Billy Connolly (ITV)
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 15 September

Billy Connolly on Route 66

Billy Connolly was in London to promote his new series on Route 66. Wanderlust was invited along for the ride

Wanderlust was invited along for a sneak preview of Billy Connolly's new TV series in which he travels along America's iconic Route 66.

Billy makes the 2,488 mile journey from Chicago, via the Grand Canyon and deserts of New Mexico, the Wild West of Oklahoma and Texas and on to Santa Monica, California on his trike. He meets a host of eccentric characters along the way.

After the screening Billy took questions from the assembled media, including Wanderlust's Associate Website Editor, Peter Moore.

>> You can listen to the unabridged and uncensored version of the press conference by clicking HERE. (38mb) Be warned: As you'd expect, there is some strong language.  <<

You'll find an abridged version of the press conference, sans the thick Glaswegian accent, below. 

What was the best bit of the trip? The most iconic? The most 'Americana'?

I liked the towns with nobody in them. I loved driving past ghettos, gas stations or motels, empty with broken windows, with no-one in them. They were my favourite. You could almost hear music when you went through them.

There wasn’t any one that was more fun than the rest. They all had a quality to offer. But the empty ones were my favourite.

Why?

I love that windblown look. And it was exactly as I expected it to be. Before we went I thought, 'this could be difficult'. You think ‘Oh, Route 66' and you’ve got all the names of the towns, and it’s going to be good. And when you get there, there’s not much there and it’s kind of beige.

There’s a place called Shamrock, Texas and it should be hoovered. It’s just nothing. It’s the kind of place you’d hate to live in. You have to scramble around to find something to say about the place.

So when you come to the empty ones they actually make a bigger statement than a beige one where the people are all sitting looking at their walls.

The nothingness seems to have made an impact too...

That’s all part of the joy of it. The nothingness, the huge space between towns, the huge nothing, that was nice too. The trains always seemed to be going at the same speed as me. There were a couple of times when I got the old “wooh-wooh” (imitates train whistle) and I would wave.

There was one moment, the lens wasn’t wide enough, where I was driving along and there was a truck on my left and a train on my right and we were all going along at the same time and it was smashing. It was such an American moment, you know. I loved that. That was all I really wanted to show – that America of your dreams and the absurdity of it.

Every town you came to there was a song for it. Did you find yourself singing as you were riding along?

That happens all over America. You get to Chattanooga and you start singing. It happens to me all the time. There are no songs about Falkirk. But on Route 66 there were quite a few towns with songs.

How did you cope with the practicalities of travelling?

You mean on the bike? Well I’m quite used to it. The weather doesn’t bother me. It’s a big adventure. And I’ve been on the road most of my adult life. I was a motorcyclist when I was young. I’ve got a trike of my own. Having a wet crotch doesn’t bother me much. I’m quite used to it. In fact I’m coming to quite like it.

So it didn’t bother me at all.

We had a great crew. We all got on extremely well, all of us. Which was kind of disconcerting because usually when I’m making a production I’m delighted to find someone I hate. I get a certain energy from it. “Yeah, yeah that bastard. I’ll keep my eye on him!” But there wasn’t one and I thought, “This might be difficult.” We got on like a house on fire.

Even the ones who would go away and come back. They’re usually a problem – “It’s alright for those bastards, nipping back to London every five minutes and we’re in Oaky Fenoaky eating fucking hamburgers!” But we had a brilliant crew. I think I even say it towards the end, thank my crew.

But when it came to the physical schlepping around on a bike, it was OK. I was mentally prepared for it because it’s part of the deal.

You went into the Queen’s Church in Chicago. How did you find that experience? Black churches are very lively with the gospel singing.

It was a gas. From the first second. A man gave me a big hug going into the aisle – and I thought ‘Woah, what’s this?!”

Anyway, I got into the aisle beside this man. There was a woman who sounded like Aretha Franklin blowing away in front of me and Jamie our cameraman came boogieing in the middle with the camera on his shoulder. It was one of the highlights of the filming for me – I would love that to be on the film, the congregation singing, “Oh my Lord! Oh my Lord!” and Jamie comes mincing down the aisle. That should be in it!

Anyway, this old guy says, “Do you want a bible?” And I said, “Sure, yeah.” And he went away and got me a bible and found me the place that the minister was reading from. The minister wanted people who hadn’t been 'saved' yet to come up and be saved. And I haven’t been saved. And the guy on my right said, “Do you want to be saved?” And I said, “Not particularly” and he was really nice about and said, “That’s OK” and we all hugged each other.

The thing I found about (Queen's Church) was although it’s history is dark and it’s embedded in slavery and escaping from the south and all that, it was amazingly comfortable being a white guy, being a hairy white guy without Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes on. They made me incredibly welcome.

The show was very respectful. You were very respectful to everyone you met.

Over the years a lot of people have said, “God, I love the way you take the piss out of all those people that you meet. “ But I don’t! I never have done! It’s because they’re light-hearted that people think I’m taking the piss.

I love to show people at their best. Just give them plenty of rope and let them speak for themselves. Like the man with the bottles in his garden. I thought he was a beautiful man. And I wish you could have seen all of that because he had made his own kitchen which was like a real Barnes Wallis nightmare. There were all kinds of taps that you had to turn to get hot water. It’s very difficult to describe to you, but it was a real plumber's nightmare. And his wife was so tolerant. You could see her longing for a patio.

Like with the tornado sequence. The optimism in the tornado sequence and the daughter of the house had found her engagement ring and I said, “Your mother must be devastated?” and she said, “Well, no. She’s going to get the house how she wanted it in the first place. She wanted a wall over there.”

Was there anyone you didn’t like?

That guy with the swastika. The second-hand dealer, the car boot guy. The way he had no qualms about the swastika but was all shifty and dodgy about the Obama car sticker. I thought, “Fuck, have you got it wrong!”

“Oh you might not like this,” he said, moving the cover away from the Obama car sticker.

But he didn’t say that about the swastika. He had an SS dagger and a swastika. I didn’t like him. I didn’t trust him. I’ve never met a Nazi I liked.

Route 66 is so embedded in our imaginations. Was there anything that surprised you as you travelled along it?

The fact that people don’t care about Route 66. Americans just don’t care about it. They like the song, and that’s fine, but they don’t want to do anything about it. There are occasional people like Angel the hairdresser who’s tried very hard for his town, to have it remapped. But the biggest surprise was that nobody gives a shit about it.

And I found that kind of sad. If you think about it against the West Highland Way, the walk up the west side of Scotland. Well that’s just a path and it’s got no history but people guard it with their lives, volunteer to keep it in good shape.

But there’s Route 66, with Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry and everybody. They only call it route (as in root) because of the song. Every other American calls it a ‘rout’.

What other big journeys would you like to do?

I think I’d like to do some small journeys. I don’t think big is necessarily better. We did a Comic Relief programme in Nairobi, in Kibera, the big slum there. We never left it and it was immensely powerful. I think you can concentrate on something and make it just as good. The smallness can be amazing.

What did you imagine as a little boy, when you imagined Route 66?

I thought it was full of jukeboxes and cowboys and guys on motorbikes. And it is.

Any other highlights?

A place called Cuba, Missouri. It had a place that sells all these headstones and they are the most hideous ones you ever saw. I don’t know how they etch the pictures on – it’s all waterfalls and wolves.

It also had this great restaurant with a sign that said “Smoking allowed” and I was so happy. I wouldn’t smoke in a restaurant. I smoke cigars and I wouldn’t smoke in a restaurant, but how wonderful to be away from those (people who wave in front of their noses). I had a woman do that once and I hadn’t even lit up!

I said, “That’s some fucking sense of smell you’ve got!”

(But this restaurant) was lovely. There was something just so American about it. It was a real pancake kind of house. If you asked for eggs you got four. And across the road was a railway terminal – “woo-wooooo!” Smoking allowed! I thought, "I’m home!"

It’s the only place I’ve seen the sign, “Smoking allowed”.

Maybe that’s why the gravestone guy was so close.

Billy ConnollyBilly Connolly's Route 66 will be aired on ITV in September. You can order the book about his iconic journey on Amazon now.



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