Billy Connolly: My dream was to earn a good living by playing my banjo and making people laugh
I met my first serious girlfriend, Iris, at a folk club. She was very good-looking and reminded me of the singer Cher, with long dark hair and a hippy style. I really liked her, and before long we’d moved in together.
In keeping with Glaswegian culture in the 1960s, alcohol played a central role in our lives. Neither of us could see that we were overdoing it and heading for trouble.
After we’d been together a couple of years Iris told me she was pregnant and wanted to be married. I didn’t want to get married, I just wanted to carry on the way we were. But Iris got so upset I said: ‘Aye, OK.’
We got married in the summer of 1968. Gerry Rafferty, my co-performer in our band, The Humblebums, was my best man.
Jamie was born a few months afterwards and we moved to a little ground-floor tenement. Cara came along a couple of years later, and by then I had decided it was a rather good thing being anchored to a home life.
My dream was to earn a good living by playing my banjo and making people laugh. Iris begged to differ.
I said to her: ‘You know, I think I’m going to make it.’ She looked at me doubtfully. ‘Nonsense,’ she said.
But in the end, just as I’d hoped, it all started to take off. Gerry and I parted company to do our own thing, and I was soon touring as a solo entertainer, not only in the UK but abroad too.
I abandoned my banjo and started concentrating on the comedy side of my act. Through those early gigs I learned that audiences liked it when I talked about things they could relate to.
I started going for walks before every show in a new town – just getting to know what people there saw every day – and then I would refer to it onstage that night. I didn’t plan to talk about anything specific, I just soaked up the place, then something would come into my head to talk about.
But none of it helped my home life with Iris. After all the adrenaline, excitement, high living, star treatment and the appreciation shown by my audiences, it was hard to switch back when I came home. I’d be exhausted, lying on the bed, wondering how I could dial room service.
I don’t think I was the only performer with that problem. In fact, I defy anyone to go comfortably from ‘Would you like another of the large ones, Sir Billy?’ to ‘Feed the dog, and take out the f***ing bins’.
Pictured: Billy and Pamela Stephenson with their children on their wedding day in Fiji in 1989
Iris was obviously very unhappy. Once she locked me out of the house because I was drunk and disorderly. I hung around outside causing a disturbance, so she called the police.
They took me to the police station, gave me a bed in a cell overnight, then let me go with a warning.
I didn’t know what to do. I was scared. I could see a big black cloud coming towards us, but I was afraid of facing it, so I stayed away from home even more. I still feel very guilty about abandoning Iris. If I’d had the chance to do it again, I would have stayed at home more instead of going to the pub.
We were both drunks. Neither of us was happy. It’s amazing how you can kind of know something but don’t entirely admit it to yourself.
None of it was fair on the kids – I think they missed out. I was never there, which must have been very hard on Iris. I didn’t know how to be a good family man. With my difficult upbringing, I had never learned that. I was stumbling from disaster to disaster.
It was around this time that I met Pamela Stephenson.
Out of the blue, the producers of the BBC2 topical comedy show Not The Nine O’Clock News invited me to come on and do some sketches. There were four comedians in the show – Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Pamela. They were excellent. I did a couple of scenes with Pamela and thought she was very good. Very professional.
I didn’t see her for a year after that, but then she turned up to see me in Brighton where I was in the middle of a 70-gig national tour. I was exhausted and totally distraught about my life generally. By then, Iris and I had finally split.
Pamela perched on the handbasin in my dressing room and I told her some of my problems. She let me know her marriage was over too. Then we went to the bar in my hotel and got stuck into the bevvies.
We have been together ever since, but it wasn’t always easy.
Pamela told me that, for her, my drinking was a big problem. That sometimes I changed personality and became nasty when I was drunk. That was news to me – I never remembered the night before.
She disappeared to Bali for a few months, and I assumed it was over. I learned later she had gone away to try to forget about me because she could no longer take the way I behaved. She took books about alcoholism and addiction with her and studied them. When she returned, we chatted about her trip, then she brought up my drinking. She said she cared about me, but I was damaging myself and she couldn’t be part of that.
Extreme antics: Billy Connolly with co-star Michael Caine on the set of 1985 movie Water in St Lucia
I knew in my soul she was right. No one had ever confronted me about it before. Everyone else in my life just enabled it because I was ‘Billy Connolly, the wild man’.
Pamela made me see the seriousness of it, and that I’d have to change. Although she didn’t actually say it, it became clear she would leave for good if I didn’t. Being a person with a terrible fear of being abandoned, I panicked. I didn’t want her to leave, and I could see a chance for happiness with her if she stayed. I promised to try to stop drinking, even though I doubted I’d succeed.
Eventually we moved in together. Pamela was busier than me, doing movies and TV shows, so I started to cook and spent my days learning how to make nice food. There was so much chaos in my life, it helped me feel calm. I was gaining some control over drinking – although it wasn’t easy and I lost the battle a few times.
When Pamela became pregnant with Daisy, we both realised it was time to get serious.
Pamela had begun to spend time with Cara and Jamie. I was disturbed about how their lives were going in Scotland, especially when I learned that Jamie had not been attending school. I went to court and got custody.
Daisy arrived and Pamela found schools for Jamie and Cara, and we began living regular, settled lives.
It’s been 35 years since I’ve had an alcoholic beverage. I’m not sure what would happen if I tried. I think I’d rather stick to a cup of tea and the football
Amy and Scarlett were born two years apart, so by 1988 I was a father of five. Iris and I had divorced in 1985 and she went to live in Spain. Pamela and I tied the knot in 1989.
Soon after Daisy was born in 1983, I stopped drinking for a year. But then I tried drinking again, to see what would happen. It was a big mistake. In fact, some of my subsequent antics were so extreme that they could have had tragic consequences.
I was filming the movie Water in St Lucia. One night I had a jolly evening with Michael Caine and some of the other cast and crew. By the time we left the restaurant, I was steaming.
We then had to ride back to our hotel in a local bus that took a precarious route on a terrible road beside a steep ravine.
For some reason, I thought it would be a wheeze to cover the driver’s eyes while he was driving. To prevent us from careering off the edge of the cliff, Michael Caine had to intervene. He talked to me about it the following morning, and I decided to quit drinking again.
At the end of 1985, I stopped for good. Pamela had always avoided giving me an ultimatum, because she knew it would have to be my decision – but she had made her position perfectly clear.
She took Daisy to New York when she became a cast member of Saturday Night Live, and I was worried she wouldn’t come back. So I decided to quit drinking while it was still my idea.
It’s been 35 years since I’ve had an alcoholic beverage. I’m not sure what would happen if I tried. I think I’d rather stick to a cup of tea and the football.
A doctor at my hotel saw me walk and said: I think you may have Parkinson’s
I’ve got Parkinson’s disease, and I wish he’d f****** kept it to himself.
As a matter of fact, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and prostate cancer in the same week. Holy Mother of God.
I got treated for the cancer and now I seem to be OK. The Parkinson’s just rumbles along, doing its thing.
Being diagnosed with Parkinson’s was weird. I was in LA doing a talk show, and they’d put me up in a hotel near the studio.
I was walking through the lobby and a guy came up to me. He said: ‘Excuse me…’
He said: ‘I’m a big fan. I’m here with some dancers from Tasmania.’
‘Oh, that’s nice… blah de blah.’
Then he said: ‘Listen, I’m a doctor and I’ve noticed you walking in here, and… er… your gait… you have the gait of a man with Parkinson’s disease.’
That stopped me in my tracks. ‘What??’
He said: ‘I think you should check it out with your doctor.’
I went to my doctor and he did some tests, then said: ‘You’re fine.’
A bit later, Pamela and some of my friends noticed my hand shaking. I also started to kind of freeze from time to time – just stop moving – or I’d stop talking in the middle of a sentence.
So I went to see a Parkinson’s specialist in New York, where we were living at the time. She diagnosed me with the disease and started treating me. It was a huge shock, and quite frightening. This thing wasn’t going to go away. It was a big unwelcome aspect of my life that was going to have to be dealt with.
After a while, the symptoms came crashing in. It became very scary once I started having trouble getting out of chairs because I thought I was going to be condemned to that for ever. It would be downhill all the way. Even though people said ‘You’ve got a very mild case – you’re going to be OK’, I didn’t believe them. I thought they were just being kind.
Eventually the scariness diminished, I just accepted it. You can’t stay scared for ever. There was no pain, just a sort of doom that came with it, but you soon got used to it. You just carry it around as another wee burden.
Billy Connolly: As a matter of fact, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and prostate cancer in the same week. Holy Mother of God
All in all, it could have been a lot worse, because for eight years of my life I had been a welder in the Glasgow shipyards. The diseases they talk about now due to welding weren’t known when I was there. The main killer was asbestos. Just like coal miners got silicosis – black lung disease – shipyard workers got asbestosis. We’d be working in the engine room – deep penetration welding – and our lips would become all black and yellow. We’d come out for a smoke and they’d be cladding the pipes around us, so it would be snowing asbestos. I remember it being in my hair. The place was a death trap.
I was very lucky that after I did my five-year apprenticeship in the shipyards, I stayed on as a welder for only two or three more years and left in my early 20s to become a comedian.
But many men were there much longer and got asbestosis in their 40s or 50s. I remember older welders spitting up all kinds of nasty black stuff.
They were wonderful people and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. They were real patter merchants, those men, and it was through them I first understood you could be incredibly funny without telling jokes.
After I’d been working at the shipyards for some time, I started to risk trying to make the older guys laugh. We’d be around the fire and I’d sing like a drunk man. They loved that.
It was wonderful to find my place among them, but the hysterical things they said often played with your heartstrings as well.
I learned in the shipyards that you can be funny and profound at the same time.
I’m dead lucky to have known those men. I love them to this day. I felt accepted by them – I could tell they liked me by the way they looked at me, the way they talked to me, the way they found me funny.
And to be found funny by them was gold. After everything I’d been through as a boy and teenager, the years of physical and mental abuse, to then be befriended by them, and considered one of them, was a gigantic step to getting over it.
After I got Parkinson’s disease, my wife decided we had to get out of New York so I could relax, be healthy and go fishing.
We live in the Florida Keys now, and I love it. I love the light here. It’s kind of yellowy. Almost always sunny. Puts me in a positive mood. I’ve mainly lost my sense of guilt about being in the sun. Scottish people tend to see the sun appearing and frown. ‘Och… we’ll pay for this!’ I’ve had to train myself to like it.
I’ve lived a great life, so thinking about the end of the story doesn’t affect me at all. I just think, well, this is the way it is.
I don’t worry that I might not see the rest of my life, because I’ve already seen the rest of my life. I’ve only got the old bit left.
But it’s a rather jolly old bit, I must say. Despite having Parkinson’s, I can still do lots of things. I can walk well. I can draw – my new hobby. I don’t do live concerts any more, and movies would be hard, but I can write and film TV shows.
I’ve got my wee dog Django here. I’m very fortunate. I’ve got shelter, food and my wifey and my girlies and my son and my grandchildren.
It makes me really happy being around my children and grandchildren, because I can see they’re not like me.
They’re more complete in themselves. I like that in them and think I’m a wee bit jealous.
I’ve got no complaints whatsoever. I consider myself a very lucky man.
© Billy Connolly, 2021
- Abridged extract from Windswept & Interesting, by Billy Connolly, published by Two Roads on October 14 at £25. To pre-order a copy for £12 at WHSmith, see voucher, Page 137.