We are in a basement gallery in London’s West End, and Britain’s greatest comedian is doing what he does best — sharing his delight at the daft absurdities of daily life. He remembers seeing a little boy wading into the freezing waters at Aberdeen. ‘You make a certain noise when the wave comes up. It’s a noise that you can only repeat by shoving a hot potato up a donkey’s arse.’
He is making this empty gallery feel as though it’s full of people — and a bunch of strangers laugh like old friends. ‘A lot of my stuff doesn’t have punchlines’. He doesn’t need them. ‘It’s lovely just making a big picture, and saying, “I was there, and I’d like to invite you to share it with me.”’
Billy Connolly retired from stand-up in December 2018 and has no plans to return. The cruel culprit is Parkinson’s disease, which has inevitably restricted his spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness delivery. ‘I think differently — it’s hard to describe,’ he tells me. ‘I don’t think and move the way I used to, so I don’t want to do it in case it doesn’t work.’ In conversation he remains razor-sharp but live performance is another matter. Onstage he was running wild, never knowing where each joke would take him. ‘I didn’t compose it — it just happened. Ad lib on top of ad lib on top of ad lib and it became stories.’ Does he miss it? ‘No, I don’t miss it at all. I had plenty of it. I had my share.’
He’s here today to promote an exhibition of his drawings, paintings and sculptures that, like everything else, has now moved online. You’d never guess he made them. Onstage and in person, he’s ebullient, effervescent. These artworks are the complete opposite — enigmatic and discreet. Nobody is pretending he’ll be remembered as an artist rather than a comedian, but it’s heartening to see him feeling his way in a new genre, just as his mind and body are slowing down.