Billy Connolly is an extremely interesting character from Glasgow, Scotland, who survived a harsh childhood in the tenements and is now widely recognized as a musician, comedian, and actor. It was only this past summer that I learned of his existence, thanks to a small bit on the Conan O’Brien late night show, in which I found him to be truly inspiring and energetic, despite his age of 64. Since then, I have sought out many of his previous performances on video and he has become my favorite comedian. After learning of this biography assignment I thought Billy would be a perfect subject because he has discussed several of his life challenges and experiences while on stage. I purchased Billy shortly after, a book written by his wife Pamela Stephenson, which delves into his life starting from the very beginning. Billy has a love for life that is both contagious and refreshing. Surviving a harsh upbringing and an early battle with alcoholism, he is a true rags-to-riches story. In the following essay I will discuss Billy’s life so far.
When it comes to aging, Billy’s goal is growing old without ever growing up, often joking in later-life shows about paying his children to let him know when he’s doing “old stuff,” such as growling when lifting heavy things or getting out of chairs, doing a lot of tongue work while eating dinner, or if his tongue comes out when the spoon’s only half-way to his face. He also fears turning into a “beige” person with uninteresting plain clothes and a boring personality… I don’t think he needs to worry. But, I need to start at the beginning because critical, yet traumatic events took place which shaped who he is today. If these things hadn’t happened, he might have ended up a completely different person.
The fist critical event, which obviously still affects him today, was the day that his mother Mamie abandoned him and his sister Florence in 1946, when Billy was only four – his sister just one year older. Billy’s father was still away at war so once the children were found, Billy’s two aunts took them in after a bit of a family quarrel. The tenements in Glasgow, Scotland were apparently quite a sight and the book made clear that the living conditions were atrocious, which certainly must have elevated the fear that was instilled in the young siblings. Mamie has never admitted why she left but the book comes to the conclusion that she was simply not ready for marriage or motherhood, marrying Billy’s father William at age 17, already a few months pregnant with Florence. Billy still has fears of being abandoned and/or his famous career abandoning him. In Billy, it mentions quite often that his greatest fear is being tapped on the shoulder and being instructed that he must return to the shipyards the next day to continue is first main career as a welder. It seems like he has been able to cope with this event in later life however, having several kids of his own and a stronger marriage after an unsuccessful one. I also think that one of the most conclusive things that shows he has recovered can be seen in “A Scot in the Arctic,” a nature documentary for the BBC in which he stays completely alone for long periods of time in an Arctic region. In the book it mentions that after a while Billy would get upset when the film crew would return to the camp because it had been so peaceful without them. He would hear them coming for miles and they would completely destroy the tranquil and virgin environment of freshly fallen snow.
Unfortunately, his mother’s departure was just one event in a string of bad childhood experiences. It started when Margaret and Mona’s (Billy and Florence’s new caretakers – their aunts) attitudes soured. William was traumatized from the war, frequently absent, and the aunts soon realized that they would have to make many sacrifices to bring up the children, including dating and the possibility of marriage. At school, Billy wasn’t able to focus, received poor grades, and eventually stopped doing his assignments. Pamela, who more recently attained her doctorate in clinical psychology, now recognizes that Billy has a learning disability. Of course, these things were less known at the time and kids were beaten and severely punished for being “stupid.” The abuse didn’t end there. At home Billy was also beaten by Margaret and Mona for bad grades as well as his usual mischief. The aunts also taunted and teased him. It didn’t end there because when his father came around, he also would physically abuse him quite forcefully for his school progress and other simple things such as not being able to tell time or tie his shoes, which is apparently a common problem for people with learning disabilities. To top his childhood off, due to the tight living conditions Billy was forced to share a bed with his father. From the age of 10 to about 15 William also abused Billy sexually. All of these forms of abuse led Billy to become very rebellious and this behavior continues to this day; riding around on a three-wheeled motorcycle while on tour with a bandana, cowboy boots, and leather jacket that reads “Too Old To Die Young,” having his nipples pierced, and more recently getting a banjo tattooed on the outside of one of his palms – which is one of several. These aspects probably also fueled his personality transition from shy to extraverted, though he still seems to be quite sensitive; reverting to attack mode if anyone touches him unexpectedly.
Luckily, there were things Billy participated in that took his mind away from all of the abuse and altogether brutal living environment. Billy had an early love for reading, spending quite a bit of time at the library to avoid returning home. He particularly enjoyed adventure stories because they would bring him into an alternative reality, in which he could truly be happy and satisfied. In addition, he also joined the cub scouts, which kickstarted his enjoyment for the outdoors. This appreciation is still with him today, doing several “World Tour” tours which are a mixture of a nature/travel show and his comedy routine. In addition, I also put together that Billy had begun to search for a father figure. Because William was often absent and discombobulated from the war, Billy tried to seek out other male role models. On of the early places he found these figures was in the scouts, where he would have to do odd jobs. Assigned to clean out the cellars and polish the shoes of upper-class members of the community, Billy found at least one man that was generous and kind. During this point in Billy’s life, Pamela also gives an example of a recurring dream he has had for many years. In it, he is swimming underwater and runs out of breath to the point of drowning. Just as he is about to pass on he discovers that he can breathe underwater. Pamela finds symbolism in this dream that corresponds to his childhood. It was so harsh that Billy managed to survive where others might not have.
In other attempts to find a father figure, and actually an entirely new family for that matter, Billy dropped out of school at 15 due to poor performance. After one or two trivial jobs, he applied to become a welder. “When Billy was taken on as a welding apprentice in Stephen’s Shipyard, the industry appeared to be a thriving, testosterone-driven domain” (69). He made several close friendships within the welding community and seemed to enjoy this lifestyle for a while at least. “It was an extraordinary society of men, and in a way Billy’s first real family” (89). He also later joined the paratroopers for a few years where he was taught the importance of order, cleanliness, and responsibility. He says that he wanted to be a welder and join the army because of a desire to travel to exotic places and he did get that chance. However, I also think that he needed a better direction in life and more of an understanding of how the world works. Something he probably didn’t learn at home. These were also great escapes from Margaret, Mona, and William.
While very important in the timeline of Billy’s life, the next several years don’t relate much to the course so I will briefly summarize the events. After the exploration of different and more modern music, Billy purchased a banjo and took lessons from a local teacher. This all took place during the 60s, which was of course the point in musical history where folk music was at its peak with names like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan at the helm of the movement. Billy was able to pick up the banjo quickly and became quite a talented player, experimenting with various bands in local pubs. Eventually, he formed “The Humblebums” with his friend Tam Harvey, and later Gerry Rafferty. The band became more and more popular to the point where Billy quit his welding job for music. One major critical event during this time was his marriage to his first wife Iris in 1969. He had two children with Iris, a boy then a girl, but because of his escalating fame, he wasn’t able to be around much. Plus, the relationship with Iris was also somewhat on and off. The Humblebums eventually broke up so Billy decided to start a solo career. At first he would play music but eventually he started mixing in jokes and comedy into his routine and later started to rely solely on conversation. Billy started appearing on talk shows and his popularity got to the point where he and his wife decided to move to the country for the sake of privacy. It is shortly after this move that critical events start happening again.
Billy began to have feelings of hopelessness and while he appeared to be happy and jolly on stage, inside he was lost. He turned to alcohol more often and while the book doesn’t blatantly say it, he basically turned into an alcoholic, never letting his hangover catch up with him by staying drunk. He began to go on long tours and also continued his musical career, recording several albums that contained both comedic and more serious material during the 70s. His fame continuing to escalate, he started opening for famous tours with Elton John and Elvis Costello and began meeting several other famous musicians. Like many people in the mid 70s, Billy was introduced to drugs, such as cocaine, while on tour with the famous bands. By the end of the decade and after quite a lot of time away from home, his marriage was in trouble. Iris also often resorted to alcohol and Billy spent less and less time at home, even if he was in town. Little sleep combined with frequent drug use must have been a vicious cycle, which could have very well influenced these feelings of depression. He sill has these feelings through the early 80s but does meet Pamela on the set of Not the Nine O’ Clock News, who would eventually become his second wife. The show was a popular comedy sketch television program that was broadcast on the BBC for a few years and Pamela was one of the main cast members.
It wasn’t until a bad plane trip that Billy started to turn his life around. While flying out of Hong Kong on the way to Los Angeles, one of the plane’s engines blew out. After an emergency landing in Japan, all the passengers had to stay the night. In the morning they took off again in the same plane but with a new engine, only to have another engine blow. In a short conversation with another passenger he stated “If I get out of this alive, I’m going to tidy up my life a bit” (193). That is exactly what he started to do. First, only a short time later, he officially divorced Iris in 1981. Then, after his relationship with Pamela had excelled a bit more, Pamela told Billy she would leave him if he didn’t give up drinking. They made an agreement (I assume Billy had either already stopped using other drugs by this point or the agreement included them too) where Billy would stop for one year and would see how it went. At this point, he also started focusing on his physical health by giving up smoking and eating healthier. After sobering up, his relationship with his children began to grow stronger. Unknown to him at first, Iris’s alcohol use had grown to a severe level. After learning of her steady decline from the kids he went to court and won custody – the kids were age 11 and 8. Only a short time later, in 1983, Billy’s first child with Pamela was born. All of these events were extremely positive for him and his family but because his one year agreement with Pamela had come and gone, he began to drink again.
He never drank around the family but it got to the point again where it became dangerous. While filming Water, (Billy had already done several small roles in movies by this time) Michael Caine recognized that Billy was going over the limit and had a serious talk with him about trying to drink only in moderation. After about another year of embarrassments, he finally decided to give up drinking for good at age 43, the day before New Year’s Day of 1985. He has been sober ever since.
Shortly after his second daughter with Pamela was born in July of that year, he began what I think was a “midlife crisis” phase. In a possible quest for re-discovery, he announced to the Late Late Show in Ireland that he was searching for his grandfather’s birthplace. After figuring out what the name of the small town was, he set out to find it. On the way, he became depressed after seeing several abandoned towns, despite the beautiful countryside, and decided to return to his hotel. Later on, while still on the same tour, his only son Jamie joined him and together they found the very small town. At this time, “Billy felt lost and unsettled, with jumbled feelings of displacement, echoes of the past and yearnings for clarity all churning around inside him” (232). The book doesn’t elaborate any further on these feelings or how long they continued but it is the only midlife event that seems to stand out. Billy’s search for his grandfather’s hometown seems so random and out of place that I think it must have at least been at least part of a midlife crisis.
After a second stroke Billy’s father died in March of 1988. It was at this time that he was finally able to tell his sister Florence, whom he had always been close with, about the sexual abuse he had gone though as a child. He was able to tell Pamela after William’s first stroke but had kept it bottled up inside until that point. After learning of her brother’s dreadful experience, Flo immediately left her teaching job and sought out a position at a school for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children in Glasgow. Though she did blame herself for several years to come, she was able to heal after seeing that Billy had completely recovered from it. Later that year in July, Billy’s third daughter with Pamela was born. Only one year later, Billy and Pamela were finally married in December of 1989 on a small Fijian island. He then began to build his success in America where he ended up doing a couple of sitcoms and continued doing the occasional movie role.
The next phase of Billy’s life that I want to briefly mention is how he started giving back. In 1999, Billy and his manager launched “Tickety-Boo,” Billy’s new management company. This company spawned the charitable enterprise “Tickety-Boo Tea,” a brand of tea for sale where all profits go to charitable causes, particularly to neglected and abandoned children worldwide. Examples of this money put to good use can be seen in youth hostels that were built for abandoned children in India and China – and probably more since the book was published. Earlier, in 1986, he also participated in Comic Relief – a charitable organization that raises money for Africa and for disadvantaged people in the UK. Despite the dangers of disease and hostile conflicts, Billy traveled to Mozambique for the event. He went back a year after and was pleased with the success that the TV show had brought to the region.
As a bit of a recap I would briefly like to go over the events I covered and compare them with Charlotte Buhler’s stage theory as covered in class.
- 15-25 Experimental Goals: Billy first and foremost wants to get out of Glasgow and travel to exotic locales to meet interesting people. Thanks to the welding job and the army, Billy becomes less shy and more of an extroverted person. These personality characteristics just continues to develop. Another one of his goals was to become a “rambling man” or drifter. He usually presents himself with long hair and a beard, continues to play the banjo, has piercing and tattoos, wears cowboy boots, and continues in his desire to look “windswept and interesting.” As a child, he has already suffered through many critical life events that shape what he comes out to be.
- 25-45 Define Goals: It takes a while for Billy to figure out what he wants to do with his life and whom he wants to spend it with. From welder, to folk singer, to comedian, in this stage of life he finds out that he truly wants to be a full time comedian. After an unsuccessful marriage, Billy meets Pamela and she turns him around and sets him on the right path. After sobering up from drugs and alcohol, he gains custody of his children from Iris and has three more children with Pamela. It is clear that Billy has a much stronger relationship with Pamela and he eventually marries her.
- 40-65 Self Assessment: Billy finally realizes that alcohol has made a complete fool out of him, which overlaps with the previous phase. In some of the later-life comedy shows that he has done, he realizes that this behavior was affecting his performances for the worst after reviewing them on video. At 43 he goes completely sober. He also has somewhat of a midlife crisis and goes in search of his grandfather’s hometown. Again, it seems like some details are missing here but this is the conclusion I have made. He now has a strong family that is composed of five children from two marriages.
- 65+ Fulfillment of Goals: Even though he hasn’t reached the age of 65, after touring around the world in all sorts of strange looking clothing and shoes I’d say he has definitely completed his goals. He also makes sure to give back by creating and participating in charity organizations.
In conclusion, I hope you can now see why I chose to do this assignment on Billy Connolly. At only a very young age he faced an assault of critical life events. As an adult he was able to part with previous addictions, avoid repercussions of early abuse, and maintain a strong family relationship. He’s a truly unique individual who has been victorious against unsurmountable odds and his hard work and talent have earned him worldwide fame.
Stephenson, Pamela. Billy. New York: The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publisher, Inc, 2002.