Billy Connolly at 70 – the day Times man Brian met the Big Yin

AS Billy Connolly prepares to celebrate his 70th birthday tomorrow, Evening Times showbusiness writer Brian Beacom casts his mind back and recalls his meetings with the Big Yin -

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Billy in his early days on the Glasgow folk circuit
Billy in his early days on the Glasgow folk circuit

THE second meeting with Billy Connolly was rather more disconcerting than the first, when he happily signed an autograph to a lone, semi-starstruck schoolboy in Woolworths in Paisley in 1972.

Fast forward 30 years and Billy, now a world superstar with a reputation for issuing fatwahs on Scots journalists, was meeting pal Tony Roper in the Hilton Hotel in Glasgow

And I just happened to bump into Tony.

What happened? Well, along came Billy and Tony suggested we all have tea together. All went well.

For 20 minutes Billy told a hilarious story about his day at Celtic Park and being consumed by everything green, and it was a magical to listen to, to watch this incredible talent compile a routine off the top of his head.

Then Billy asked me what I did for a living and I told him. Suddenly, the warm air chilled like a baby's toe in a cold bath in January.

"I thought you were an actor," he said, stern-faced. "No? Well, you can **** right off."

As I got up to leave, he burst out laughing. "Stay," he said. "I'm having fun. You seem like a good guy."

I did. And I laughed until the tears made my eyes sting.

Yet, the adventure in Billyland did not just serve to reinforce the belief he truly is a comedy genius. It revealed more.

It revealed his warmth when with his old pal Tony, his chum from Milanda delivery days.

It also revealed he was not black and white when it came to his dislikes; he could be pragmatic, and inviting.

It was not a surprise, then, to see Billy mellow over the years.

There was a time his Freedom Of The City award from Glasgow would have been unthinkable, given his one-time love-hate relationship with his home city; Billy knew he was loved by most but there were always enough critics who would have been happy to see him back living in a close in Anderston.

And it was refreshing to see him enter new worlds. Monty Python star Eric Idle told me recently that Billy is the funniest man alive.

Billy told of having Robin Williams in his house, and taking a run out on Steve Martin's bike.

"It's the only one with tyres pumped up," he said, laughing. "Ah cannae find a pump anywhere."

He told of having fun with pals such as Judi Dench and Eddie Izzard. It made sense because the comedian had to progress from bearded folk band member to solo comedy performer, from gag writer to playwright to stage actor.

He had to move in new circles, with clever, funny people. He had to learn from them, to absorb to continually move forward like a shark.

And it was refreshing to see that first appearance on The Parkinson Show in 1975, to later hear he gave up drink and took on a work ethic that has stunned onlookers.

It has been great to see him excel in fronting travelogues, arts programmes and music documentaries.

And in movies such as Mrs Brown he has proved he has the sheer personality to convince.

Yes, he is also an incorrigible show-off, an unreconstructed hippie who simply refuses to surrender to age or expectation with a propensity for taking his clothes off, an inveterate attention seeker who will wear black nail varnish on his toes, a deerstalker on his head, bungee jump naked, live in the Arctic and dye his beard purple.

But he is a visual reminder for the rest of us to take a vacation from seriousness.

What is not known so widely, however, is Connolly's selflessness.

We have read of his charity foundations that work for Indian orphanages and seen his Comic Relief efforts – but few know about the contributions he makes behind the scenes to highly deserving causes in his own city. And he will also pick up the phone and call when it comes to praising the talent he has worked with.

Billy called to talk at great length about his love for the work of Stanley Baxter, of how he was inspired by Baxter's early theatre and television work.

He said: "The audience don't want to be identified as working class. They've gone to the theatre with their good gear on. They want to be Mr and Mrs Theatre for the night.

"So it's hard to get an audience to look at itself from a distance. But Stanley got people to laugh at themselves. I learned that from him."

Billy revealed he is not slow to throw superlatives around when it comes to praising others.

More recently, when we spoke about the loss of Gerry Rafferty, his 'other half' in The Humblebums, Billy revealed a deep, caring soul.

He said: "We were like lovers. We weren't gay or anything, but we had such lovely, lovely moments and we were a marriage made in heaven."

Yet, while America honours its stars – streets are named after them – here in Scotland we take our best performers, build them up and then drag them back to earth.

Yes, the entertainer has not always been entirely user-friendly; he has kicked a few photographers, upset audiences with jokes that go beyond the pale, and he has been politically provocative, cheekily calling the Scottish Parliament, 'A pretendy wee parliament'. And he has upset organised religion with his critiques.

Yes, he is a little abrasive at times. But where would we be without a Billy? What an anodyne world we would live in.

So what if he has homes in Malta and New York? There is little distance between Billy and the city that formed him.

Indeed, Billy Connolly single-handedly represents the spirit of this city, an indomitable, defiant, shipyard-tough force of nature with an amazing propensity to see through the darkness of circumstance and find the blinding comedy light.

He still hitchhikes when his bike gets a flat tyre. He still picks up hitchhikers and takes them home for tea.

Luckily, he still calls journalists for a blether, when he has something relevant to say. He doesn't hate them, I'm glad to say. He simply has their measure.

As he said: "I've often said to journalists 'Do you know what your job is? Audience. Don't mistake yourself for the artist. You don't know the taste of the dust in the arena. And you never will'."

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