Funny and wise

By David Jolley

We have watched the two programmes with Billy Connolly in these holiday weeks.

We were captivated, as we have been by his performances over a fair proportion of our lifetime: always funny, always wise, and touching feelings and experiences in common.

Billy Connolly is intrinsic Scot – but his communications reach into people from all over. Max Boyce is intrinsic Welsh (‘I know, because I was there’), Mike Harding intrinsic Manc (born in the shadow of the biscuit factor in Crumpsall), Peter Kay – Bolton/Irish, Hilda Baker (‘She knows y’know’) spoke for small people, Victoria Wood for women of a certain age. Sir Lenny Henry speaks Dudley and African Caribbean and the Goodness Gracious Me team are British Asian. In their particulars they are from different worlds, but in spirit we are all as one.

These fellow travellers can all put a finger on what is really important, so important it makes us laugh with pain and joy.

Billy Connolly’s two programmes included excerpts which reminded us of his magical skills and presence as an entertainer – so we might laugh again. We saw the impact on people of all ages, chuckling and crying – helpless as babies and pleased to be so tickled. ‘So tickled’ of course brings Ken Dodd to mind – and we have enjoyed the earlier programmes which reviewed his life, career and death. Doddy told us: ’You don’t tell a joke, you sing it’ – and Billy Connolly and others do just that with the rhythm and movement of their shows, sometimes gifted further with the inclusion of music.

We saw the poverty of Glasgow: ‘We didn’t know we were poor until they came and told us. Told us we were living in a slum and must move to somewhere better’. Somewhere better was a new town outside Glasgow – Flats with baths, toilets and other conveniences – but with no cafes, no cinemas and nowhere to be together. Connolly hated it but found freedom and another life on his bicycle, with his banjo, and in pubs where drink and music and jokes were shared. ‘I didn’t come from nothing. I came from something’.

He grew to become an international superstar, demonstrating an extraordinary range of talent. But here we were seeing him as old, old and changed by Parkinson’s disease. ‘I’ve got Parkinson’s Disease. I wish he’d kept it to himself.’

This was the power of these programmes. So many people will turn away from their reflection rather than address the truth of their ageing. This is not for Billy Connolly. He lists the losses and frustrations. He showed us his recent performance on stage where his wit and mischievous eyes were still on view – and used mercilessly against himself to point out that he can no longer prowl the stage or clown as he used to.

‘I am 75 and nearer the end than the beginning’. Of course he is, yet he shares no bitterness but a wise, philosophical whimsy.

We need more of this. So much effort is wasted on the pretence that every individual must live on and on. We are so fortunate to be living such healthy and productive lives, some into their nineties and beyond. But there has to be an end, and for some the months or years before death are characterised by loss of abilities, physical or cognitive or emotional, which have been theirs to take as granted. Living with limitations with some sort of grace is a noble and admirable thing.

The internet tells us that some people have found these programmes depressing and we find Billy and his wife Pamela apologising for this.

It is sad to see the passing of personal heroes, as with the loss of family and friends, for they are at least as close as these. But loss and sadness are part of the human experience, to be hugged close and with thanks, not to be denied.

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