Cult Movies: Billy Connolly’s Big Banana Feet is a fascinating time capsule featuring a fearless comedian

A photo of Billy Connolly on stage with his guitar during his Irish tour of 1975, as captured in the film Big Banana Feet
Billy Connolly: Big Banana Feet The iconic Scottish comedian's visit to Ireland in 1975 was captured on film

TODAY, Belfast is just another stop on most comedians’ touring itinerary, but things were very different in the mid 1970s.

As anyone old enough to remember the cultural wasteland of Northern Ireland during The Troubles will know, few artists ventured to these parts back then, and even fewer made the effort to include Belfast on their gig schedule on a regular basis.

Billy Connolly did, though, and the connection he built with audiences here was remarkable as a result.

Big Banana Feet from 1976 is a fascinating documentary following ‘The Big Yin’, both on and off stage, as he toured Ireland the previous year. Freshly restored in 2K from rare 16mm elements, it’s just made its debut at the Glasgow Film Festival and will hit both local cinema screens and the home DVD market in May.

It makes for a remarkable viewing experience: this is Connolly the comedian firmly on the cusp of breakthrough onto a global stage, working halls of lively audiences and showing off his iconic Edmund Smith-designed banana boots as he went.

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Taking the gritty, fly-on-the-wall style of DA Pennebaker’s ground breaking 1965 Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back as inspiration, director Murray Grigor and cinematographer David Peat follow Connolly everywhere, from dimly lit backstage areas and dingy dressing rooms, to fancy hotel rooms and frequent meetings with the local press.

Through it all, he exudes charm endlessly, and negotiates the ever-present political tensions of Dublin and Belfast circa 1975 with an easy-going affability that’s all his own.

Billy Connolly at an airport in 1975 in a scene from the tour film Big Banana Feet
Billy Connolly: Big Banana Feet The cameras followed the comedian everywhere

“You’re going to Belfast,” says a southern journo with genuine concern in her voice, “you could be blown up tomorrow night”.

“Aye,” says Billy, nonchalantly, “I’m frightened to think about it really”.

Frightened or not, he made the trip, and the footage of his time spent on Belfast’s mean streets in 1975 is brilliant.

A back and white image of director Murray Grigor and cinematographer David Peat with Billy Connolly on the streets of Ireland circa 1975 from the film Big Banana Feet
Bill Connolly: Big Banana Feet Director Murray Grigor and cinematographer David Peat with Billy Connolly on the streets of Ireland circa 1975

He’s not remotely concerned about Irish hecklers: “If I’ve got a microphone and I’m sober, I should beat them every time,” he tells another journalist at one point, and when a voice booms out “IRA” and starts berating him while he’s in mid-flow on stage he simply says: “C’mon up here. What are you sitting in the dark for? You must feel awful brave”.

The crowds love him from the off, and the feeling seems to be mutual most of the time. With his trusty guitar always close at hand, he mines memories of his tough Glasgow upbringing to great effect and, in more private moments, he even reveals he can pull off a fine Ian Paisley preacher voice when required.

A still showing Billy Connolly playing his guitar onstage taken from the film Big Banana Feet
Billy Connolly: Big Banana Feet The comedian in action

It’s also easy to forget how edgy his material was in this period. Tame as it may seem today his penchant for “willie” references was quite out there in 1975, but Connolly’s reaction is refreshingly simple: when an another local interviewer asks him what he would say to those who feel offended by his work he simply replies “Leave, get your money back, go away”.

That nobody did tells you everything you need to know about the man and his art.

Big Banana Feet will play selected cinemas from Friday May 10 and is released on DVD and Blu-ray by the BFI on May 20.

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