The last laugh
By Murray Waldren
WE share a birthday and a birth place. And we left the same childhood suburb in the same year. That's where coincidental connection ends. Yet nearly half a century on we are sharing afternoon tea in Beverly Hills, amid the discreet charms of the Four Seasons. Rated among the world's best hotels, it's a midway meeting point between the tightly guarded privacy of Pamela Stephenson's Hollywood Hills HQ and my more prosaic temporary accom. Her PA has driven her to our rendezvous, and she's cool and very self-possessed. I've walked down Pico and up Doheny boulevards; I'm far from cool and very footsore - it didn't look so far on the tourist map.
Los Angeles is also brassier than I prefer, but Stephenson has it covered: she's comfortable with its casual acceptance of celebrity, its determined embrace of diversity, and its emphasis on spiritual and psychological healing. She's long been a jet-setter, of course, an habitue of glamor who made her name some 30 years ago as a stage, television and movie actress, first in Australia and then in Britain and the US. By the end of the 1980s she was a world-famous comedienne, her in-yer-face zaniness coming wrapped in sexpot packaging. Her 14-film cv included roles in Superman III, The Secret Policeman's Other Ball and Les Patterson Saves the World, she'd been a cast member of prime American tv show Saturday Night Live, she was first-name friendly with the mega famous, the partner of anarchic comedian Billy Connolly, a British tabloid publicity princess and confidante of real-life royalty (who famously gate-crashed Prince Andrew's stag night together with Fergie and Princess Diana, all dressed as policewomen). She was touring the world in solo shows. She'd even sung backing vocals for her good mates Eric Clapton, Sting and Jeff Beck. And then she all but disappeared.
When she resurfaced in the late-'90s, it was as Dr Connolly, LA-based professor of psychology and registered psychotherapist with a respected practice that includes the specialised areas of hypnotherapy, trauma counselling and sex therapy. And it is definitely Dr Connolly who has turned up to talk about her imminent book, Billy, a biography of her husband. The epitome of the seriously professional, she is business-like in immaculately tailored suit - black, natch - and calm competence; the face is sculptural and delicately tailored, the trademark hair as blonde as ever. And immaculately tailored. She's smaller than her cinematic projection indicates, and surprisingly she admits to "apprehension" over our discussion - it's been many years since she sought the limelight, and back then it was always as a performer drumming up bums-on-seats interest. This time it's personal, not a performance, and patently close to home. And although not her first foray between the literary covers - there was the jokey volume How to be a Complete Bitch another lifetime ago - this is her first serious book. It has been an exhausting if invigorating process, she tells me in careful modulated tones, and not without its risks.
Few show business bios - let alone those by the subject's wife - have been as confronting or revealing. At times it has the harrowing pathos of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, at others it reads like a gritty extract from Borstal Boy. Yet throughout it all shines the resilience, endurance and heartbreaking humour of the former Glasgow shipyard welder, who turned a talent for the banjo and the biting retort into international stardom and respect.
That Billy Connolly survived let alone became an a world-famous entertainer is a minor miracle. A child of the slums deserted by his mother as a toddler, he was subjected to every abuse possible: emotional, physical, psychological, social and sexual. And having barely survived them, he as an adult subjected himself to a play hard, live harder ethos that had him flirting with addictions and self-loathing. There was alcohol and drugs, emotional roulette and a cavalier attitude to every thing of value in his life. His ticket was marked self-destruction, and early. If nothing else, Billy is a remarkable testament to the comedian's courage and sensitivity. The former not just in overcoming his trials but in allowing such an honest appraisal to be published, the latter for the same.
Pamela Stephenson's own story could hardly be more different. Her family connection with the southern lands began after an English great-great-grandfather, Captain Samuel Stephenson, was lost overboard during a mutiny melee in the Flores Sea in 1821. His teenage son sailed for Batavia to secure his father's Javan assets and soon after emigrated to New Zealand, where he married a Scottish-Maori woman with a "distinguished lineage". Stephenson's father, Neville, was an Auckland-based zoologist, her mother, Elsie Thomas, a Fijian-born biologist (her mother had been a Methodist missionary in Suva). Neville and Elsie met on a New Zealand mountainside searching for a rare species of frog, and later obtained doctoral degrees in London. In 1953 they left Auckland when Pamela was three for Sydney University appointments, and she and her two younger sisters grew up in Boronia Park, then a new development, she writes, of "sparsely landscaped desert with mound-dwelling giant red ants, few eucalypts... fierce magpies, striped goannas, funnel-webs and venomous brown and black snakes."
Stephenson had polio as a toddler and took ballet lessons initially to strengthen her limbs and then as artistic imperative. Academic success was a family requirement - she could read at three - and her cleverness meant she was "quite isolated and friendless" at the local primary school. So she played piano, sang in her father's church choir - he was the organist - and appeared on TV and with the Festival of Ballet as a child ballerina. She also learned tap, character and ballroom dancing and at 11 went to a stage school in London. "My parents had a sabbatical there and because I was two years ahead of myself at school, I think they recognised that was socially stressing and it would be beneficial for me to miss a year." Then it was off to the "very proper" SCEGGS, where schoolwork "bored her" and she spent most of her time writing plays and performing in drama projects.
In that hat-and-gloves gentility, she worked "very hard at being popular - I was not popular at all, in fact, but it was important to me because there was a vote for house captain. If you were house captain, you produced the house play. And I did achieve that. And of course," she laughs, "I put myself in the lead role." It was her only significant achievement there in a personality sense, she says. "At high school I always felt very powerless. I was definitely going through my gawky stage, and the other girls were very intimidating, most of them much wealthier, Northern Beaches types who were tanned and genuine surfers."
After high school, she "barely attended" an arts course at the university of NSW before auditioning for NIDA and paying her way there by waitressing in cafes and tending bars at nightclubs. A graduate in the Class of '71 with the likes of John Hargreaves and Ivor Kantz, she worked widely as an actress in Australia, including leading roles with the Sydney Theatre Company at the Opera House. In 1976 she left "for two or three months on a round-the-world junket to study theatre". She'd saved some money, borrowed the rest from a boyfriend and thought she had enough to get back home. By the time she'd reached Germany via Asia and Eastern Europe and spent a couple of weeks watching the Berlin Esemble every day, crossing the Berlin wall each time, she was seriously broke. "Stranded and hungry" in London, she considered her options. Acting was more appealing than waitressing so she contacted an agent who'd given her a "call me if you're ever in England" invitation. And then "ended up having a career without even intending to ..." As you do.
Initially she won rent-paying guest spots "on small tv things, including Hazzel" (where she met and later married the lead, Nicholas Ball) and a siren's role in the forgettable film Stand Up Virgin Soldiers. "I worked incredibly hard," she says, "I never took breaks." Except, that is, the Big Break when it came. She was recruited to join a team of alternative comedians in an experimental TV show. Not The Nine O'Clock News started quietly but after the first series its anarchic humour exploded in popularity. The principals, Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Stephenson, were soon lionised as the "bright young things of British comedy", while the show's writers are still among today's most successful.
Stephenson believes her enduring "conversion" to Buddhism was instrumental in her breakthrough: "(It) came into my life slightly before Not The Nine O'Clock News. It wasn't a hippie guru thing, more a group of serious young people in East London. I tended in those days to be an anxious person, a bit obsessive - that desire for precision needed some practice like meditation to calm it down, to stabilise it so I could focus on the work."
In England, she became a ubiquitous presence at celebrity events and was sought by producers for her comedic timing, acerbic wit and sheer front. Her out-there reputation was, she says now, merely a perception, important in drawing attention "but a little like an attempt at controlled improvisation in an uncontrolled setting. The zany me was more a playfulness than a personal reflection." As for Party Girl Pam, that was an "impression created by social page photos of me going to parties. It was part of the deal in terms of celebrity and I don't think I quite understood what that was all about at the beginning ... that if you were invited to go somewhere which seemed like it might be fun, the deal really was that you were promoting it." Celebrity, she says, encouraged a confusing perception of self: "In fact I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the Intra Psychic Experience of Fame. I now understand what that is all about and what I went through. It's very traumatic to suddenly come to public attention ... it seems very validating but it is a very hollow victory. Every relationship in your life changes forever, family, friends, everything ... (And) you become alienated from your true self, there's a splitting of a part of you that takes on a life of its own." She quotes Nabakov as illustration: "A stranger caught in a snapshot of myself."
Such reservations aside, she still had chutzpah enough to dye her hair pink and stand as a parliamentary protest candidate for the I Want To Drop a Blancmange Down Terry Wogan's Y-Fronts Party. "I got a lot of votes," she smiles, "I nearly retained my deposit." Then there was the time she sent in a gold G-string with lurex fig leaf to an exhibition of what stars wore at home. Or the myriad stunts that delighted the paparazzi and earned her such press qualifiers as manic, outrageous and uninhibited.
That was then, she tells me with psychoanalytic calm. Another life, another time. Besides, I was never much good as a straight actress, she confides as she pours silver-salvered tea with precision. "I think I kept trying to make all my straight parts funny actually, doing it deliberately and getting into trouble with directors. I liked the immediate feedback of getting laughs, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted instant gratification from performing."
Given that, surely she misses the spotlight and the applause? "Not for a second. I'm a big believer in people changing careers, that when something gets to where it seems like hard work, it should finish." Her change had nothing to with reaching a certain age? "That certainly wasn't making it any easier," she acknowledges, "but it wasn't such a strong factor in comedy. I just felt, well what was I going to do, I was 'stuck' in America because Billy was there, I didn't want us to have separate lives and I didn't want to a jobbing actress ... And I'd done everything I ever wanted to in comedy. I'd always been interested in psychology and I just wanted to start using my brain again. I got my PhD fairly fast because I was so ready for it, I just soaked up the material and related it to my own experiences. Then I did 3000 hours of supervised practise before I was licensed."
And now there's two Dr Connollys I mention. "Yes, and don't think there hasn't been trouble about that at home. [In July this year, Billy Connolly was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by the University of Glasgow.] Some of us had to study for years ... still, his was a life-long course, really, and he deserves every bit of recognition."
Stephenson met Connolly in 1979 when he appeared in a sketch on Not the Nine O Clock News. He virtually snubbed her, however, intimidated he later admitted by her intelligence and elan. Besides, he was the father of two, although his laddish life style and long absences from home were straining the marriage. Two years later, his marriage ostensibly over and she separated, they met again after one of his concerts. The attraction was instant and soon noticed by the tabloids, which created a scandal after they were photographed "at a lively gathering in Chelsea". Six months later his marriage ended. Despite Connolly insisting Stephenson was not involved, the press made much of his subsequent move into her Knightsbridge home.
She encouraged him to give up drinking with the help of counselling, and was pregnant in 1983 when he sued for custody of his children, awarded after a brutish accusations were exchanged in court. After Connolly's divorce in 1985, they bought a five-bedroom house in 'millionaires row' at Bray-on-Thames before moving three years later to a 7-bedroom Victorian mansion in Windsor to get more privacy. Much to the dismay of their neighbours, they renamed their home Grunt Futtock Hall (after a Kenneth Williams' character in radio show Round the Horn).
Stephenson at the time was doing Saturday Night Live in the US and Connolly started making the odd guest appearance there on shows like Letterman. In December 1989 they married "knee-deep in the turquoise sea" as part of a three-day traditional Fijian ceremony that included "spear-fishing by the bride and bridesmaids [their daughters, Daisy, Amy and Scarlett], kava-kava rituals and a feast of baked seasnake". Her children, she reports drolly, "enjoyed some aspects of the ceremony". Soon after, Connolly was offered the American TV show Head of the Class; a week after filming began, Stephenson and the girls flew to LA to give moral support. In the early '90s, after Stephenson won an Immigration Department greencard lottery "because the Irish lobby is so strong and my married name is Connolly", they bought a $US2.5 million house overlooking Universal Studios, "a queer black-painted space that Billy describes as Anthony Perkins' Psycho farmhouse ... even the front-yard trees were painted." She still carries an Australian passport, she asserts, but applied for American residency because "Billy had a four-year contract and we had to make a decision about where we put the kids to school".
Initially, Stephenson says, she resisted publisher requests to write the book. She feared it might be an exercise in exploitation and doubted that Connolly - already the victim of numerous unauthorised and erroneous biographies - would want it. "But he said if one had to be written, no one could do it better than me, that I had his trust. And I began to see how it could be done decently, in an honest way that would have healing elements. Billy, after all, is a very interesting man, psychologically extraordinarily so. And I thought I could get enough distance to write about him from a reasonable perspective." Still, I suggest, some might justifiably expect hagiography ... "There were obvious difficulties there," she agrees. "I noticed a switch in my objectivity when I came into the story - suddenly it became more difficult to pull back and say, 'well where was he actually going this decade?'
"But I think I attain some balance in looking at his early experiences, and that's what was most important, how this tremendously traumatised man managed to survive his childhood, let alone move on to where he is." It hadn't been understood by him fully, she says, even though he'd had some psychological help with his traumas. "I'd suggested that some years before I became a psychologist after he'd told me about some abuse he'd experienced. He'd read books in the area and I caught him one day in front of TV watching a program on survivors of childhood abuse and he was crying."
In the writing, she says, she kept thinking that if she were writing about somebody else, "what would I put in or leave out? I had to be sensitive, as opposed to defensive. Billy was upset by a few things but he was also surprisingly open. A couple of times I sought his opinion on material and he'd say it was okay to use it even though I thought he'd object. And there were other times when I had to beat him over the head to agree to include stuff I thought needed to be there."
I don't think I need to apologise, she says after a contemplative pause. "Understanding is probably the wifely gift I have given Billy through this book, to show understanding even though I disagree with many of the choices he has made in his life." Nevertheless, she admits, the process was "quite cathartic for him" and they had disputes over it because "his memory is so bad for dates". She had to talk to many others to verify events, and then eliminate "the hundreds of people who knew Billy really well and have never met him".
And there was the pressing need to untangle family secrets. As Connolly read extracts, "he would cry or get angry. It was an involving process but a lot of resolution of previously unresolved family business occurred during the writing. Thank God I had psychological training because I had to try to help both sides of his family come to a little more peace in their lives. Actually the book has been a catalyst for that, of which I am proud - secrets that needed to be told have been, and people have begun to talk about them. The after-effect is that it has drawn people closer together. I didn't lightly dedicate it to the McLean and Connolly families 'in a spirit of healing through understanding' ... "
Connolly, she says with finality, is "a survivor who has made it, even if he still suffers from post-traumatic stress." When I ask how will he cope with the kind of exposure he'll receive after publication, she is unequivocal. "Admirably - we've talked a lot about it, and I've sought advice from his friends. (Michael) Parkinson, for instance, believes Billy will receive a lot of support. And I'm hoping the book will galvanise more discussion and more support for people in his position. As it is, though, Billy heals so many people just by being funny - he has a fury and a humour we all connect with."
Copyright © 2001 Murray Waldren
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