Billy Connolly: Night I hit a photographer and The Herald caught me

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Billy Connolly and photographer in London, 1981
Billy Connolly and photographer in London, 1981

WHAT happens on tour stays on tour has been the mantra of performers from Sinatra to The Rolling Stones. Not for Billy Connolly though, who lifts the lid on some of his wilder times in a new television series starting tomorrow.

The Scots comedian toured with acts including Elton John, Elvis Costello and Led Zeppelin. But his most candid revelations in the seven-part Billy Connolly Does … fall closer to home.

Sir Billy, 79, who has Parkinson’s, moved to the Florida Keys with his wife Pamela Stephenson and their family in 2018. It was there he spoke to filmmaker Mike Reilly about subjects including his partial regret at punching press photographers; the night he watched Gerry Rafferty take control of an SNP campaign car; and the too brief friendship with Keith Moon that left the comedian bereft.

Though hailed as a national treasure today, Connolly’s relationship with the media was not always so friendly. Reilly reminds him of “a brilliant photo of you smacking a member of the paparazzi”.

The picture comes from the archives of The Herald and shows Connolly grabbing photographer Stuart Bell outside The Drury Lane Theatre in London on September 1981.

“You’re giving him a right old thump,” says the filmmaker.

“I’ve battered a few of them,” says Connolly. “I was in the middle of a divorce and my children and wife were in Scotland and I was with Pam in London. It was impossible to stay sane being chased by the paparazzi so I lashed out.

“It’s always a huge mistake hitting them. They love it. When you’re hitting one the rest of them take pictures of you doing it. You can’t win.”

In his stage show Connolly once said of his tussles with photographers: “That’s what they are there for. I’ll stop punching them when they start sharing the money.”

Happier memories come from his early days on tour with Gerry Rafferty, a fellow member of The Humblebums.

One night The Humblebums played Gourock. The booker was “a kilty”, says Connolly, “a great pusher of the Scottish Nationalist Party”. He drove them home in the early hours. When they got to just outside Johnstone, Rafferty noticed the loud-hailers on the car and switched the microphone on.

“People of Johnstone,” Rafferty announced. “You’re in great trouble tonight. A truck bearing a load of snakes, poisoned snakes, has crashed just outside Johnstone. We last heard they were heading into Johnstone.

“Leave your house, assemble on the steps of the town hall. Old people can be carried on your shoulders. Don’t bother with your valuables. They’ll be brought to you later.”

“Gerry was a scream,” says Connolly. “He used to have me on the floor, on my hands and knees. Any time anybody saw Gerry, he was straight-faced, playing these beautiful songs. Great melodies that he’d composed. They’d never think he was capable of this.”

In the first episode, titled “Bad Behaviour”, Connolly recalls a night out with John Hurt, the actor, and Keith Moon. He had met the Who drummer for the first time that night.

“He was being very funny and chatting away and I thought, ‘God, what a nice guy. What a good new friend to have.’ I got up in the morning and flew to Australia, got to my hotel room and I put the television on, and he was dead. I was absolutely broken-hearted.

"I only knew him for a couple of hours, but I was devastated, ‘cause I was really looking forward to having him as a friend, looking to the future with him.”

An end to the hard-drinking tours came when he met Pamela. “Marriage to Pam, it didn’t change me, it saved me,” he says. “I thought I might lose my wildness, and then I thought, ‘Well, it’s not wildness. It’s pretend-y wildness.’ You know how to turn it on, and that won’t go away. And it didn’t go away.”

Billy Connolly Does …Thursday, 9pm, Gold

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