Billy Connolly

ONCE, during a short season on the staff of the old North British Hotel in Edinburgh, I took up in the lift such notables as Gene Kelly, Kenneth More, and Sir Arthur Bliss. Quite apart from acquiring a lasting appreciation of the patience of those who have to wait on the public, and a tendency, out of a lingering feeling of solidarity, to tip too much, I have been dining out on my days as a lift boy ever since.

Glamour rubs off on those who find themselves close to it but celebrity is a two-way street. This week in Edinburgh, a tourist in my own home town, shuttling about the place as a consumer of culture, I have again seen this truth at work.

Stars are like the rest of us in their enjoyment of a pint or a coffee after the show. In the great metropolitan centres they are allowed to go about their business; but here, in this smaller pond and at this most sociable of festivals, they have to be able to handle the double-edged familiarity of the public.

When the young and gifted cast of the French production of The Winter’s Tale walk into the Traverse cafe-bar, a certain excitement grips those lucky enough to have seen the production, and a few bolder spirits step forward to offer their congratulations. That, I am sure, gives pleasure.

And there, at the end of the bar, stands Billy Connolly, waiting for a late show to start. Over coffee, he amiably chats with those who approach him and signs autographs for them. I imagine that he relishes and appreciates their acknowledgement and interest.

I once travelled up in the shuttle with Sir David Steel at the time when he enjoyed a pivotal political brokerage and was leading the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the popularity ratings. Crew and passengers approached him for his autograph, and I asked him if he did not find it irritating. No, he said; in my business I would find it worrying if they did not.

But the fan’s admiration may become overweening and sinister. We have seen this in America, for example with the shooting of John Lennon or the harassment of Madonna by a crazed and obsessive follower. Here in Britain, we have seen the media persecution of the Princess of Wales, prurience dressed up as constitutional concern.

According to the calendar of those who believe they hold proxies on the lives of the famous, people like Billy Connolly are fair game. The following evening, in Lothian Road at a balmy midnight, we find ourselves in step behind Billy Connolly and his wife Pamela Stephenson as they walk towards Princes Street. They run a gauntlet of stares and assorted greetings. ”That was really exciting,” we hear an Edinburgh lady confide to her hushand as she passes them by.

Through the window of a bar, musicians can be seen and heard pounding out a blues. Billy, an old guitar-man himself, returns their greeting, giving the thumbs-up of solidarity as he walks by.

All seems friendly, but Edinburgh is awash on a sea of late-night beer. There is a quality of intimidation about the perfect freedom with which people are so readily availing themselves of Billy’s person, as if they have title to it.

He puts a protective arm round his wife’s shoulder. At the next corner he pauses to hail a taxi, and as they wait on the pavement a drunken, yobbish face appears at the window of a passing cab full of ”lads” on a night out. The face begins to rant, crudely telling Billy to get his hair cut. The voice rises and grows cruder and more manic. Retribution is promised should Billy Connolly ever again set foot in Wick, a town that has recently felt the edge of his satire.

Mercifully the lights change, this coarse and cowardly fool is carried off, and the Connollys find a cab of their own. We are left to admire the dignity and good nature with which they have dealt with the incident.

The occasional unpleasantness of a drunk is a professional hazard to be borne, like the cavillings of critics and scribblers. Mostly the familiarity people show Billy Connolly is proprietorially affectionate, for self-evident reasons.

Here is a brilliantly inventive comedian who puts together his material through the originality of his mind and the power of his observation and who can extract universal laughter from the small change of life. Even at his most scatological, a native charm shines through. It is because his humour and satire are so clearly drawn from their lives that people feel authorial about him. By the same token, his satire, because it has truth, discomfits and angers some. So too does his use of the language of the street.

As the stupid insults were shouted from the taxi, I suspect that the Connolly brain, cool and watchful, was at work. Here was raw material. I hope that one day we shall see a Connolly improvisation on the theme of an abusive drunk in a passing cab. That would be sweet and condign punishment for a lout