The National Theatre of Scotland has revealed plans to tour the country next year with “a love letter to the Big Yin.” Glaswegian theatremaker Gary McNair is leading the creation of Dear Billy, which was announced on the comic’s 80th birthday and is described as “a unique chance to audiences, to laugh, sing, and celebrate the man and the legend.”
The show will be based on stories collected from ordinary Scots everywhere from the streets of his native Glasgow, music venues, dance halls, bingo halls and the Clyde shipyards, where he worked as an apprentice welder, to locations around the country where Connolly has performed and visited.
Dear Billy is expected to gradually evolve as McNair and a group of musicians make their way around the country in May and June.
The tour will visit Centrestage in Kilmarnock, the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, the Ayr Gaiety, Dundee Rep, East Kilbride Arts Centre, the Heart of Hawick, the Theatre Royal in Dumfries, the Lyth Arts Centre, Strathpeffer Pavilion, Nairn Community & Arts Centre, the Byre Theatre in St Andrews, the Lanternhouse in Cumbernauld, Dunoon Burgh Hall, Perth Theatre and the King’s Theatre in Glasgow.
McNair said the idea for Dear Billy, which has been in development for more than four years, had originally emerged from suggestions that he could portray Billy Connolly on television.
He told The Scotsman: “I thought that if I was going to take on the subject of Billy that I would do it on stage, because that’s my home.
“He is such a big name that you get kind of drawn into the idea of doing a big all-singing, all-dancing biopic, but that’s not the kind of work that I make. I want to make stuff that is really personal and connects deep down with the audience.
“I actually came to Billy Connolly fairly late and only became an unashamed fan about 10 years ago. But the more I connected with him the more I realised there was this relentless back catalogue of brilliant stuff.
"When you discover him later, you realise how much of the things you love, and how many of the things you know, have roots in his stuff and how far-reaching it is.”
The production will reunite McNair with director Joe Douglas and multi-instrumentalist Simon Riddell after the trio previously collaborated on McGonagall’s Chronicles, the writer and performer’s acclaimed show inspired by Dundonian poet William McGonagall.
McNair said “I knew I wanted to do the show with Joe and Simon. We were still touring the McGonagall show at the time, we’d had such a great time working together and we’d been looking for that next project.
“I’d been chewing over the idea of making something about the Big Yin, but crucially not playing the Big Yin.
“Whenever I told people we were building this idea they would light up and straight away tell you a story about him. I just thought ‘that is the show.’"It was an opportunity to put together everyone’s Billy story, their wee moment that, when anyone mentions him, they instantly feel warm and connected to him, and think about the time they met him or what he means to them.
“It was a real spark which turned the show into this sort of mad, fragmented story where one story forms into another, which is obviously just like Billy. It became a joyous journey of collecting all these stories from people in Glasgow and across Scotland.”
NTS is dedicating the show to Connolly, who has given his seal of approval to the production and will have a seat reserved for him at each performance in case he wants to drop in.
McNair added: “Nothing would delight us more if he was to make it along one night.
"But the piece aims to say as much about who we are through the prism of Billy Connolly. Everyone will bring him into the room with them and how he makes them feel.
"I really wanted to build the show so that it could go to Lyth Arts Centre one night and the King’s in Glasgow on another. Billy belongs to everyone. Ultimately, he is a storyteller. If storytelling is at the heart of the show, then we’ve got to take it out on the road. It’s a show for everyone."
NTS artistic director Jackie Wylie said: “The thing that has been amazing about Dear Billy is that if there is such a thing as a national unconsciousness then Billy Connolly is inside.
“He has shaped us almost without us realising with the influence he has had. There is something fascinating about the extent to which Scotland is Billy Connolly and Billy Connolly is Scotland.
"It is rare to have a contemporary public figure who is so synomymous with the national character.
He is an extraordinary combination of being almost a rock and roll figure figure and this generous, warm, beautiful person who has had this quite extraordinary impact and influence on so many people.
“It makes complete sense for us as a national theatre company to create a love letter to our nation’s most loved figure. For us, it’s about creating a gift of joy. Given what is going on in the world and all around us, bringing an exploration of a human who has brougbt so much joy and so many good nights to so many people feels like a really important thing for us to do in this moment.”