbian bus drivers in Wellington, New Zealand, and about the appeal of pubs and bars. He does his famous “drunk walks” bit, riffs about life on tour and the shenanigans that bored and overindulged people are likely to get up to. Being on tour is the whole world for people in the thick of it, although it’s usually of little interest to anyone who isn’t. Few can spin gold out of an environment that is notoriously monotonous; that Connolly is an exception to this rule just proves his greatness.

The anecdotes are criminally entertaining, though I am not sure how necessary the animations are: just hearing him describe a trifle down the trousers is enough. Michael Parkinson recalls a wild night out with Connolly in Sydney, when the comedian appeared to be drunkenly goading police to arrest him, in the middle of the road. Parkinson says it was his job to get Connolly back to the hotel before he was locked up, but Connolly only agreed to go with him if they danced all the way back. “Billy in the wild days,” as Parkinson puts it, warmly, seemed like a limitless adventure.

The wild days did not last, of course. His wife appears in this first episode via “Pam-Cam”, providing biscuits, and Connolly recalls the time she told him she did not want to be with a drunk, and so he stopped drinking. The discussion about that is almost a match for the peerless comedy clips from across the ages. “People don’t mind if you give up drinking so long as you buy your round,” he jokes, before offering up an honest consideration of the role alcohol played in his career. He was worried that without it, he would not be the man he was, but he reasons that in the end it is “pretendy wildness”, and that he knows how to turn it on, with or without the drink. Pretendy wildness, real wildness: all life is here, and it all amuses him greatly.

Amid the nostalgia, there is time for reflection, and plenty of the memories are as moving as they are funny. Many of the people Connolly speaks of are now dead. He reminisces about a silly hotel game invented by his old soundman, Malcolm Kingsnorth, who spent 10 years on the road with Status Quo before moving to Connolly’s tour.

The days of comedians as rock stars, so intertwined that they could share a stage together, as Connolly did with Led Zeppelin, are a relic of another age, but it’s fun to remember him as the first rock star comedian. He recalls a night out with John Hurt and Keith Moon, with whom he clicked instantly, and anticipated a long and fruitful friendship. But Moon died before they could meet again. “I was really looking forward to having him as a friend,” says Connolly, sadly, before letting us in on what he did for his own, small personal tribute. I’ll admit that I had a lump in my throat, but the real pleasure here, I think, is that Connolly had a twinkle in his eye.



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