Being Billy Connolly

Owen Davis, Welsh born-and-bred, craves fame and fortune. But he has no talent, no skill - he has nothing. What he does have is a striking resemblance to a certain Scottish comedian. But does fame really bring the perfect life?

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1. Being Billy Connolly

Being Billy Connolly

Leaning against the railings of the roof terrace, far above the streets of Los Angeles, I was thinking whether all this had really been built on a fault line. The smog limited my sight to a few sister skyscrapers but I had been told that on a clear day one could have seen the rolling hills that carried the famous letters of Tinseltown.

 

A small man in an expensive suit wedged himself in front of me. He had a groomed moustache, dark glasses and a Bluetooth earpiece, each item making it more difficult to see his real face.  He asked me my name. Once I had been able to answer this question without thought, but now it was more difficult.

 

“I’m a comedian…”

 

The man smiled, revealing whitened teeth, before saying in an overly heavy New York accent, “I thought I recognised you. Aren’t you…”

 

I let him struggle to remember my name, before putting him out of his misery, “I’m Billy Connolly.”

 

I was not Billy Connolly.

 

*

 

Twenty years ago, I was a sixth-former in the Welsh town of Llangollen, and still had twenty friends with the surname Jones. It was my favourite teacher, Gion Jones, who told me something I would never forget,  “Don’t take this the wrong way, son, but you can’t achieve anything in life. Not if you stay in Wales, and even if you leave it’s unlikely.” I might easily have taken this as a terrible insult, but I understood his meaning:  I was not smart enough to succeed in work, not good looking enough to marry into wealth, and like many a Welshman, I was destined to be unemployed- or worse, descend the few remaining mineshafts. I was Owen Davis, and the only Jones I wanted to know was Tommy Lee. I wanted to know people who mattered, be someone who mattered, and the only way I could achieve this was through becoming a celebrity. Celebrity status would allow me to be remembered, and only through being remembered could I ensure lasting significance. I remember sitting in my cramped family home with a pen and paper, considering what activity I could undertake that would lead to being a celebrity. I quickly realised that any profession with discernable talent would not be suitable for a Welshman such as myself and so my dreams of becoming the sixth member of the Jackson five (I hoped they would change the name), and the fifth member of the Beatles, were crushed, but I still heralded the slightly less glamorous ambition of joining Noel Edmunds on ‘Multi-coloured swap shop’. I even sent a letter to the BBC, documenting my above-average public speaking skills and similar hair to that of Edmunds, but they never wrote back.

 

But I had one thing going for me – I looked like Billy Connolly. People had recognised this at a certain point in my teenage years, even earning me the nickname, ‘Big Yin’ in school, but at first it was a curse rather than a talent. When I used to hear Billy on the radio, I thought about myself as the inferior twin; the one out of the womb a few minutes later, destined to be in second place for eternity. It was while watching Jon Pertwee in his final appearance as the fourth Doctor Who that my life changed forever. At the end of the episode- creatively entitled ‘Planet of the Spiders’- I watched as the time-traveller regenerated into a young looking Tom Baker. When I told my father of this wonder he misunderstood and ensured me that Doctor Who was fictional, but what I had learned would change my life. What if I lived my life, even earned a living, from being Billy Connolly? It had not occurred to anyone that one could live one’s life being someone else. Over the next few arduous months I set out trying to become Billy. I hired a vocal coach, Lindsey Sherridan, to teach me the Scots tongue, and slowly my dialogue transformed. Yet despite her work, Lindsey and I both knew that the ultimate test would come when speaking to the Scots. She convinced me to try out my skill at her mother’s birthday, but once among the Scottish throng, worry of embarrassment overcame my desire to speak. When mingling with Lindsey’s mother and sister, I found myself misunderstanding their conversation. With every comment the women expressed, they each gave a look to me, expecting a response.

 

“Ach, aye,” I would respond every time, then retreat into silence.

 

It was on my fifth ‘Ach, aye’, that I realised I would never be Billy unless I overcame this fear. Later in the evening when we sat down for a meal, and I seized the moment. Spotting a slight sagging in already dull party atmosphere, I stood, cleared my throat, and launched into a memorised routine:

 

“I took a wee trip tae the doctor for ma prostate,” I began, apparently unaware that people would not want to hear about my private problems while eating, “the doctor says to me he has good news and bad news”. I proceeded to explain the investigations, and was more than relieved when they seemed to appreciate the double-meaning of “will he”, “won’t he” against “willy wonky”, when describing the invasion of an intimate part of my anatomy.

 

I got a standing, if a bit confused-cum-sympathetic, ovation from the ‘crowd’, with Lindsey’s proud face standing out. Actually, looking back, it may not have been pride.

 

Following the party, my life took off and my talent became a job. I would attend charity events and receive a nominal fee for my presence and saying a few words. The difficulty came in inviting myself to an event, and then going on to demand a pay-cheque. The trick was in pretending not to want to come. I would call up, speak as if I was Billy’s agent, and tell how my client admired their charity, work and general living values.

 

“Mr Connolly truly believes in the Turnip Farmers’ Trust,” I would say on the phone.

 

This would elicit a response of pride, usually a rambling monologue that went on until they plucked up the courage to ask if Billy could make an appearance. Occasionally I felt a pang of guilt but I justified my actions with the understanding that we wanted the same thing: both the myself and the charity desired significance from association with a celebrity.

 

“He’s in America,” I would respond to their query, then wait for exactly one and a half seconds, “but with his extra love for your cause I may be able to change his plans, as long as you could cover the costs of travel.”

 

Elation would cloud any reason in the charity representative, and an agreement would be reached. Of course I was not in America, I was just ten minutes down the M6, and so my ‘plane fee’ became my life savings. Only later would I add that Billy always flies first class.

 

I was darting between events and fundraisers with a vivacious energy and glorified view of life: I was the single battery hen that escaped. Yet like every British celebrity, I longed for better things. It just so happened that these  very generalised ‘things’ all seemed to happen in one place – America. My big break occurred at a charity party in Nottingham where an elderly American gentleman approached me.

 

“Mr. Connolly, it truly is a pleasure,” he began warmly, “although I always imagined you taller.”

 

There’s a reason for that, I thought, but said nothing.

 

“Your speech was very good. Pity about the weather…”

 

“Do you know what they call six weeks of rain in Scotland?” I paused. “Summer.”

 

The American man found this rehearsed joke so ridiculously funny that he gave me his card. Now I only pretended to read its contents, but later I discovered that he was a fairly well known politician.

 

“I’ll give you a call,” he said, “we do a lot of fund-raising events.”

 

This was the big opportunity; the American system had no problem paying celebrity guests to encourage big donations from the rich and famous. I fancifully wondered if I might one day host the Oscars, appear on Oprah, and live my life with the glitterati. His call came only a day later, and in my excitement I forgot about returning a call to Lindsey. Now I was on first name terms with a powerful American politician, and within moments I had an event in New York. 

 

It was at the airport that I first saw Jessica Lynch. Her eyes darted between rich-looking men, even if they already had a woman on their arm. I do not know what attracted me to her, but I think it was those brown eyes that screamed silently for recognition in beauty. I suppose I liked to think that she too had once sat in a room and considered dozens of ways to become famous. Like me, the conclusion she came to had controlled her actions ever since, maybe even caused a few regrets, and now it commanded that she approach the famous man she thought I was.

 

“Jessica Lynch,” she said loudly in my direction, “don’t I know you?”

 

It gave me confidence that I would not have been speaking to this woman without my mask of fame.

 

“I’m Billy Connolly,” I answered.

 

She smiled, visibly pleased with herself on finding my attention, “That’s right, famous man you are. I bet you’ve got so much money.”

 

I laughed, “A perk of the job. Where are you heading today?”

 

“New York,” she replied, “although I might change my mind, if you can get me into first class with you.”

 

As she finished she gave that rehearsed but nonetheless beautiful smile, and adjusted her blouse.

 

I was silent for a second before my mouth defied my brain, “Yes. Yes of-course."

 

As soon as she left I began to panic, before thrusting myself in the direction of the British Airways (not-so) helpful information desk. A greasy teenager behind the desk listened to my weak claims for upgrade. He just sat there, slouching and chewing gum with an occasional scratch down his trousers. As my plea ended, he shook his head, took the gum out his mouth and stuck it under his desk.

 

“That’s not going to happen.”

 

I leaned in and gave the performance of my life, “See that girl back there,” I said, pointing to Jessica in the seating area, “she needs to think I’m in first class, and she needs to be there with me. Don’t you understand?”

 

I paused for a second, before adding, “Do you even know who I am?”

 

The teenager’s eyes widened as he looked to the name on my boarding pass, then back up to me. He winked at me, something I still feel uncomfortable recalling, and said smiling, “Mr. Connolly, there’s only two things I care about in this world. That’s drink, cars and girls. I’ll see what I can do.”

 

This young man’s inexplicable mishandling of arithmetic, combined with my apparent fame, allowed Jessica and I to be together in First Class. Once settled into the wide deep seats, and with a serious flow of champagne, she would not stop giggling about my fame and comedy, and how big a fan she was. Our friendliness led to the exchange of phone-numbers and, belatedly, I invited her to join me to the politician’s fund-raiser. She accepted immediately, and, there we were, strolling around as a couple.

 

Over this period we went to numerous parties together, with me still picking up the ‘small nominal fee’. Jessica spent very little time with me outside of the parties and strangely, I learnt very little about her present life. I did, however, learn a bit about her past. She had spent her childhood in a small town in the Norfolk Broads. An only child, she dreamed of fame as a singer but never made it. She once referred to her ‘job’ at the airport. It dawned on me much later that she had been looking for someone rich and famous; someone like me. But who was I to cast judgement on her occupation? I found it reassuring that I had found someone like myself, someone who had that desire to be recognised as something significant. In falling in love, I experienced intimacy, though not quite truth. Somehow, being involved in such an elaborate web of lies became the most exhilarating time of my life. In the back of mind, however, despite now only existing in my subconscious, I did feel something unsettling about the life I was living.

 

Everything changed one sorry afternoon in San Francisco. We were mingling as a couple with several guests at a luxurious hotel meeting suite, when we turned into the one man on Earth that I could never meet. There he was, standing there a full two centimetres taller than me: Billy Connolly. There was an initial awkward silence before the real Connolly let out a childish laugh.

 

Jessica looked from me to Billy, then back to me, “Is this some kind of a joke?”

 

I wanted to say yes and move on, but the real Billy Connolly would not allow it, “Did someone put a mirror here? Or are you a tribute act? Either way, I like what you’ve done with your hair.”

 

Billy and I laughed, “I’m a…big fan,” I said, smiling more artificially than ever.

 

The real Billy nodded and added, smiling, “There’s being a big fan, then there’s being a bit of a nutcase.”

 

Somehow he dragged the conversation on for a full five minutes, joking consistently of how he liked my style. Despite the compliments, I wanted to shrink away. I murmured something about ‘blood brothers’ that successfully broke the flow, and at last he moved away. Jessica bridled in, on the same spot, mouth agape and fire in her eyes. Not knowing what to do, I had stood alongside her, smiling at passers by. Eventually she whimpered a single word, “How?”

 

‘The thing is’ were the only three words I managed to say before her anger ruptured up her gut and through her mouth. She shouted at me, a barrage of foul-mouthed insults only broken up by pauses for breath. Our little debacle managed to attract a few spectators, too, which I think pleased her. The crowd that had gathered looked to me for a response after she left, so I explained, “She always insists I book the Dorchester suite, but I didnae know she’d get that angry.”

 

Noting the lack of sympathy amongst the crowd I muttered something vague about “her time of the month.”

 

Later, when I went out to my rented convertible, I saw Jessica sitting the passenger seat. She turned to me and gave a small smile. Confused, I joined her.

 

“Look, maybe I overreacted back there,” she said, denying me the opportunity to apologise, “I knew you probably weren’t him before. But what we have, what we do, it…it’s worth it. Better than being a nobody. We both know that. So what I’m trying to say is…I want to keep going,” she said wiping a final tear from her face, “what do you say, Billy?” 

 

It aggravated me somewhat that she knew this was not my name and yet persisted. At the same time I knew she was right, so agreed with her. She had some love for me, and in some strange way, we needed each other.

 

In the car that day, I experienced a perverse relief in our sustained artificiality. But, at the same time I felt disillusioned in my relationship with Jessica. It was disheartening that Jessica did want any reality in our relationship but rather desired some cheap, short-term popularity. Now, at parties I found myself unable to mingle. Instead I would sit on the stairs and empty a bottle of beer. When I looked at Jessica, laughing and speaking to other guests, I saw beyond her mask of make-up, and I saw only hollowness. Here were people who were rich and only sometimes happy, and others who wanted nothing more than to appear wealthy, appear sophisticated, and appear famous – the truth did not matter as the truth was boring. And through my vision of her transparency, I recognised that I was exactly the same. The real reason behind my disillusionment was not my disappointment in her, but anger at myself.

 

After one party had ended and I got home, I dug out my old phone and called Lindsey. I do not know why I called her because I had nothing  in particular to say. I suppose there was a longing in my soul for something real. She had loved me for who I was, Owen Davis. None of this mattered since I only got an answering machine:

 

“Hello, it’s Lindsey,” the machine began, “and Mark,” a male voice entered, then together, “soon to be Lindsey and Mark Jameson. Please leave a message for us after the beep.”

 

I hung up. I could not even remember my parent’s phone number so I went to bed.

 

I still bounced between parties, doing my speeches, gaining my cheques, but it was not quite the same. I did not feel worthy of the Connolly persona, probably because I was no longer sure that I truly wanted to be him. Sometimes I had to remind myself on lonely nights - I am Owen Davis, I am Owen Davis…

 

*

 

So it was on this Los Angeles skyline that the banker asked me who I was, and despite everything, I still answered Billy Connolly.

 

For a while I stared out, but seeing only hazy outlines, I couldn’t think what was supposed to make this place so special. Soon I was ushered inside to the dinner table. The group began to sit down, but I stayed still until I was the only one standing. Just as people were starting to eat, I cleared my throat, and announced, “Excuse me, I have something to say.”

 

Some guests turned, but most continued to busy themselves with the food.

 

“Be quiet everyone,” the master of ceremonies announced, “Mr. Connolly is going to tell us a joke.”

 

“A joke?” I said in my original Welsh accent, “I am not telling a joke, sir, and I am not who you think I am, I am not even Scottish. I am not Billy Connolly.”

 

Silence. It lasted a long, long time.

 

And then one man began to laugh. Someone else began to chuckle, triggering an overweight woman to do the same. Before long, the whole table was in hysterics; laughing at me heartlessly.

 

Part of me wanted to sit down but I knew I must keep standing.

 

“My name is Owen Davis,” I continued, but found my voice drowned out by the laughter.

 

Their laughter lasted so long it was as if they did not want me to continue.

 

After a while, I said again, “My name is Owen Davis.”

 

A few guests tried to laugh, but they were in the minority. The guests were now looking into their plates awkwardly, unable to do anything.

 

A large man stood up and announced, “I think you have drunk a bit much, Mr. Connolly.”

 

He walked from his sea to where I was standing and put his hand on my elbow, before adding quietly, “I think that’s enough.”

 

 

I looked down to his strong hand on my arm and found myself paralysed. I was defeated. The man pulled out a seat for me and I sat down. Within minutes the guests were enjoying artistic food and chatting loudly about their success, and that of their children. I could have wept, but it would have to wait. Even as I hated myself for the deception of what I had done- what I was doing- I knew that I would have to bear it. So I would continue to smile and wave and laugh: to exchange in mutual patronisation until the day that I was no longer needed to provide that link to celebrity that everyone seemed to crave. I would be going with the flow, at least until the flow chucked me out.

 

Each night I lie awake, thinking of what I have become. I tell myself that Jessica is also awake, thinking similar thoughts, and thinking of me. I find myself clinging to this final thread of reality, knowing that the only way to get to sleep is to repeat, over and over, in my head:

It makes it okay, it makes it all okay…

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