“You can either break down and complain about how miserable your life is, or you can have a go at it,” says Billy Connolly towards the end of the second part of Made in Scotland (BBC2). It’s clear the latter has always been the great comedian’s approach – and continues to be so, despite his struggles with Parkinson’s disease. Now in his mid-70s, he continues to laugh throughout this stealthily moving documentary, even as he openly talks about facing death.
In general, we’re pretty hopeless at discussing our own mortality in this country. So there’s something about the way Connolly calmly discusses it that’s rather inspiring. “My life is slipping away,” he says. “I’m a damn sight nearer the end than I am the beginning. But it doesn’t frighten me. It’s an adventure.”
As archive footage reminds us, Connolly in his heyday was a physically energetic performer, all wide gestures, wild eyes, and wilder hairdos. He gives frenetic performances on his beloved banjo and exhibits an equally virtuoso approach to swearing (one highlight of the programme is his unpicking of the “poetry” of Glaswegian profanity, in particular the phrase “Jesus suffering f**k”). So when Connolly explains how he’s losing his balance, energy, hearing, sight, and memory, it should make for an unbearably sad contrast.
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But Connolly has a total lack of self-pity: “It’s as if I’m being prepared for something, some other adventure, which is over the hill,” he says. “I’ve got all this stuff to lose first, and then I’ll be at the shadowy side of the hill, doing the next episode in the spirit world.” While the physical limitations of Parksinson’s clearly frustrate him, there’s also a sort of philosophic peace made with the inevitable end.
Mind you, there’s a fair amount of pottering televisual nostalgia in this hour-long programme before you get to such metaphysical musings. Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland is a meandering look back over his life, career, and national identity – a “Proustian wander through Scotland”. There’s a lot of mordant chat about the weather, illustrated with shots of dark grey clouds above even darker grey lochs. Connolly cheerfully revisits stand-up material about the horror of swimming in knitted shorts by making some brave souls attempt the same. Old black-and-white footage of little ruffians running around Glasgow’s tenements is off-set with full-colour sweeps across the rugged landscape. Scotland, he tells us, is “a place where ‘beautiful’ isn’t enough of a word”.
“Oh memories, memories,” Connolly mumbles when reminiscing about beach holidays and bike rides, in one of the programme’s more sentimental moments. We see fans taking beaming selfies with him, while talking heads including Eddie Izard, Ross Noble, and Micky Flanagan enthuse over how Connolly changed comedy.
Less well integrated are segments where Connolly celebrates other creative types whose work is rooted in Scotland; although his appreciations of folk singer Martin Stephenson and artist Moira Maclean are interesting, they feel like they belong in another, far less personal, arts programme.
But overall Made in Scotland is a winning hour in the company of The Big Yin – and one which might just spark valuable conversations about how to approach the end of one’s life with a similar sense of adventure.