Life with Billy the Beastie was no joke. 'It’s the drink – or me' I told him: Pamela Stephenson on the heartache beyond the smiles
06:54 GMT, 17 September 2012
Watching live comedy shows, I tended to be analytical rather than swept up in the performance. But with Billy, I left the theatre clutching my hurting stomach.
He was angry as hell, but beneath it all there was a philosophical angst – not to mention a palpable, deep wound. When he talked about his father smacking him in a rhythmic fashion to match his diatribe, I felt enormous empathy towards him, even though I was laughing hard along with everyone else.
He touched everyone in the room in a most powerful fashion, and I knew then he was a genius. So I’m afraid it was very hard to resist when he popped the question: ‘Come to my hotel room and save my life . . . ’ He was quoting songwriter Loudon Wainwright but, in a way, he meant exactly that.
Paradise: Pamela Stephenson with Billy Connolly on their wedding day on the island of Fiji in 1989
We fell in love very quickly. When I wrote my husband’s biography, Billy, I naturally put the focus on his early story of abuse, and on his courage and survival.
But I too was an abandoned child, so you’ll understand how fitting it was that we should have met. Joined at the wound, we were. But there was one really big problem; the man drank.
In a way, it was impressive; I had never seen a man imbibe as many whiskies as he did that night and still be able to make a girl happy.
At first, I thought his excessive drinking was just nerves, but I soon discovered he was not only adorable, loving and vulnerable, he was also traumatised and bent on self-destruction. I kept flip-flopping between thinking: ‘This man is a nightmare’ and ‘I want to have his babies’.
My attitude towards him waxed and waned depending on whether he was drunk or sober. He was unpredictable and, most alarmingly, under the influence of quite a lot of alcohol he seemed to undergo a personality change, becoming a rather mean version of himself.
I jokingly referred to that dark alter ego as ‘beastie’, but it was no joke. I suppose I found his complexity fascinating, but it was also scary. Eventually, I decided he was too hard to handle and ran away to Bali at Christmas in 1980.
'Mortally bored': Pamela – the new doctor – with her family at her graduation after obtaining a PhD in 1996
After a month or so of agony, I returned to his side. I’d had no experience of alcohol addiction, so I read Alcoholics Anonymous’s The Big Book. I gave him an ultimatum: ‘It’s drink or me.’ Fortunately, Billy changed his life to a sober one. To this day, he has not touched alcohol or drugs for nearly 30 years. Billy never entered a rehab programme.
After the final series of Not The Nine O’Clock News, in March 1982, John Lloyd created a solo TV show for me. My diary reveals that I was struggling with the public attention, and with another, familiar issue: my eating disorder.
Since leaving drama school, I’d been struggling with a form of bulimia (without the vomiting). I would purge by severely restricting my food until a filming day, then binge afterwards. I told myself that it was a professional necessity to keep my weight very low. But it would have been far healthier to have maintained a constant weight via a nutritious, low-calorie programme, coupled with exercise, rather than the binge–purge cycle I followed for many years.
Billy already had two children, Jamie and Cara, who were living with their mother in Scotland. I met them fairly early in my relationship with Billy. They were delightful, shy children, although naturally troubled by their parents’ divorce.
I met them in the summer of 1982, outside Drury Lane Theatre when I was in The Pirates Of Penzance.
I remember my hair was short and spiky (chopped for a cover of Cosmopolitan magazine) and I remember wearing leopard-print stretch trousers and a T-shirt that said ‘F*** Art – Let’s Dance!’
Perhaps it was not the best introduction to a future stepmother but I can’t be sure because, to this day, I have not managed to get anything out of them about what impression I made. But I quickly came to adore them, although I was concerned about the upheaval in their lives.
Instant attraction: Pamela with Billy, who she has been married to for more than 30 years
It was pretty messy. And public. And, unfortunately, the children were dealing with a number of other significant problems. Jamie had not attended school for nearly a year, and Cara was miserable for reasons connected with Billy’s ex-wife Iris.
She was unable to care for herself, let alone children. Just before Daisy was born, Billy and I decided to seek custody of Jamie and Cara, a process that was enormously stressful.
I felt terribly sorry for Iris, and did my best to get her help. She eventually moved to Spain, became estranged from her children, and struggled greatly right up until her death in 2010.
When Daisy arrived in 1983, Jamie and Cara cooed over her and my worries about whether I was up to creating a happy ‘blended family’ began to evaporate. Billy and I were finally starting to settle down.
Amy was born in July 1986, and Scarlett turned up two years later. To my surprise, I discovered I loved being a mum. I now had the opportunity to be the kind of mother I would have wanted for myself.
Billy and I married in Fiji. He wore a kilt made of paper bark and the rest of us wore sarongs
We moved out of London. We painted the walls in mad colours and filled the place with rock ’n’ roll art. We had front gates designed to look like the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
We even had a bed with a built-in alarm clock that triggered small aeroplanes zooming round it to the tune of Those Magnificent Men. Oh yes, we were a zany duo.
Daisy is a truly adorable creature: bright, funny and quirky. She is outgoing and loves to tease me. Now 28, she works as a nursery-school assistant. I don’t usually talk about her publicly – or any of the children, really – but Daisy has certain challenges in various areas: learning, eye-tracking and large motor skills.
When she was about four, we noticed she did not achieve certain developmental milestones.
Once we settled in LA, we found her an excellent school for kids with special needs.
When you have a child with special needs, there’s the added challenge of being an advocate for her and finding your way to services and the right treatment protocol.
Our middle child Amy is 26 – there’s a natural-born actress! She is not in showbusiness but she was a diva aged three.
Amy also had some challenges, but she has gone on to achieve excellence. As for Scarlett, she is now 23 and a gifted artist.
In 1989 Billy and I married in Fiji. He wore a kilt made of painted paper bark and the rest of us wore sarongs. Barry Humphries gave me away, and two Scottish bagpipers led me along the beach to a strangely nervous Glaswegian.
In accordance with local custom, the marriage took three days. On the first day, I was told I had to prove I could provide for Billy by catching a bag of fish with a spear. This I did, but I have a strange feeling someone was pulling my leg.
There was a bit of drama. We had the most enormous row the night before we made our vows. Everyone must have heard him shouting. But the next day he made up for it by being so moved he cried when I approached him.
I had a tropical garland in my hair and an exotic gold necklace given to me by Shakira Caine (Michael Caine’s wife) from her personally designed jewellery collection.
I suppose my parents were miffed that they were not invited. When my mother saw my wedding photos, she did let me know how amusing she thought it was that I was such an old bride, being given away by a not-exactly-youthful surrogate in the shape of Barry Humphries. Hell, I was only 38, but I guess, for her generation, we were positively ancient.
Pamela Stephenson 2012. The Varnished Untruth by Pamela Stephenson is published by Simon & Schuster, priced 18.99. To order your copy at 16.99 with free p&p, please call the Review Bookstore on 0843 382 1111 or visit mailshop.co.uk/books