I grew up in the same Glasgow tenements as Billy Connolly, jumped the same dykes and scurried to the same outside toilets on a dark night. I bought his records in the 70s, his videos in the 90s and saw him once live. I'm a fan and glad he's doing well.
I approached this biography with an open mind - keen to learn more about a great entertainer and a bit of a hero of mine. I have to say, I was left feeling somewhat cheated.
The book is structured chronologically and each chapter deals with a sizeable chunk of the Big Yin's life. The chapters are titled with Connollyesque catch-phrases ("Cop yer whack!" etc.) but, most irritatingly, introduced by contemporary vignettes of Connolly's current lîfe. Since the book was published in late 2001, most of these are very recent and recount events like Hollywood parties and Connolly's Glasgow University graduation. For someone reading the book within months of publication they serve to highlight its freshness but as time rolls on, the effect will stagnate and, five years from now, they will make this book seem past its sell-by date.
Other reviewers have commented on the relentless name-dropping with which Stephenson peppers the text and it is in these chapter intros that the celebs crowd - Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and so on. Seriously, how well do any of these people really know Billy Connelly? So is their opinion important to our understanding of the man? Or does Stephenson think that celebrity brings with it a gift of character judgement that lesser mortals lack?
In the earlier chapters, when recounting Connolly's childhood, apprenticeship and early career, the book is interesting. It was pleasing to read about Glasgow of the fifties and its whacky inhabitants and of Connolly's early involvement with folk music and his collaborations with, inter alia, Gerry Rafferty and Ralph McTell. Although there is one howler I must report: when describing a shipyard scene in 1962, Stephenson describes the workers as "tradespeople"... As much a PC-Pam may dislike it, it is a historical fact that every single human being working at a trade in a Glasgow Shipyard in the 60s was of the masculine persuasion and was never referred to as anything other than a tradesman.
The sections that deal with Connolly's troubled childhood - abandonment by his mother, mental and physical abuse by his aunt and sexual abuse by his father are revealing and I would not criticise Stephenson, as others have done, for commenting professionally on the effect these trauma have had on Connolly's mind. It was here, in fact, that I found her most illuminating.
As we read on into the mid-80s and our writer's fateful meeting with her subject, the focus begins to waver. Their early courtship seems to have inspired the script for "Notting Hill" with them dodging the media among flats and hotels in trendy London. From then on, we can never forget who he ended up with.
So what is missing from this book?
I was left wondering how much research had been done for this book and how much of it Stephenson had written off the top of her head. For a biography it is very thin on quotations and most of those are inconsequential flattery from mega-stars. What about Connolly's shipyard mates? His sister? Any old schoolpals? Iris, his ex-wife? Jamie and Cara, their children? The opinion of these vital personalities is absent or coloured by a third-person reportage after censoring by Stephenson.
I think she did speak to Gerry Rafferty, at least on the phone, and maybe Ralph McTell too. I did doubt even if Michael Parkinson was contacted - in fact, I had the uneasy feeling that he and Stephenson do not get on, such was the brevity with which she discussed his opinion on Connolly's drying out.
For a book about a comedian, jokes were thin on the ground too. There is a way to tell jokes on stage and Connolly has it; there is a way to tell jokes in a book and Stephenson does not have it.
When we turn to Connolly's film career, the narration tends to the hagiographic. Personally, I can remember Connolly starring in the excellent "Mrs. Brown" and in a handful of TV plays in the UK. Add in a couple of cameo appearances ("Indecent Proposal") and some American sitcoms and that's about it - a reasonable character actor. However, here Stephenson lists reams of movies which a film buff like me has never heard of and which turn out to have been critical and box-office flops. I'm sure Connolly is a good actor and I hope to see a lot more of him on the big screen in future (his appearance in the recent "Everlasting Piece" is superb) but some objectivity would have been prudent.
One final shot - where did she get the picture of Connolly for the cover? At a guess, I would date it to around 1985 which hardly concurs with the up-to-the minute breathlessness which pervades the rest of the book.