BBC Scotland occasionally comes in for some stick. It is either too Glasgow-centric or too pawky and provincial, too pro-SNP or too Unionist, for or against Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, Hibs and any other group. The commissioning editors down at Pacific Quay have managed to produce no fewer than three programmes in the last few weeks which have been right up my alley, about the history of Paisley, the Proclaimers and Billy Connolly. That’s not to mention that Sportscene will soon be graced once more by the Hibees as they return to the Premiership. With Billy Connolly, they have played a blinder, producing a trail of three murals of the Big Yin around Glasgow city centre in conjunction with Glasgow City Council and Art Pistol Projects. The programme about the project played out on Wednesday. I went to see the murals yesterday. This morning, the Queen’s Birthday Honours came out and Sir William Connolly arose. I am personally against the honours system but for Sir William, and the posthumous award for PC Keith Palmer, I will make an exception. I would rather it was them than arms dealers and other shady characters like politicians.
Billy Connolly has long been a hero of mine. In my teens, I became very interested in comedy and amassed a considerable collection of Billy Connolly CDs and DVDs. He just has an incredible mind and can make almost anything funny, even the Parkinson’s disease he lives with. Laughter is vital for life and over many years Billy Connolly’s words have made me howl over and over again.
The murals were produced by three Scottish artists, Jack Vettriano, John Byrne and Rachel MacLean, and appear in three locations in Glasgow city centre. Vettriano’s scene of Billy in Wick is on Dixon Street behind St. Enoch Centre while Byrne’s is nearby on Osborne Street. Rachel MacLean’s more outlandish one appears on the Gallowgate, just along from the Barrowland Ballroom. Yesterday I ventured into town by bus, getting off by Central Station and walking back along the river to Dixon Street where I encountered the Jack Vettriano mural, which depicts Billy Connolly, beard-less, standing on a clifftop near Wick while on his World Tour of Scotland in 1994. I was glad I encountered this one first as I know Vettriano’s work the best from his exhibition at Kelvingrove a few years ago and also from Kirkcaldy Art Gallery. In the documentary, Vettriano came across as an utter groupie when he was shown meeting Billy and that was rather sweet, Vettriano utterly awestruck to be in the presence of the great man. I liked this one the best, to be honest, particularly for the grey sky with tinges of white and blue. It looks much better in person than on the TV. Vettriano is a man of the east, albeit many miles south in Fife, so he kens the score with the sky. The mural was in a beer garden and there were a few others snapping and at least two selfies. At that point, I beat a hasty retreat.
At the other side of the St. Enoch Centre is Osborne Street, mainly a place to get a bus to outlying parts of the city but also a vast open space with car parking between all these shops. I came across the John Byrne mural all of a sudden, just turning my head and it was there. I liked this one for its honesty and details in sketching the lines and contours of Billy’s hair and face. There was a crowd of people snapping this one, all in a line down the pavement. I snaffled the best spot as the crowds quickly dispersed.
Rachel Maclean’s mural is the most outlandish and probably the closest to Billy Connolly’s more off-the-wall fashion sense. It is on the Gallowgate, just along from the Barras and the Barrowland Ballroom. It is the furthest from the city centre and so the one I had to myself for the longest. Inevitably the same couple I had seen at the other two swiftly appeared at my heels. This mural has a lot going on, a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle allusions to Billy’s routines over the years, as well as a modern background of a Glasgow street by night, lit by the sodium of a chippy. Appropriately, though, as I walked away I got a waft of a chippy frying on the wind. This one has my favourite story and style, even though it is also the most bonkers. In a good way.
Of the three, my favourite is the Jack Vettriano, the nicest in person if not on screen. That might have been coloured by his demeanour in the documentary as well as the sky which played to the east coast boy in me. All three murals, though, are a very fitting tribute to Billy Connolly in his 75th year, a much better honour than a medal could ever be.