Before Billy Connolly has said hello or shaken your hand, before you've even stepped into his hotel room, he's already effusively telling you about something BRRRILLIANT he's just seen on TV. This particular BRRRILLIANT program was about a Hells Angels convention in rural Alberta, Canada, and how the townies were made more nervous by the police than by the bikers.
American audiences know Connolly, if at all, as the Scotsman who replaced Howard Hesseman for the last two seasons of the sitcom Head of the Class, or as an exuberant guest on Letterman or Leno. He's played small roles in a few American films like Indecent Proposal and Disney's Pocahontas, and as Billy Bones in Muppet Treasure Island, he captured a peculiar show-biz distinction which he trumpets with pride--"I'm the first person to die in a Muppet movie!" From these credits, however, it would be hard to guess that Connolly has been among the most popular and well-loved comedians in the English-speaking world for more than 20 years. He could be called the Jackie Chan of comedy: internationally huge, but obscure on these shores.
Also like Chan, Connolly may be on the verge of a breakthrough, thanks to his impressive dramatic turn in the period romance Mrs. Brown. Connolly plays John Brown, a Scottish groom to the royal family of England who caused a stir in the late 19th century when his intimate relationship with the widowed Queen Victoria (played by the BRRRILLIANT Judi Dench) was rumored to be something more than friendship. The movie's suggestion is that Brown's willingness to sacrifice this bond may have saved the British monarchy.
"Like every other Scottish boy, I regarded John Brown as a guy who scored a home run," enthuses the tirelessly genial Connolly. "One of our guys nailed the Queen, yippie! Every Scotsman firmly believes that he gave 'er one. But there's no proof anywhere that they actually did it. And we thought, let's leave it like that, let's leave it like, it's none of your business. And I think that makes it. 'Cause I don't like to see people rollin' around naked in movies. I'm like, fuck, I wish this bit was finished, and we could get back to the plot. 'Cause I know what shaggin' looks like."
But how does a good old working-class lefty like Connolly, a former union shipyard welder from Glasgow, a self-described "boring old hippie fart," feel about playing a man credited with preserving the ruling class?
"I don't like privilege much, so I don't like the monarchy much," he grants. "It's the pyramid that gets me--the Baron of this, and the Baroness of that, and the fuckin' Marquise of this and the Duke of that. This whole pyramid they create of these work-shy bastards. They keep pointin' at the workin' class and saying the trouble's theirs, from the top of the hill--FUCK YOU!"
More calmly, he adds: "But while they're there, fine, if it's the status quo, I don't care. I'm not for draggin' people out of the castles and doin' 'em in."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Besides, even Connolly can't resist a bit of--say it ain't so, Billy!--royal name-dropping. "The Prince of Wales now, Charles, is a BRRRILLIANT guy. He's all for the workin' class. He's a bit of a rebel, that's why they don't like him. She's the fuckin' dodo. Did you ever hear her speak? She talks to people like they're retarded. Diana's a fuckin' trendy on the make, usin' the press to attack this poor fucker."
Connolly cites the Prince's Trust, a benefit he and other Brit show-biz biggies participate in annually, which helps set up disadvantaged youth in business. "Nobody ever talks about it, 'cause it's a plus, y'see. It's always 'Big ears, talks to trees.' Or putting him down because he's into some philosopher." Connolly rolls his eyes in mock horror. "A thinkin' one, my Gawwwwd.
"I told Charles about [Mrs. Brown]. I said, 'You're gonna love this when you see it,' and he went, 'Oh, you . . .' He thinks I'm gonna be shaggin' his great-granny.