Peel slowly and see... The return of Billy Connolly: Big Banana Feet

At the beginning of his trail-blazing comedy career Billy Connolly made a fly-on-the-wall film of his stand-up tour of Dublin and Belfast during the Troubles. But for decades it’s been impossible to see.

Big Banana Feet (1977)BFI

In 1975, Billy Connolly broke out as a British comedy star. The ‘Big Yin’, a former Glaswegian welder-turned-folk-singer-turned-comedian, had already garnered attention thanks to live albums and stand-up performances, but an uproarious appearance on the Parkinson TV talk show, and, in November, a number one hit with his Tammy Wynette parody song ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ took him to another level. It also took him and his stage show, wearing his then-trademark giant banana shoes, to both Dublin and Belfast, a potentially dangerous move at the height of the Troubles.

Directors Patrick Higson and Murray Grigor, alongside cameraman David Peat, documented this historic trip in a film, shot on grimy 16mm, fittingly titled Billy Connolly: Big Banana Feet. Shot in the fly-on-the-wall style of Direct Cinema documentary pioneers D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, it intimately captures Connolly on stage and off, at a crucial moment in his life and career. Released theatrically in 1977, the film had since basically disappeared, numerous celluloid copies assumed lost forever. Grigor knew of one he had tucked away in California, and then BFI film archivist Douglas Weir located another copy on eBay in 2019, paying just £50 to obtain it.

Now painstakingly remastered, the film premiered at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival and is being released in cinemas and on DVD and Blu-ray this month. Co-director Grigor sat down to reflect on the film’s genesis and its unexpected renaissance nearly half a century on.

How did Big Banana Feet disappear for so long?

Murray Grigor: The dreadful [British distributor] Brent Walker, famous for nefarious activities, burned every [celluloid] copy they had, to retrieve the silver. Incredible! But fortunately, I’d left a copy at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California. They were very hard to deal with and wanted 200 bucks every time we showed it, so that wasn’t going to work. But a wonderful man, national film ‘ferret’ Douglas Weir, found one on eBay that had been in the Falklands during the war. So, I can imagine through the war they were watching Billy Connolly!

Was the film intact as you had finished it?

Well, we combined [the Falklands copy] with another one that was found in Australia, and my one from California. We lost a lot of sequences – not lost, but they’d moved some things around – but we got it back more or less to how it should be now. And of course it looks far, far better. Film stock wasn’t so fast way back in 1974 or 75. Billy was wearing a completely black suit, on a black set. So, all you saw occasionally were the [banana] feet.

How did you originally get the job to shoot the documentary?

It’s a longer story than that, because we started [filming] The Humblebums, the band Billy had with Gerry Rafferty. The big breakthrough for us was The Great Northern Welly Boot Show (1972), which Billy wrote with a friend. That really got going, and we got to know him a little bit then. I read somewhere that Billy was going to Dublin and Belfast at the height of the Troubles and, coincidentally, we were asked by his agent if we were interested in doing some commercials, but they were so boring. On the way out of the meeting, I said, “How about a film about Billy in Ireland?” And the agent did an incredible double-take and said, “How much?” I said “£10,000.” For me, it’s incredible to think that we made it for that.

Big Banana Feet (1977)BFI

This meant going to Ireland, and specifically Northern Ireland, at the height of the Troubles. How concerned were you about safety?

Billy certainly was, but he was right in the firing line, as it were. Obviously, Dublin was very welcoming and we managed to get tickets for a small plane to take us up to Belfast. And [on the flight], Billy suddenly goes, “This man Connolly is a blasphemer!” And he’s doing this amazing impression of [Democratic Unionist Party leader] Ian Paisley ranting, to get rid of nerves. Anyway, the Belfast gig definitely went down well, and was really special. Though, apparently, there were 25 guns taken off different people [attending]; all the spectrum of violence on both sides were there. But we were not allowed to film any of that.

Connolly’s material might seem relatively restrained by today’s standards, but it was considered ‘vulgar’ by some people at the time. What were your feelings about it?

It was vulgar! America was where stand-up really started, but Billy was one of the first to do it in Britain like that. And there weren’t necessarily jokes, it was more observations about life, which was extraordinary. In Dublin, he was saying things you just don’t say. My late wife, Barbara, said, “You know, he’s actually a therapist.” He’s talking about all the things everyone never admits and never sees on television. So that was very interesting. To see little ladies with tea-cosy hats laughing at these absolutely forbidden words, it was great.  

Billy Connolly being filmed on 16mm for Big Banana Feet (1977)BFI

In terms of your filming style, presumably you were inspired by the Direct Cinema movement, films like D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back (1967)?

Oh, it slavishly copies that. I met both Pennebaker and Leacock. Dont Look Back was a great film. Billy gave us complete free access, he’s just a fantastic [guy]. We really hit it off. But he was spiralling a bit because he had to leave Glasgow. The Scots, we don’t like success. They want to take you down. But Americans, of course, can’t get enough success.

How do you feel it holds up today, both the comedy and the film itself?

MG: I think it’s just a moment in time. He’s just at the cusp of being famous and he’s suddenly letting it all hang out.

Big Banana Feet is in cinemas on 10 May and out on Blu-ray and DVD on 20 May.