Pamela Stephenson faced a real challenge in the writing of this book: the viewpoint. She came to public attention as the peroxide-blonde Australian comedienne in ‘Not The 9 O’ Clock News,’ famous for its off-the-wall sketches. So should it be a funny woman’s take on the funny man’s rise to fame?
But she’s also his wife, which gives her a unique insight into his life . Maybe a family portrait, with intimate revelations about the Connolly household?
Her third hat is as a clinical psychologist, practising in the inexhaustibly fertile setting of Southern California. So perhaps a ‘notes-from-the-couch’ approach?
It appears she never got round to making the decision, and the result is a remarkably uneven book that changes tone more often than Billy changes costume.
The story itself is truly inspiring: born of humble Irish Catholic stock in Glasgow, Connolly survives abandonment by his mother, sexual abuse by his father and psychological torture by his aunts. He ends up working as a shipyard welder, but buys a banjo and starts playing gigs on the side. Music leads to a stand-up routine – by accident, it appears, as he forgot the words to a song. The venues got bigger and bigger, the act more and more outrageous, and before long Billy was a household name nationally. And then a worldwide phenomenon.
It’s a classic rags-to-riches story, spiced up with a startlingly frank revelation of child abuse. It ought to make compelling reading, and it does, to a point. But there’s just one problem: Stephenson’s writing. Time and again she resorts to tired old clichés: audiences ‘roar with laughter’; Billy is ‘pleased as Punch’ and ‘tickled pink’; his grandmother is dressed up ‘like a Christmas tree.’ It’s all very pedestrian, and constantly intrudes on the telling of the tale.
But it’s not even consistently pedestrian. Every so often, Dr Connolly (Stephenson, that is – confusingly, Billy is also Dr Connolly, having received an honorary doctorate from Glasgow University) emerges to make an observation: ‘As Carl Jung explained, denial of our shadow side will often cause it to rise up against us,’ she notes of Billy’s father. Billy’s cousin suffers from ‘an Oedipal rage.’ These forays into the world of analysis sit uneasily with the jocular tone in the rest of the book.
In one breathtaking lapse, she refers to a ‘mentally retarded shipyard sweeper’ who worked with Billy. Worse still, she tells us that Billy’s aunt, Mona, suffered from ‘crazy paranoia.’ And this from somebody who insists on ‘African-American’ instead of black, and ‘Native American’ instead of Indian.
And so it proceeds, veering wildly from a matter-of-fact chronology to a jokey, conspiratorial isn’t-my-husband-naughty routine, to a quick lesson in pocketbook psychology.
A quick run through the chapter names ("In search of a duck’s arse", "That Nikon’s going up your arse", "There’s holes in your willie") prepares you for what’s to come, and told by Billy Connolly himself, it would be funny. Very funny indeed. But the problem is that Stephenson isn’t nearly as funny as her husband. Indeed, his brand of humour works only when delivered by him personally. Perhaps it should have been an autobiography.
The book if packed full of swish Hollywood parties with A-list celebrities. The name-dropping borders on the tedious in the end: Eric Idle, Eric Clapton, Cher, George Harrison, Richard Burton, Judi Dench, Ralph McTell, Al Pacino. The book is peppered with such phrases as ‘Germaine Greer once told me ’, ‘the occasion is a birthday dinner for the actor Sylvester Stallone’ and ‘I’ve noticed that the former President, Ronald Reagan, is dozing off..’ You are left with the distinct impression that ‘Pamsy’ is far more starstruck than the plain-talking Billy.
And yet, in the end, it is possible to see past the tortured prose and the self-conscious name-dropping. After all, this is a book about Billy Connolly, not Pamela Stephenson. From the early days, racked by insecurity (he thought he’d one day be exposed as ‘just a welder’), through the almost-obligatory battle with alcohol, to worldwide success and acceptance, he’s retained his humour (obviously) and a down-to-earth approach that endears him to the reader.
From whatever viewpoint you take, it’s a story of triumph over adversity. Despite the patchy writing, the seductive cocktail of celebrities, risqué humour and sexual revelation makes it a sure-fire success.