The Indomitable Big Yin

I’m delighted to see that my friend Billy Connolly, the formidable comedian, is at work again making people laugh as usual despite his battle with Parkinson’s.

In a recent interview, he said he no longer walks down the street the way he used to. ‘“My left hand doesn’t behave like my right anymore. If I walk along the street I find I’m holding on to the bottom of my jacket instead of swinging my arms. This one swings.” He holds up his right hand. “And that one stays there.” He nods at his left.’ 

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Two and a half years ago Billy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive degeneration of the nervous system. On the same day he was told he had prostate cancer, shortly after learning he needed hearing aids. It was, as he says, ‘a fucking grey week. Cancer is such a creepy word isn’t it? I remember I was on the phone. I kinda knew before the doctor said just by the tone of his voice. He said “I’m, afraid you’ve tested positively for cancer” I said, “Well, now nobody’s ever said that to me before”. Pamela my wife moved behind me. I think she thought I was going to fall.’

After that phone call Billy sat on the sofa and blew a raspberry. When you’re the irrepressible Big Yin there can be hilarity in despair too. But when he was told he had Parkinson’s, there were only tears. ‘That’s one of the symptoms,’ he says. ‘You get very emotional. It was very scary at first. It isn’t anymore. Looking from the outside it’s worse in so much as it’s easier to deal with it actually happening to you rather than the thought of it. When I met people who knew me they knew about it so it was always at the forefront of their minds. The spectre at the feast.’

Meeting Billy Connolly was at the height of my entrepreneurial career when I suddenly became infected with the impresario bug. I was suffering from a disease that is very expensive to cure. I had agreed to put up the funds for Russell Davies, Pamela Stephenson and Clive James to give a recital performance of James’s ‘facetious epic’ (as the Evening Standard

called it) Charles Charming’s Challenges on the Way to the Throne at the Apollo Theatre in June. It seemed I must be a glutton for punishment, having been stung in 1975 with the ill-fated collaboration with Robert Stigwood on the

Brecht-Weill Happy End at the Lyric Theatre. My motivation, I blithely told

the press, was that ‘the theatre is so rejuvenating’. ‘Dangerous words!’ as some

reporter retorted. Perhaps! Needless to say, Clive James’s offering bombed,

both critically and financially. Private Eye could not resist lampooning me as

was its wont, though this time they managed to give their ‘Grovel’ column a

humorous tone:

Magwitch look-alike Clive James, who has gone into hiding following a

critical slaughtering, has a good review for his poem at last. The ‘Literary

Review’ says of the Apollo Theatre rubbish: ‘A pleasant evening . . . all told a good night out.’

fact one: The ‘LR’ is owned by Palestinian wide boy Naim Attullah.

fact two: Attullah put up the money for Clive’s show.

The deliberate misspelling of surnames was one of the magazine’s favourite ploys for giving maximum irritation in its squibs against its victims.

I was not content to lick my wounds. The actor Patrick Ryecart had acquired stage rights from J. P. Donleavy for his novel The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, and was looking for a backer. Patrick’s links with my family went back some two decades to the time when he lived in Haifa as a young boy, his father having been the Anglican vicar who looked after the British community. Whenever his parents had to travel to visit their flock in the Holy Land, his mother would leave him at my parents’ house, where my little sister had the task of minding him. Being already in England by then, I only heard about him at that stage, but we did finally meet and become friends a year before his marriage to the Duke of Norfolk’s daughter Marsha.

Given the childhood connection, I felt a certain obligation to back Patrick’s

project as a sign of solidarity; though I also had high hopes that this time round we could be on to a winner. The plot told the story of Balthazar, ‘the world’s last shy, elegant young man’, who as a zoology student at Trinity College, Dublin, meets up with an old schoolfriend, Beefy, who is studying for holy orders but not averse to amorous adventures. When their student careers come to an unholy end, the pair decamp to London, Balthazar to search for true love and Beefy to find a rich wife.

I sought the advice of another friend, Howard Panter, and we agreed to collaborate on the play’s production. Patrick was to play the part of Balthazar

opposite the Shakespearian actor Simon Callow as Beefy, so we began with

the advantage of a strong cast. I also found myself hitting it off well with the

author J. P. Donleavy, despite his reputation for being a tough negotiator who could adopt an inflexible attitude once he got a bee in his bonnet. He was good company and we became friends as a result.

The promotional campaign began a few weeks before the play opened at the

Duke of York’s Theatre, spearheaded by Theo Cowan as a newly joined member of the Namara Group. I took overall control of the publicity machine

and pulled out all the stops. Laura Sandys, the sultry youngest daughter of Lord Sandys, who was barely seventeen when she came to work for me, joined forces with a gamine young lady, not much older, called Serena Franklin.

Together they went around the West End in a yellow jeep,wearing T-shirts that bore the logo, ‘I Love Balthazar B’. They were an instant hit with the media

and were chased everywhere by every member of the paparazzi brigade in town.

As far as exposure was concerned, we won hands down, and the play opened

with excellent reviews. Unfortunately it was a dark period for West End theatres in general. We hoped to keep it going by word of mouth, for there was no doubting the play was a crowd-pleaser once we managed to get them inside

the theatre. For the next six months I did not miss a single night’s performance,

counting the audience in like sheep. I stood in the lobby watching people as they arrived, always hoping for a last-minute surge before the curtain went up. I

became a fixture, almost part of the furniture. As the performance began, both

Patrick Ryecart and Simon Callow would instinctively look at the box where I

sat to assure themselves I was there. Sometimes I was rewarded with a wink

from the stage – their gesture of appreciation.

With steely determination we gradually managed to improve ticket sales, but Simon Callow had a previous commitment that he could not postpone. His

run in the play had to end and a replacement needed to be found very quickly.

It was no easy task. We racked our brains for inspiration, when suddenly a mad

idea came into my mind. I was very friendly with Billy Connolly and Pamela

Stephenson, who were regulars at my parties. What about Billy Connolly taking over Simon’s role as Beefy? He had a tremendous following and his popularity would surely ensure a box-office bonanza. But he was not then known as the actor he showed himself to be later, and his act as a comedian was based on his brilliant ad-libbing. Taking on a stage role was a different proposition altogether, requiring discipline in memorizing and sticking to the script. Could he do it, would he do it? And if he would, what were the chances of his being able to prepare himself in such a brief period of time?

I invited him to lunch at Namara House, where my excellent cook, Charlotte

Millward, an adept in the art of gastronomy, was the envy of the town. For Charlotte food was the spur to creativity, and her inspired invention and

improvisation knew no bounds. She could offer avant-garde cuisine to equal

that of any famous chef in the metropolis. Disconcertingly, Pamela Stephenson

had by then performed a miracle on Billy and he was a reformed character. Not only had she stopped his drinking, she had also turned him into a vegetarian. Charlotte, undaunted, arranged a sumptuous meal made exclusively of vegetables, and was greatly flattered when Billy sought her out in her kitchen, asking for some recipes. The lunch went well, and although Billy was astounded by my proposition, he did not turn it down flat. Having seen the play and liked it, he was very keen but doubted his ability to rise to such a serious challenge. He promised I would have his answer within a few days. Instead of just waiting for it, however, I telephoned Pamela, asking her to urge him to say yes. Her reaction gave me a heartening boost, for she felt sure that this could be for Billy a good career move. He went into rehearsal almost immediately, though there was one remaining hitch. Because of a previous commitment he could do it for only a few weeks. This being better than nothing, we readily agreed.

The casting of Billy as Beefy turned out to be inspired. He took the part

in his stride and if ever he forgot his lines fell back on his variety-act technique

of improvisation. There was one seduction scene where he had to rip a girl’s

knickers clean off, a manoeuvre which dear Simon Callow could only approach with fastidious distaste. Billy, by contrast, tackled the task in a state of heightened heterosexual excitement and performed it with such relish that

sometimes he used his teeth as well as his hands. The crowd howled with

approval and loved every minute of his antics, not all of which were strictly in

the script. They caught the bawdy spirit of the piece, however, and with his

manic exuberance Billy never failed to bring comic genius to each performance.

The play took on a new lease of life and the queues outside the theatre went round the block, with people hoping either to get tickets or catch a glimpse of their hero. If only Billy had been able to stay on for a few more weeks, then the new capacity audiences would have turned the play into a smash hit in every sense. As it was, it ended up with a good run and earned me the respect of theatre folk for my tenacity and resolve in not being easily dismayed by the capricious nature of theatre.

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