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CONNOLLY, BILLY: Her Majesty Mrs Brown

EXCLUSIVE: HIS MAJESTY, KING BILLY!
He's one of the world's most abrasive comics, and now it's his darker side that comes to the screen in the historical drama Mrs Brown. But in full Connolly style, as he discloses to PAUL FISCHER, the best is yet to come.

It's not easy having a conversation with Billy Connolly. There's that unmistakable voice, the perpetual one-liners uttered from a mouth that's hard to keep up with. Now, it's Billy Connolly, Legitimate Movie Actor or perhaps, Potential Oscar Nominee? One wonders whether this working-class lad from Glasgow ever imagined the day that there'd even be talk about an Oscar nomination, never alone the real possibility. "I'm amazed that it's taken so long", Billy replies in true form. "I'm an eternal optimist; I've always been wanting an Oscar despite never having even made a movie. I've even had my speech ready since I was 12." And the content of this speech? "Oh, plenty of bile."

"I'm overjoyed to be in the same sentence as 'Academy Award'"

But there's no joking around as far as the American distributor is concerned - Connolly is in Los Angeles re-promoting Mrs Brown in readiness for the whole Oscar circus. "I'm actually very confused about the whole affair; it's the last thing on earth I thought was going to happen to this little film. And I'm overjoyed to be in the same sentence as 'Academy Award' – it’s a lovely thing. I think of Marlon Brando saying: ‘I could have been a contender.’"

It's telling that Connolly talks in such modest terms. His background is hardly the stuff of Academy Award winning movie stars. Born on the 24th November 1942, his mother, Mary, gave birth to him on the kitchen floor of their tenement flat in working-class Glasgow. His father, William, was the son of an Irish immigrant, and worked as an optical instrument technician. After the birth of another child, Connolly's sister Florence, William senior went off to serve in the RAF, and the trials of separation caused the marriage to break up in 1946, leaving William to bring up the two children. The time being what it was, the task of looking after the two youngsters fells to William's two sisters, Mona and Margaret. These two aunts were to be the major female figures in Connolly's young life. The comedian recently opened up about these formative years, and admits that it was not a happy time for him. "I didn't enjoy it at all, it was awful because my aunts began to regret it. They were both single and in their twenties, I guess, then, and one was just out of the army."

"The shipyards would prove to be his training ground for comedy."

Connolly left school at fifteen, with his engineering certificates which overqualified him for a job as an engineer, so he became a welder instead. " I'm glad that happened", he recalls, "because I think if I'd become an engineer, I would have gone to sea, and that would have been the end of that, or I'd probably now be working up on the oil rigs as an engineer. But I became a welder, and I loved it, because they called us the Black Squad, the welders, cokers, platers, riveters, and other guys that get dirty. I loved their company, and their patter was great. I loved working in the shipyards very much." It was a formative time for Connolly the would-be humorist, and the shipyards would prove to be his training ground for comedy.

It was also during this time that he joined the Parachute regiment of the Territorial Army, seeking adventure, and trying to make himself windswept and interesting. He claims that at the medical examination, the doctor remarked 'You're not very big downstairs, are you?' to which Billy quipped 'I thought we were only going to fight them'. During his time there, he completed seventeen parachute jumps. Though Billy had been toying with the mouth organ up to this time, he began to take a serious interest in the banjo. Thus he began drifting into the musical world, before discovering success as a stand-up comic. His working-class brand of humour has left indelible impressions in a generation of audiences the world over, and slowly but surely, made the odd impression in films such as Muppet Treasure Island.

"There's nothing more joyless than Presbyterianism on a cold, wet Sunday in Scotland."

But now, Connolly has turned dramatist, starring opposite Judi Dench in the acclaimed historical drama, Mrs Brown. Set in the mid-1860s, the film revolves around Queen Victoria (Dench) who held her court, and to an extent all of England, prisoners of her grief, following the untimely death of her husband. She wore black for years and often broke down in reluctant regal tears. Her family and closest advisers desperately tried to bring her out of her despondency to no avail. In 1864, her husband's old stable hand, a brash Highlander named John Brown, (Connolly) returned to court and single-handedly moved her to live again. Their intimate friendship, and Brown's unwashed and unapologetic manner (he often addressed the Queen as "woman!"), became the stuff of scandal and gossip that threatened the stability of the crown.

One could say that the role of John Brown is the comic's answer to playing Hamlet, perhaps. "Not Hamlet; King Lear is more to my liking. But I DO like the darker side of films", he adds on a serious note. But when asked what it is he taps into in order to bring out the dark side of a character such as John Brown, he doesn't take his time to respond. "Definitely Presbyterianism", he quips unflinchingly. "There's nothing more joyless than Presbyterianism on a cold, wet Sunday in Scotland. There's a Scottish word called 'dreich' which describes those grey wet Sundays where they lock up the swings in the park. That's what I keyed into to play Brown, because he was a Scottish Protestant, and I wanted the darkness of him, that staunchness. In Scotland, if you're a Catholic they say you're a DEVOUT Catholic; if you're a Protestant, though, you're a STAUNCH Protestant, and it's that staunch, tunnel-vision mentality, that I got into for Brown."

"He's such a handsome bugger, which is another reason they wanted me." on the role in Mrs Brown

Connolly was offered the part even before the script was written. The producers, he recalls, probably thought him right for the part "because of my anarchy. I have taken a very male stance on most things that I've done, and that's what they wanted from me, that male arrogance." Not much is known about the real John Brown, but some pictures of him survived. It's therefore clear why Connolly was cast. "He's such a handsome bugger, which is another reason they wanted me. In the pictures of him he looked so much like Gregory Peck. And the way he's lounging around for the photograph, he always thinks he's a pretty good looking guy."

Making the film presented a considerable challenge to the actor, least of all working with the indomitable Dame Judi Dench. "I learnt an awful lot from her. For instance, I was astounded to find that she learns her lines very quickly, and she can click straight into it, which is very impressive."

"I wasn't determined to be a film star or an actor, but I WAS determined to do something really well."

It's surprising that this film has been as successful as it has, especially outside of Britain. No one is more surprised by it all than Mr. Connolly. "You would think that Queen Victoria was a boring, wee person, but the amount of books that are sold with her name on them, is breathtaking." It could be because the film touches on broader themes outside of royalty. "I think there's always a fascination with people whose lives are mapped out for them, and how they react within the tramlines of that, whether it's royalty, military or whatever."

Connolly is gratified that the critical acclaim has come, that audiences "recognise a depth that they've never seen before. I always knew I wanted to do it [acting] well. I wasn't determined to be a film star or an actor, but I WAS determined to do something really well."

That includes the comedy; after all, Billy the comedian is still alive and kicking, and continues to find something fresh in his humour. "I try to be as interested in it as I always was and try to get as much JOY out of it, as I did in the pubs with the guys. That has always been my ambition, to be as funny as ordinary people are, to take that thing that everybody's got and take it onto the stage."

"I kind of fancy myself as a dying swan."

In the meantime, Connolly is a wee busy lad, what with promoting his Oscar potential for Mrs Brown, preparing to do several films in the UK early next year, and still finding time for wife Pamela Stevenson, who's now a regarded clinical psychologist. "Yeah, she went back to uni, did her PhD, and now she's a clinical psychologist, and a damn good one." As for Connolly's ambitions. "Ballet", he quickly responds. "I kind of fancy myself as a dying swan."

MRS BROWN OPENS ON BOXING DAY.

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JUDI DENCH

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"I've always been wanting an Oscar despite never having even made a movie. I've even had my speech ready since I was 12."

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"I'm actually very confused about the whole affair; it's the last thing on earth I thought was going to happen to this little film."

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On joining the Parachute regiment of the Territorial Army, Connolly claims the medical examiner remarked 'You're not very big downstairs, are you?' to which Billy quipped 'I thought we were only going to fight them'.

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On comedy: "I try to be as interested in it as I always was and try to get as much JOY out of it, as I did in the pubs with the guys."

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