Day my comedy hero came to Cobh and chatted to my sister

The Scottish comedian Billy Connolly is one of TREVOR LAFFAN's heroes - and once paid a visit to his home town
Day my comedy hero came to Cobh and chatted to my sister

LEGEND: Billy Connolly receives a Special Recognition award at the National Television Awards at The O2 Arena in London in 2016

IT has just been announced that the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly is to be honoured with a one-hour TV special to mark his retirement from stand-up.

According to the promo, his A-list fans will share their memories of Billy, send personal messages, and pick their all-time highlights, and Billy will react to their choices.

They promise it will make us laugh and may even make us cry, and they say it will be a fitting send-off for a stand-up megastar.

It probably will, but I’m not sure I want to see it because I think it will be difficult to watch. I don’t know the man and I’ve never met him, but I’ve followed him since the ’70s, and I feel like we’re buddies.

Billy revealed that he will no longer be doing stand-up due to the escalation of his Parkinson’s disease. The 77-year-old comedian made the comments while talking to Sky News, saying: ‘I’m finished with stand-up — it was lovely, and it was lovely being good at it. It was the first thing I was ever good at.’

If you’re not familiar with him, then you have been missing out. Billy started out as a folk singer who told a few yarns in between songs and, as he says himself, as time went on the songs got shorter and the yarns got longer. He ended up in comedy by default.

He is arguably one of the greatest storytellers of all time and one of the few people who can give me a real belly laugh, but he’s not everyone’s cup of tea. He’s different.

His appearance is like nothing you’ve seen before, and he has a quirky dress sense. He swears a lot too, but for many of his followers, his swearing isn’t offensive, it’s just funny.

He has an unusual style, constantly moving about the stage, with arms and legs going in all directions. He usually starts telling a story about one thing and goes off on a tangent about something else for a while before coming back to finish his original story.

Phil Coulter is one of his oldest friends and produced some of his earlier records, but when he worked with Connolly in the early days, he told him he needed to finish one story before moving on to another or they would never finish an album. We know how that worked out.

I first came across him in Scotland in the late 1970s when I was visiting my brother-in-law in Fife. Pat and I were sitting in the front room one day when he told me he had a cassette tape of a comedian that he thought I might enjoy.

Before I go any further, I should explain for the benefit of anyone under 50 that back in the 1970s we played cassette tapes on recorders for entertainment. It wasn’t always straightforward either because the tapes were troublesome and young people should be very grateful they no longer have to use them. They regularly took on a life of their own.

Every house had a drawer for storing tapes and it wasn’t unusual to open the drawer and find a tangled, brown mess looking back at you. Fixing a mangled tape required a pencil and some patience while winding it back into the cassette. This even sounds strange to me now and I lived through it.

So anyway, Pat played this tape of Billy Connolly and, to be honest, I didn’t understand much of it at first. Billy is from the heart of Glasgow, so his accent at that time was very strong. It has mellowed over the years as he became more widely known and maybe he deliberately toned it down for the sake of his international audiences, but initially I had difficulty getting to grips with it. As soon as I got it, though, I became a life-long fan.

Billy is 77 now, and still has a mane of long, scraggy grey hair and matching beard. He still swears a lot too, but it’s his talent for taking ordinary, everyday activities and turning them on their head to make them funny what sets him apart.

I had the pleasure of seeing him perform live in Connolly Hall in Cork many years ago and during that visit he came to Cobh for a walkabout.

My sister, Deb, was out walking her baby and she took a seat in a local viewing spot overlooking the harbour. She was there for a while when this tall man with a load of hair sat down beside her and started chatting. She soon realised that she was talking to Billy Connolly.

Afterwards, she said he was a really nice guy and very down to earth. And that’s the thing you hear very often about the man.

A friend of mine met him in a hotel in Dubai years ago and he said the same thing, they just had a regular chat.

Bill was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years back and had surgery for that and now he is battling Parkinson’s disease. I saw him on a BBC documentary recently and his slow movement was in complete contrast to his normal manic behaviour as the Parkinson’s was obviously getting a grip on him. He has retained his speech and his sense of humour though.

While filming the documentary, he was forced to take regular breaks because the effort was draining him. It’s sad to think of him ending his showbiz days this way, but he doesn’t want the disease to define him, so I prefer to remember him for his humour.

Of his beloved home town, the comedian said the great thing about Glasgow is that, if there is ever a nuclear attack, it’ll look exactly the same afterwards.

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