Comedy legend Sir Billy Connolly, who has been sober for 40 years, discussed his sobriety and health in his new UKTV series Billy Connolly Does…
Sir Billy Connolly has been sober for almost 40 years but he has to remain ever-vigilant about booze, even at breakfast time.
The 81-year-old comedy legend says: “I was in a hotel in Arran in the Clyde and I ordered porridge for my breakfast. “I’d stopped drinking about a year before and was still missing it. The waitress said, ‘Would you like porridge royale? how does that sound?’ And I said that sounds pretty damn good from where I’m standing.
“So I was waiting for my porridge royale, wondering what it included, and when it came, I had a spoonful – and it was porridge made with whisky! I’ll never forget it. Every nerve in my body went ‘That’s it! Ha, Now you’re talking! Get it down you!’” Yet Billy knew he’d have to go for an alcohol-free brekkie or be back in trouble.
He adds in his new UKTV series Billy Connolly Does…: “When you give up drinking, your body goes on guard. So as soon as you taste it, your body goes ‘Stop, nee-naw nee-naw’. I said to the waitress, you will have to get me some regular porridge.”
The Big Yin reckons his Irish-Scottish heritage is a factor in his drinking problems. “Celtic races, they’ve really got it bad,” he says. “They’ve got a want – a need – for that fiery liquid. I don’t know why it should be. You’re tested all the time, it’s like ‘Have a drink it’ll relax you after you work’ – and it will. And then you become another guy… suddenly you’re in another world.”
And the Mrs Brown actor knows alcohol can be deadly for others as well as for him, as he once nearly killed Sir Michael Caine. They were filming the comedy Water on location in St Lucia in the Caribbean in 1984. After a particularly boozy evening, he and Caine were aboard a bus that Billy almost caused to crash over a cliff. In his own words, he was “steaming”, and thought covering the driver’s eyes would be funny.
Horrified superstar Caine had to intervene to prevent the bus from careering off the edge of an abyss. Although he doesn’t miss the booze, Billy does miss his pipe and admits to a recent relapse. Speaking on the series, which starts tomorrow night, he reveals: “I miss it terribly. I went to light my pipe the other day.
“I hadn’t smoked a pipe for a couple or three years. Jamie, my son, always liked me smoking a pipe. He says, ‘It makes you weird.’. And I said, ‘On you go, I’m going to have a smoke’ – and I lit my pipe. And I was having a lovely time in the sun, smoking my pipe. And then I heard him behind me. He went, ‘You’re off your head.’ I said, ‘What makes you think that?’ He said, ‘You’re talking to a wasp’. Aye, and I was.”
The comedian is married to New Zealand actress-turned-psychologist Pamela Stephenson, 74. They have been together since 1981 and live in Key West, Florida, where the warm, dry climate helps Billy manage his Parkinson’s disease. The degenerative condition causes tremors and stiffness and can impact memory and speech.
The couple have three daughters, Daisy, 40, Amy, 37, and 35-year-old Scarlett. Billy also has Jamie, 55, and Cara, 51, with late ex-wife Iris Pressagh. Billy’s children supported him through a dark period in his life after he discovered he had Parkinson’s and prostate cancer on the same day in 2013. He has since recovered from the cancer but the Parkinson’s has cost him his sense of smell, among other symptoms.
Billy ruminates: “Being unwell is strange. Everybody else is OK and you’ve got this thing that’s wrong… you’re out of step.” In the UKTV show Billy also reminisces about his days as an apprentice welder in the Glasgow shipyards in the early Sixties. On his first day on the job, he says: “The noise. I’d never heard noise as loud as that. The pneumatic guns cutting the metal. I’m paying for it now with my hearing aids.” Born in 1942 in Anderston, Glasgow to William Connolly and Mary McLean, Billy, along with his older sister Flo, was brought up by dad William’s sisters Margaret and Mona after his mum left home when he was just four.
At the time his father was serving as an engineer in the Royal Air Force in Burma. Billy has since revealed that his father, who died in 1989, sexually molested him from the ages of 10 through to 14. His first taste of fame came courtesy of the shipyard job – but not as an entertainer. The lanky Scot was in a newspaper after surviving a 40ft fall into 3ft of water, earning him the nickname Lucky Bill, for a while at least.
Music, always a refuge for young Billy, became his living in the 1970s. But, explaining his transition to comedy, he admits: “I had a voice like a goose farting in the fog.”
- The new series of Billy Connolly Does… starts Thursday at 9pm on GOLD.
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