Billy Connolly: Life with Parkinson’s
Scottish comedian Billy Connolly has spoken about how Parkinson’s has impacted his life. The 79-year-old former folk singer was diagnosed in 2013, when he began treatment for the early symptoms. Nine years later, he says he tries not to feel sorry for himself and carries on remaining cheerful. The Glasgow-born comic says he constantly reminds himself there are people worse off than him, such as sick children, who live their life without complaining. However, he admits recently, he has had to give up playing musical instruments, because he can no longer use his left hand properly. In a BBC Radio interview, he spoke of his lifelong optimism, likening it to the “glass half-full or half-empty” comparison. He says the world’s a “great place full of great people”, so it’s up to each individual how they live their life. Connolly’s early life As a child growing up in a two-room flat in Anderton, Glasgow, in the 1940s, Connolly recalls having no hot water and having to bathe in the kitchen sink. He and sister Florence were sent to live with their two aunts in Partick after the war. He was given his famous nickname, the Big Yin, after he grew into a tall adolescent. The name has stuck with him throughout his life. He became interested in show business after going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the first time in the early 1960s. He later said he modelled himself on the “long-haired musicians” in the pubs along Rose Street. However, he completed a five-year apprenticeship in boiler-making and took a job on an oil platform in Biafra, Nigeria, when he was 23. Musical and comedy career On returning to the UK, Connolly worked briefly for the Scottish marine engineering firm, John Brown and Company, but he set his sights on a career as a musician. A keen banjo and guitar player, he formed a folk group, The Humblebums, with his friends Tam Harvey and Gerry Rafferty. After playing plenty of local gigs, they signed for Transatlantic Records and released their first album, First Collection of Merry Melodies, in 1969. The band split up in 1971 and Connolly continued to play solo gigs. Although he was known for his quirky lyrics, he didn’t focus on comedy until 1972, when he released his first solo album, Billy Connolly Live, containing short monologues and humorous songs. By 1975, his fame had rocketed from being a local performer around Glasgow and Edinburgh to becoming a guest star on the UK’s leading TV chat show, BBC’s Parkinson, hosted by Michael Parkinson. Elton John enjoyed Connolly’s routine and offered him a spot as the support act on his forthcoming American tour. Parkinson’s diagnosis Connolly’s career continued to reach new heights, including his ever-popular sell-out live shows and more films such as The X-Files: I Want to Believe in 2008, and Brave in 2012. However, in 2013, he revealed he was being treated for the early symptoms of Parkinson’s after he had noticed he was starting to forget his lines during performances. He also battled prostate cancer the same year and underwent surgery. Undeterred, the star went on to star in the fantasy adventure movie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, in 2014, when he played Dáin II Ironfoot. He has carried on working and has tried not to let his diagnosis slow him down, although he admits, in recent years, he has been feeling the effects more. The brain disorder causes shaking, stiffness and problems with balance and walking. In December 2021, Connolly said he could no longer use his left hand properly, so he had reluctantly given up playing musical instruments. The main symptoms of Parkinson’s include tremors and loss of motor functions. This can get progressively more severe over time. With an estimated 145,000 people with Parkinson’s in the UK, treatments include therapy to help with movement, medicine and sometimes brain surgery. How has it impacted his life? Connolly has recently made a new TV documentary, My Absolute Pleasure, in which he openly discusses his condition. He says he just tries to “get on with it” and has some bad days, as well as good ones. He behaves in a certain way to show his five children you just have to keep going but admits the Parkinson’s has taken away more and more of the things he enjoys doing in the past nine years. After retiring from live performances in 2018, he tries to remain philosophical and adapts to the limitations he faces. He even manages to crack a joke about his condition, saying that on bad days, he starts “walking like a drunk man”, but this “cures itself”. Better days often follow. To help stop his hands from shaking, he says he has taught himself a type of hypnosis He admits to trying to “cover up the illness” on the whole, but knows it “won’t go away”, so he tries to “remain cheery”. Restless nights Special beds for people with Parkinson’s can help alleviate sleeping problems including difficulty in turning over or getting out of bed, and the risk of falling out of bed during the night. Contact Kinderkey for further information on our safe sleeping solutions.
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