Writing in The Guardian
in May last year, Kevin McKenna identified a 'shoestring revolution' sweeping across Scotland, which was engaging the young and educating the old, embracing 'subjects that my kind still approach with caution' and catering for the diversity of Scotland's communities. The driver of this revolution: the then relatively new BBC Scotland channel.
Whilst BBC Scotland's sometimes eclectic programming (in part, a product of its minimal budget of £32 million per year, which is expected to pay for over 900 hours of programming) is not everyone's cup of tea, it has produced one or two gems that speak to modern Scotland and tell us more about ourselves and our nation. For McKenna, this was most evident when he found himself watching 'a Glaswegian hairdresser… discussing sex, religion and politics as he bobbed and weaved with scissors around his customer's salt and pepper hair'.
For me, the stand-out performer of this fledgling channel has been Billy and Us
, which first aired in May and June but has been repeated over the last couple of months, concluding a little over a fortnight ago.
Sir William Connolly – or 'Billy' as we are invited to call this Knight of the Realm – is one of a miniscule band of people, perhaps even more so than prime and first ministers, who needs little or no introduction. He has been an inherent part of British life for nearly half a century and has an extraordinarily well-known life story stretching from the working-class tenements of Anderston and the post-war council estates of Drumchapel, through the gates of the shipyards of the Clyde and beyond. As the programme's title suggests, Billy is evidently one of our own and our familiarity with him on screen over so many decades has led millions (including me, I suspect) to think, perhaps erroneously, that they know him personally.
He is not without his critics who, over the years, have objected to his sending up of religion and his infamous one-liner about devolution and the Scottish Parliament. However, as Dr Andy Dougan of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland recently told The Herald
, it is difficult to think of a 'more significant and unifying cultural figure'.
Although unmistakeably Glaswegian, inherently likeable and uniquely perceptive, Billy's appeal stretches across generations, transcends social class and, as he told Roy Plomley on his first of two appearances on Desert Island Discs
, his humour is as popular in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as it is in his former boozer, the 'Sarrie Heid' in Glasgow. For Allan Little, Connolly's celebrated routine on the Crucifixion, in which he put 'Glaswegian vernacular' into the mouths of Jesus and the disciples, is a prime example of his ability to thrill and astonish in equal measure.
Whilst there has been no shortage of programmes about and by him, Billy and Us
appears to have been both a public and a critical success. Across six episodes of 30 minutes each, its 270,000 viewers a week (with reportedly another 200,000 watching on iPlayer) were taken on a journey from cradle to grave. The series explored childhood, masculinity, sex, religion, class and Scottishness, and finally death, with both the young and exuberant as well as the older softly spoken Connolly as our guide.
In contrast to some stale and unimaginative 'clip shows', and despite costing bawbees to produce, Billy and Us
struck a fine balance between archival footage and guest contributions, and was beautifully enhanced by warm contemporary footage of the Big Yin, who marked his 78th birthday yesterday. The decision to have Billy sitting in a cinema reflecting on it all reminded me of a technique that the veteran broadcaster and documentary maker, Michael Cockerell, used to great effect when profiling politicians, confronting the likes of Ted Heath, Michael Foot and Alan Clark with footage of their younger selves.
As Alison Rowat suggested in June, the Billy and Us
format seems to be ripe for revisiting, with her proffering Sir Alex Ferguson, Nicola Sturgeon, Andy Murray, the late Sean Connery and the actor and singer Clare Grogan for future 'and Us' treatment. The 'and Us' format could become something of a Scottish institution, gaining devoted followers and chronicling the lives of those who have shaped and informed the history and character of our nation.
In my last article for Scottish Review
, I wrote of the 'Max Bygraves school of history' – the 'I wanna tell you a story' impulse that many contemporary historians possess. Although I suspect he might recoil at this, I think Billy Connolly is a kind of gold standard for contemporary historians. He has that Max Bygraves instinct in spades and combines it with a keen sense of what makes folk tick and also a clear understanding of what makes Scotland special. As a reporter once reflected, Billy is like an 'urban witch doctor, running his hands over Glasgow [and Scotland] and unfailingly finding the nerve centres'; someone who is able to 'tickle until you are in hysterics' or 'press hard enough for it to hurt'.
It is clear that, despite having lived in America for many years, Billy retains a strong and almost spiritual sense of Scotland, absorbed over a lifetime watching, mimicking, representing and conversing with our nation. His characterisation of Scotland is reminiscent, although much warmer, of that of Edwin Muir – the poet and novelist who set off on a Scottish Journey
in July 1934 – who believed Scotland to be a 'confusing conglomeration' of 'such strange anachronisms as Edinburgh, a great expanse of cultivated and a greater of fallow land, and a number of races'.
There is something particularly special about someone as optimistic and as infectiously enthusiastic as Billy Connolly who also informs one's sense of their own country. He once memorably (and correctly, I think) characterised Scotland as not 'so much a place, but a state of mind', born out of a shared desire to balance 'the yin and yang of the place' – beautiful landscapes full of midges and a love of and flair for language matched by an equally powerful love of profanity.
Perhaps then, the last word should go to Eddie Izzard, who once dubbed Billy the 'Moses of Comedy' – he has Ten Commandments and every one of them is 'Thou shalt be very f***ing funny'.
Tom Chidwick studied History at Queen Mary University of London. He is currently writing a book on political history