Billy by Pamela Stephenson

Book Review
Title: Billy
Author:  Pamela Stephenson
Publisher: UK General Books
Released: August 15, 2002
Pages: 304
ISBN 10 – 0007110928
ISBN 13 – 978-0007665457
Stars:  3.0

As a big fan of the genius that is Billy Connolly, I have been wanting to read his 2001 biography simply titled Billy written by his wife, Pamela Stephenson, for a long time and I finally got around to it.

Glasgow, Scotland’s Billy Connolly, born November 24, 1942, is one of the most famous comedians in the world and in my humble opinion, the funniest. I saw his live stand-up show for his Erect for 30 Years tour in Toronto in 2000 and I laughed so hard I thought I had burst a blood vessel in my head and at the end of it, left with a massive headache. No one has ever made me laugh as hard. Connolly is also a very talented, accomplished and acclaimed actor who was the star of the sitcoms “Head of the Class” and “Billy”; was nominated for a BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild Award and Golden Globe for his portrayal of John Brown in the film Mrs. Brown; and has appeared in such movies as The Boondock Saints, Still Crazy, An Everlasting Piece, The Last Samurai and The Man Who Sued God to name just a few. In 2003, Billy won a Life Time Achievement BAFTA and he most recently appeared in The X-Files: I Want To Believe.

Billy, a.k.a. The Big Yin, had a torturous childhood in which he was abandoned by his mother and raised by his father who sexually molested him (between the ages of 10 and 16) and two aunts, one of whom had a severe personality disorder and was sadistic and cruel to him (she later ended up in a psychiatric hospital) and his sister Florence. He began working in his late teens as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, spent a couple years in The Territorial Army Reserve with The Parachute Regiment, and in his 20’s decided that he wanted to be “windswept and interesting”, and above all, a tramp. Fascinated by the sound of the banjo, he started playing it and not long after was getting gigs as a folk singer with his friend Tam Harvey. Together they formed The Humblebums but after recording one album, Harvey was replaced by Gerry Rafferty. It was during those years that Billy began to develop his comic routines while on stage with Rafferty.

What came next, over a 30 year period, was no less than world domination as a comedian for this innately, furiously funny man. “His observational comedy is idiosyncratic and often off-the-cuff. He talks about himself, who he is, where he’s been, what he thinks and how he reacts to the world around him. He has outraged certain sectors of audiences, critics and the media with his free use of the word “fuck”. He has used masturbation, blasphemy, defecation, flatulence, haemorrhoids, sex, his father’s illness and his aunts’ cruelty to entertain. By exploring these subjects with humour, Connolly has done much to strip away the taboos surrounding them. Yet he does not tell jokes in the conventional way.”

Connolly’s rags to excess riches story is a fascinating one but I was somewhat disappointed in Billy as so much of the book focuses on his early life and his career as an actor was simply skimmed over very quickly. Pamela Stephenson morphed back and forth throughout the book from the present (2001) to the past and I felt that she was holding back from disclosing anything really personal about her life with Billy and their five children (the two eldest, Jamie and Cara are from Billy’s first marriage to Iris Pressagh). She disclosed a few fun tidbits about his escapades with some of his famous rock star and actor friends while he was still drinking heavily – he quit in 1985 – but never went into much detail. For someone who has been married to the man for almost 20 years and with him for longer than that, Pamela’s description of Billy as a man, friend, husband, father, comedian and actor comes off as being somewhat clinical and lacks any real passion or convincing emotion. The snippets from Billy’s journals that she quotes from are extremely tame and don’t reveal much about what he was really feeling at the time nor include the year of the entry date. This is in fact, a beige, one-sided account of his life and would have been much more interesting if some of his closest friends had been interviewed for the book. That being said, Pamela wrote a follow-up called Bravemouth about Billy in 2003 and I now want to read it as well to get the rest of the story.

Stephenson, a.k.a. Pamela H. Connolly, Ph.D., once a comedian/actress herself who is most recognized for her work on the BBC comedy series, “Not the Nine O’Clock News”, is now a practising psychotherapist (which would account for her detached writing style). She analyzes Billy’s character like this:

“A highly combustible mixture has been bubbling away inside Billy his whole life. A huge dose of abandonment pain, a dollop of existential fury, a giant scoop of performing talent plus a massive portion of hell-bent-on-vengefulness has whirled around inside him since infancy,” catapulting him from tenement to ‘tinsel town’ in five extraordinary decades. It is the kind of volatile compound that could have exploded at any time, and it is the containment and alchemy of those elements that constitutes his most admirable work.”

This is an interesting book for Connolly fans (I didn’t know he had his nipples pierced in his fifties!) and you will learn what Pamela believes makes Billy tick, but it’s not a definitive biography and if you read Billy’s Desiderata in the Epilogue, you’ll get almost as much out of those two pages as in the 381 pages preceeding them.

For those of you who would like to discover some of Billy’s finest work, I highly recommend the video Billy and Albert: Billy Connolly at The Royal Albert Hall (1987), Billy Connolly Live In New York (2006) and all of the movies I mentioned above, as well as a trip to his official website at billyconnolly.com.

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