Billy Connolly 'love letter' play as he turns 80

Billy Connolly
The new play will tell Billy Connolly's life story

Plans to stage a new play about the life of Billy Connolly have been unveiled as the legendary Scottish comedian celebrates his 80th birthday.

The National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) will tour Dear Billy in theatres and community centres across Scotland next year.

NTS director Jackie Wylie said it was a "love letter" and an expression of what he means to Scotland.

A seat will be saved for Billy at every show in case he wants to drop by.

The play features stories from the general public about The Big Yin.

Creator Gary McNair plans to collect even more stories about the Glaswegian funnyman while on the road to make every show different.

The show will visit Kilmarnock, Edinburgh, Ayr, Dundee, Banchory, East Kilbride, Hawick, Dumfries, Caithness, Strathpeffer, Nairn, St Andrews, Cumbernauld, Dunoon, and Perth.

It will end with a run at the King's Theatre in Glasgow.

Mr McNair said: "It's a show about Billy Connolly, but it's about the people of Scotland as much as anything else," he said.

"The show is made up of everyone's Billy story.

"Because every time you speak to someone about Billy Connolly, straight away they talk about the time they met him, or they went to see him, or what he means to them.

Sir Billy Connolly
The Big Yin started out singing in the Humblebums before developing as a stand-up comedian

"They want to share it, and we've been lucky enough to collect all those stories and put them together into this show that culminates in finding out who Billy is.

"We think we know, but we find out who he is through the prism of us."

Dear Billy features on the new programme of NTS shows for 2023.

NTS director Jackie Wylie said: "He is one of the most loved figures in the history and contemporary life of Scotland.

"We're going to leave a seat for him at every show, so that he knows he can come and learn about what he actually means to the people of Scotland."

Mr McNair told BBC Scotland he came to Billy Connolly's comedy quite late, but always knew who he was.

"It wasn't until 10 or 15 years ago I sat down and really clicked with him for the first time," he said.

"It was that wee human link and from there you realise he's the funniest man who ever lived.

"He comes at everything through that humanity and that's why I think I've grown to love him so much."

Mr McNair said some of the stories people have shared have been "moving and powerful".

"He opens a certain space in people and we're so lucky to have access to all these stories," the performer added.

Analysis box by Pauline McLean, BBC Scotland arts correspondent
Analysis box by Pauline McLean, BBC Scotland arts correspondent

There's no shortage of love for Billy Connolly.

Despite retiring from live performance in 2018, there's five decades of comedy, art, music, documentaries and books in the archives.

And despite not having lived in Scotland for decades, he's a regular visitor, most recently dropping into a coffee shop near Glasgow.

He's always been approachable, as evidenced by the number of people who came up to congratulate him as he stood in front of several huge murals commissioned for his 75th birthday.

That's what Gary McNair hopes to build on for his new show.

The timing of the launch is serendipitous, coming on the day of his 80th birthday.

As Gary McNair told me: "So happy birthday Billy, I hope you have a good one. I hope you're tucking into your bread loaf with a candle in it now."

Born in Glasgow in 1942, Sir Billy's career as a comedian, actor and musician has spanned more than five decades.

"Someone reaching a milestone like such an age adds a reflective air," said Mr McNair.

"He's been part of our culture and our life for so long.

The Scottish icon was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2013 and retired from live performances five years later.

He has continued to make tv programmes, but said his medical challenges have made it is increasingly difficult.