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From wee Cuddles to Big Yin: Billy Connolly reveals a traumatic childhood secret… his nickname

© BBC / Robert Pereira HindBilly Connolly
Billy Connolly

The Big Yin has revealed his biggest embarrassment after being nicknamed Cuddles in his school playground.

Comedy legend Billy Connolly remembers his school days for many things – not least helping forge his sense of humour – but the nickname is one he’d rather forget.

“I had the worst nickname in the world at school – Cuddles,” he said. “It lasted for about a year until it mercifully went away.

“Someone had this thing they’d brought in, a printed certificate called Cupid’s Cuddling Circle, which said it entitled you to a cuddle.

“It was passed to me in class just as the teacher saw it. He told me to bring it to him, and he read it out and then said, ‘OK Cuddles, sit down’. That was me for about a year, but I was terrified it would last.”

Billy, speaking in the first episode of a new BBC Scotland series, also explains how his first school expunged him from their records after he made jokes about religion in his early material.

“I went to St Peter’s Girls’ School until I was six. The infants at the Catholic school went to the girls’ school first,” he explained.

“I went back to St Peter’s with a teatime magazine programme only to learn they had removed my name from their books because I’d been doing the religious stuff – The Crucifixion.”

Sir Billy as a schoolboy

The comic says his school days were not the happiest of his life but they were possibly the most influential.

He said: “It wasn’t pleasant, the way it is now,” said Billy. “The experience of school stays with me to this day.

“It’s traumatic and so it lent itself to comedy. The chaos and catastrophe of being a child is such great comedy material.

“It was post-war and beating your children up was pretty normal. People were beaten for the slightest thing – you would be beaten in the rhythm of the argument.

“All of it was a comedy to me. I seemed to spend my time standing apart from it, looking at it. It’s easy to deal with that way.

“Good comedians tend to have a dark past. Now when I say dark past I don’t mean you need to have something sinful or weird or criminal about your past.

“My background was the inability to be educated and it made me think differently from everyone else – and I’m grateful for it.”

Billy has taken a stroll down memory lane for a new six-part documentary series, Billy And Us, in which the 77-year-old looks back on old routines and TV appearances, giving his thoughts on the material.

One clip from a 1984 show called Open To Question, in which an audience of Scottish schoolchildren ask Billy a series of piercing questions, such as if he intended painting Glasgow and Glaswegians in such a bad light, is uncomfortable viewing for the comedian.

“I remember doing the programme, but I didn’t enjoy it,” he said.

“I’m a comedian, one guy talking into a microphone. How can I give a nation a bad name?

“When I speak to children, I always try to encourage them to think for themselves, be proud of where they come from but don’t let it be a leash around their necks.”

Alan Little was in his early 20s when he began working on Open To Question, his first job in TV, and recalls the episode well.

“The production team schooled the kids in how to ask pointed and awkward questions,” he explained. “Billy defused it very well by being funny, self-deprecating and self-interrogating. He handled it absolutely masterfully.”

© BBC
Billy takes a reporter back to the classroom at his old primary school in 1975

Billy added: “The stuff I did about childhood has had a profound effect on people. That’s not why I did it. I did it because it was funny, but it did have that effect.

“It was just a swift look at childhood, like taking a camera to it, and running it past a couple of years. There’s little truth in it, little bits of truth exaggerated out of proportion.

“I had to exaggerate it to make it acceptable to people, to get them to recognise it, that I was talking about them as well as me.

“All my life I’ve wanted to make people laugh. While I might have been shocking, I didn’t deliberately do that. It’s just what I thought would be funny.

“Looking back, by sending up what was around me, I might have ended up breaking down barriers or taking on the odd taboo.”

The new series is part of a season dedicated to Sir Billy, with the films Mrs Brown and Down Among The Big Boys also being shown, alongside another chance to see previous Billy Connolly series like Made In Scotland, Portrait Of A Lifetime, his Bafta Tribute and his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?.

Billy And Us, BBC Scotland, Thursday, 10pm