First and foremost, Billy Connolly is Billy Connolly. I have never set eyes on the man or met him. But for those who have little or no familiarity with Connolly’s life and work, please forgive me if I try to bridge the gap, and provide an analogy that provides context, by referencing Connolly to the late George Carlin.. I don’t have any idea how Connolly might react to being compared in this way. I suspect that if he doesn’t appreciate it, I am a marked man.
I think I first encountered Billy Connolly on the BBC or ITV when I was working for Intel and living in the beautiful boondocks of Wiltshire: the village of Great Bedwyn to be precise, on the Kennet Avon Canal, a few miles from Marlborough. Connolly seemed to me to be the British equivalent of George Carlin, dressed in kilts, the perfect blend of Scottish humor, truth, sarcasm, wit and profanity. As time went on I kept hearing about him here and there. Finally, his work became a theme for me.
Connolly is now a fully made man. Last night, Connolly appeared for an interview here in Canada on the George Strombolopolis CBC broadcast. As part of his latest film work with Dustin Hoffman, he has also appeared on Letterman, Conan, and the Leno (lounge lizard) show. Connolly is an existentialist pure and simple. He might bridle at the tag, or more likely make a joke of it, but he is an existentialist.. His main point to Strombolopolis was that he believed that one should grow old but not “up.” His point was that there was too much in life to experience, and the only way to achieve that was to be a child…. Einstein said something very similiar.
In any event, there are numerous personal threads to this tale..
Connolly is married to New Zealand actress and comedienne, Pamela Stephenson. In the 1980′s she appeared a few times on Saturday Night Live. While living in London, we decided to see a production of Gilbert & Sullivan‘s Pirates of Penzance at the Drury Lane Theatre in Soho.. The cast included Tim Curry of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame, Michael Apted, and Pamela Stephenson. As it happened it was the final performance by this, the original cast. I learned that there is a theater tradition of the cast pranking each other during the performance. I recall it as one of my favorite London theater experiences. Stephenson had an attack of uncontrollable laughter. We, all of us in the audience, applauded and cheered her to help overcome her fits of laughter. It was one of those “once in a lifetime experiences.”
There was not too much else to say, until I watched Connolly’s performance in “Mrs. Brown”, in which he starred with Judy Dench. It is the true story of the equestrian aide to Queen Victoria following her long mourning for Prince Albert. An entirely different Billy Connolly, a serious dramatic actor appeared. Connolly has further expanded his dramatic talents with the release yesterday of Quartet, another serious dramatic film with Dustin Hoffman as director.
More recently, on one of my many long trips to New Zealand, while working for New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, I had the habit of using the weekends to get out and see New Zealand.. One weekend, I took a bus tour up to The Bay of Islands on the northern end of North Island. The destination was Pihia. The area is famous for the end of the war between the Maori and the British. The Maori big house at Waitangi is part of the tour. Also part of the tour is the very small and very isolated town of Russell, best accessed by a short ferry ride or a very long road trip from Pihia. Taking the short tour of Russell, I was surprised to learn that Connolly and Stephenson maintain a home there. Another surprise.
Most recently, I have enjoyed watching Connolly explore the Northwest Passage in Canada on a PBS series..
I would summarize all of this by saying that Billy Connolly displays the kind of openness and playfulness of someone of my generation who has experienced life outside the box, so to speak.. I am certain that if I had the pleasure of meeting him, we would have a great conversation about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness.