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Connolly kept quiet about his cancer diagnosis

Billy Connolly
Billy Connolly

There isn’t much that’s off-limits with Billy Connolly, but on the set of his new comedy What We Did On Our Holiday, the Glaswegian funny man decided to withhold some information.

Unbeknown to his directors and co-stars, the 71-year-old, who plays a man with terminal cancer in the movie, had himself been diagnosed with the disease.

“I told them after it was finished. I didn’t want to be treated any differently from anyone else,” says Connolly, who announced last year that he had undergone successful surgery on his prostate, and was also being treated for Parkinson’s disease.

“It would really break my heart, to be a special case. So I just got on with it.”

In one scene, his character Gordy, a grandfather preparing to celebrate his 75th birthday, must discuss his illness with his daughter-in-law Margaret, played by Amelia Bullmore.

“I had to say, ‘I’ve got cancer’. Amelia didn’t know I was telling the truth,” the comedian said with a laugh.

“I’d never said that to anybody in my life before, and there I was saying it.”

Today, the father-of-five, who is married to former Not The Nine O’Clock News star Pamela Stephenson, is looking fit and healthy in green-rimmed glasses and a spotted denim jacket.

He hasn’t changed “a single thing” about his lifestyle since his diagnoses, but admits to being “kind of clumsy sometimes” as a result of the Parkinson’s, and is struggling to play the banjo as well as he used to, “which is a pain in the butt”.

It didn’t take the comedian, who also wears hearing aids, long to see the lighter side of his health problems, “because I’ve always been on the outside of it”.

“At one point, I went to see the doctor when they discovered I had the cancer thing. He was doing a drawing of my kidneys and prostate and how it works and the bladder and stuff, and he said, ‘You’re not going to die’,” Connolly recalled.

“I was absolutely shocked, it never crossed my mind that I might die. I said to myself, ‘Of course I’m not going to die.’ So I’ve never been deeply involved with it in that sense.

“I don’t go on the internet and look up Parkinson’s disease and see how I’m getting on. F*** that. I just live my life and it’s clumsy and that’s it.”

Connolly will discuss his health struggles during his upcoming High Horse Scottish stand-up tour, as well as the recent independence referendum.

“I might separate the Yeses and the Nos,” jokes Connolly, who kept “very quiet indeed” in the run-up to voting.

“It sounds self-important, but I didn’t want to be influencing people. I don’t believe in that kind of behaviour,” he explained.

So how does he feel about the end result?

“I don’t know, I’m still on both sides,” he says. “No matter what the result was, half the country was going to be disappointed. It’s going to take a bit of getting over.”

Until selling up recently, New York-based Connolly and Stephenson owned Candacraig, a baronial home in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, where they played host to close friend Robin Williams, who also had Parkinson’s.

“I speak about him in the present tense. I can’t get the past tense going at all,” Connolly said of Williams, who was found dead in his Californian home last month.

Connolly had spoken to Williams just days before, and there was “no hint” of what was to come.

“He kept telling me he loved me,” Connolly recalls. “He said, ‘I love you like a brother’, and I said, ‘I’m glad to hear it’.

“I was telling Pam and she said, ‘That was him saying goodbye’. Which is kind of scary, it was going around in his head at the time. But he was a beautiful person, a beautiful man.”

Williams loved staying at the house, the comedian added. “They loved him up in Scotland at the Highland Games. He used to do the hill race, he’d run up the mound with all the other guys. He was fit as a flea.”

For Connolly, spending time in his homeland for What We Did On Our Holiday (from the makers of BBC sitcom Outnumbered) was a delight – despite being “eaten alive by midges”.

“It was beautiful, up on the West coast. It was so superb. That liquid light you get is joyous, and the people are so jolly,” said the star, who indulged his love of fishing during filming breaks.

Connolly feels like a man of 45 (“I used to feel 35. I must be getting old…”), and agrees that he doesn’t look 71 – a feat he attributes partly to some “revolting aloe vera and snail slime” moisturiser, which he picked up while filming upcoming comedy Wild Oats on the Canary Islands.

Quoting Gordy, who has lived an adventure-filled life, he adds: “I’m ‘more, more, more’, that’s my thing. I’m all for life… I think it’s lovely.”

What We Did On Our Holiday is in cinemas now.


P&J plays cameo role

While Billy Connolly and David Tenant may take top billing in What We Did On Our Holiday, one scene in particular will have audiences from Grampian, the Highlands and Islands cheering.

For taking centre stage is the Press and Journal – or rather a prop version of the paper we specially created for the production.

Without giving the plot away, one scene during the star-studded film sees the world’s media descend on the film’s Highland mansion, depicted as being somewhere close to Fort William.

While they chase the story, Gavin, played by British comedy actor Ben Miller, is busy reading all about it in his Press and Journal which has been delivered to his door.

The film also features the beautiful sandy beaches at Red Point, Gairloch. In terms of attracting tourists, this could do for Gairloch what Local Hero did for the north-east village of Pennan.

The film’s director, Andy Hamilton, the man behind TV comedy Outnumbered, said: “The scenery is almost a scene stealer while the beach is like another character. The people of Gairloch were so welcoming and helped us on the set in various ways.

“If one of the happy side effects of the movie is that it attracted more people to Gairloch then that would be a bonus for us.”