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Big yin hits a hig h note at the old folks' home

If reports are anything to go by, it seems Billy Connolly might be getting a bit grumpy in his maturing age. In 2012, the legendary comedian cut short two separate live shows in Blackpool and Scarborough after hecklers overstepped the mark with their mocking taunts. True to form, he defiantly stands by his actions.

"It was just those two incidences where a few audience members annoyed me and I just thought, 'Forget this, I've had enough'," he candidly explains. "I'm not in the habit of doing that and I thrived off audience participation for my entire career. But when somebody keeps interrupting you or there are so many bodies moving in and out of the theatre, it's distracting and it drives me mad sometimes."


And while the jeering and interruption may now aggravate the ageing Big Yin more than it used to, he at least has no issue with any heckling from a Dublin audience. In fact, he welcomes it.

"I haven't played Dublin for years [last time in 2008 at the Olympia] and I just adore the interaction with the audience there. There's a fine line between cheekiness and rudeness and the charm from the crowd, the humour and the wit. I know every time I play Dublin, my stomach would be sore from laughter."

But Connolly, who traces his grandfather's Irish roots back to the Connemara coastal village of Ballyconneely, has one stipulation before he ever plays Dublin again; his good pal Christy Moore has to join him on stage. Their friendship goes back to the seventies when both were playing the folk music circuit [Billy was part of band The Humblebums] but thanks to their punishing schedules, the pair haven't been in the same room in years.

"It's very difficult to find Christy, he's always moving around, you can never pin him down and I live most of the time out in the States. So if I'm playing on the Dublin stage again, I have to have Christy by my side. We could duet together and he's got some legendary jokes."

After nearly 50 years on the stage and screen, Connolly has never felt more assured in his career. Soon to be seen alongside an esteemed cast including Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins and Maggie Smith in Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, Quartet, he's just returned from New Zealand after shooting the next instalment in The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation Of Smaug.


And during last summer, he enjoyed lending his voice to one of the year's biggest box-office hits, Disney Pixar's Brave. Billy finally has faith in his acting career.

"Aye," he drawls, "I've been having a great year or two of it lately, been in some wicked films, got to go down to New Zealand and dress up as a dwarf king for Peter Jackson, running around with my tattoos and a red Mohawk down to my arse. But it's taken years to feel secure in my acting, to know I can make a living from it and not just from comedy. It's rewarding.

"Things just keep coming up one after the other, I'm in a very good place now and if I feel like I'm twiddling my thumbs again, we'll go back on the road. I've got two shows in New York and San Francisco next year but if we have time, I'll do a tour again of Ireland and the UK. It's what I love to do."

In Quartet, Billy (70), who's married to former Strictly Come Dancing star Pamela Stephenson, plays Wilf, an ageing opera singer living at a stately nursing home for retired musicians. There he encourages his former operatic quartet [Collins, Smith and Tom Courtenay] to reform for one last performance but rivalries and egos get in the way.

On learning his esteemed fellow cast mates in the film, however, Connolly admits he was terrified of the prospect.

"Dustin Hoffman approached me about the movie and told me it was about retired opera singers living in an old folks' home, which sounded like a lovely story. But then he revealed who was in it, and I thought 'My God, it was like the English first team'. I felt instantly out of my depth. But I remember working opposite Judi [Dench] in Mrs Brown and remembering how working with these people brings out the best in you. So I said, 'let's do it'."


With no previous experience with Downton Abbey legend Maggie Smith, her rumoured fiery reputation led to some anxiety for the Scot.

"I've never worked with Maggie before and, if I'm honest, she scared me. I knew she was formidable and I was genuinely a little nervous to meet her but she was incredibly lovely and charming."

For authenticity purposes, Connolly and his co-stars underwent extensive operatic training.

"All of us, Pauline, Tom, Maggie, and I have sung in our careers but never anything in the same vein as opera," says Connolly. "I think the end result was special. Whether our performances make the edit is another story, I haven't seen it yet so we very easily may have been dubbed over."

Quartet is in cinemas now