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Billy Connolly to be honoured with Bafta television fellowship

Scottish comedian and actor Billy Connolly (Sarah Dunn/Bafta/PA)
Scottish comedian and actor Billy Connolly (Sarah Dunn/Bafta/PA)

Sir Billy Connolly has said he does not let his Parkinson’s disease dictate who he is as he spoke of his honour at being named the recipient of this year’s Bafta Fellowship.

The 79-year-old Scottish comedian, also known as The Big Yin, will be celebrated for a career spanning more than five decades at the Virgin Media Bafta TV Awards on May 8.

Sir Billy, who was knighted in 2017 for services to entertainment and charity, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013 and retired from live performances five years later, but has continued to record programmes and make TV appearances.

Investitures at Buckingham Palace
Sir Billy with his wife Pamela Stephenson after his Buckingham Palace investiture in 2017 (PA)

Speaking to Bafta.org about the fellowship, which is the highest accolade given to recognise “outstanding and exceptional contribution” in film, games or television across their career, he said: “I have a collection of shiny things that I’m very proud of.

“But I never set out to get them or hunt them down. I don’t believe in aiming at it because if you don’t get it for whatever reason you’re all disappointed.

“Just do what you do well and you’ll find yourself a fellow before you know it.”

Sir Billy, who will turn 80 in November, joins a prestigious list of other recipients honoured for their work in the world of television which includes Sir David Attenborough, Dame Julie Walters, Sir Trevor McDonald, Dame Joanna Lumley, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Jon Snow, Sir Bruce Forsyth, Dame Joan Bakewell and others.

Born in Glasgow in 1942, Sir Billy began his working life as a welder in the Clyde shipyards before embarking on a career as a folk singer and musician alongside Gerry Rafferty in The Humblebums before developing the stand-up act that made him famous.

He is also an accomplished actor, winning praise for his role opposite Dame Judi Dench in Mrs Brown in 1997, as well as The Man Who Sued God and The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies. He is also a gifted travel reporter, making a string of popular documentaries.

In 2002, Sir Billy was presented with a Bafta Special Award and made a CBE in the 2003 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

In 2010 he was given the highest honour Glasgow could bestow upon him – the Freedom of the City.

Two years later, he was honoured with a lifetime achievement award by Bafta Scotland for six decades in showbusiness.

Sir Billy has been married to actress turned clinical psychologist and author Pamela Stephenson since 1989.

The Scottish star, who lives in the US, will not be able to attend the ceremony in person, but a recorded acceptance message will be played.

“It’s really important to work, to draw, to write, to walk silly for your grandchildren,” he told Bafta.org, saying: “Doing the same thing you’ve always done is good for you.

“I don’t let the Parkinson’s dictate who I am – I just get on with it. I’ve had a very successful career and I have no regrets at all.”

He said of the fellowship: “I am deeply honoured. Fifty films and… I can’t remember how many TV shows – as well as my stage comedy – added up to something that’s a joy to look back on. A lovely thing. I have no regrets at all.

“I had no idea the fellowship existed, but I’m told it’s a big deal!. It’s lovely to be recognised and to become a jolly good fellow.”

He credited the first of many appearances on Michael Parkinson’s chat show in 1975 with helping him to become a household name.

He said: “It was a huge breakthrough. It made me 10 times more famous than I was. I was two-thirds of the way through an English tour at the time, and the venues were half-full. As soon as I went on Parky it sold out, and it stayed sold out for the rest of my career.”

BBC Parkinson
Sir Billy chats to Michael Parkinson and Sir David Attenborough in a 1998 appearance (BBC/PA)

Emma Baehr, executive director of awards and content at Bafta, said: “We’re honoured to be awarding Sir Billy Connolly with the 2022 Bafta Fellowship Award.

“He has made a remarkable contribution to our industry from his first appearance on Parkinson in 1975, through to becoming a national treasure on stage and screen, adored by fans around the world.

“Bafta is looking forward to celebrating this award with Sir Billy in due course and thanking him again for his phenomenal career in television.”

Receiving the fellowship this year means Sir Billy is being recognised by Bafta for the third successive decade, the organisation said.

His most recent projects include TV shows including 2018’s Billy Connolly: Made In Scotland, Billy Connolly’s Great American Trail in 2019 and Gold’s Billy Connolly Does… which aired this year.

Last year he released an autobiography titled Windswept & Interesting.

Channel Four series It’s A Sin, written and created by Queer As Folk and Doctor Who screenwriter Russell T Davies, leads the Bafta television award nominations this year with 11 across the craft and television awards categories.

The Virgin Media Bafta TV Awards will be hosted by Richard Ayoade on May 8 on BBC One from 6pm.