In December, 1989, Alex Frackleton attended a surprise 50th birthday party for Scots folksinger Danny Kyle in the small town of Strathaven, outside Glasgow. About thirty people were hanging around in the bar downstairs while Danny Kyle performed upstairs.
Alex is now a comedian. Back in 1989, he was a poet.
“Why are we waiting?” Alex asked.
“Billy is coming,” came the reply. “We need to wait.”
“Of course,” Alex told me yesterday, “the penny hadn’t even gone into the slot and I had no idea who he meant, so I just stood there with my pint waiting for this guy called Billy, who was quite obviously fucking late, to turn up. A few minutes later the bar door opens and in walks Billy Connolly with his banjo case.”
Alex continues the story…
* * *
I’m introduced to Billy as a poet and we talk about the poets we like and our conversation takes us to William Topaz McGonagall, whom I love because he is so bad that he’s just brilliant – a comic genius without ever realizing it.
“I’d love to do something on old Topaz,” says Billy.
“Like a routine?” I ask.
“Naw,” says Billy. “Naw. I’d like to do something that honours him.”
“Perform one of his poems?”
“Naw, I could never perform one of his poems. Not on stage. It wouldn’t fit in with what I do live.”
“But,” I asked Billy, “if you were to perform one of his poems which one would you do?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” says Billy. “The Tay Bridge Disaster!”
“A classic!” I said.
“Indeed!” said Billy.
It’s time for Danny’s surprise, so we all troop upstairs and burst through the doors just as the applause for his last song begins to fade; then we all start singing Happy Birthday to You.
Danny, always the showman, introduces all of us to the audience of about two hundred, because all the surprise guests are talented musicians and singers, except me: I can’t sing to save to myself, let alone play a musical instrument.
He then introduces Billy – who goes up and does about twenty minutes of then-unheard comedy material about the G-spot. People are falling off their seats laughing and I am mesmerized because, while I had heard him on LP record, I had never seen the man perform before. This is a master craftsman at work. Billy finishes to thunderous applause and Danny comes back on stage and says:
“Thank you, Billy. Thank you very much indeed. Now, ladies and gentlemen, my next guest is a young man whom I’ve had the pleasure of watching over the last half-dozen years mature into a fine poet and performer…”
I look at him and I think: You utter bastard! Putting me on after Connolly, you cunt!
“Will you please welcome on stage the Very Poet, Alex Frackleton…”
I have to go up there. I don’t want to but I must because this is now my job and it’s my friend’s 50th birthday. As I pass Danny on the stage, we have eye contact and I’m sure he sees my fear, confusion, betrayal, bewilderment, not to mention the fucking panic in my eyes – but he just smiles and gives me a big, matey wink, as if to say: Aye, I’ve landed you right in the shit here – Deal with it.
I perform my poem How To Be An Individual.
There are a number of gags throughout Individual but the best one comes about two thirds of the way in. I turn my head left of stage and Connolly is pissing himself laughing.
Nothing will ever take that memory away from me. It means that much to me.
I finish to rapturous applause and I exit the stage.
Billy tells me: “That was fucking fabulous, Alex!”
“Naw,” says Billy. “That really was superb! You should perform The Tay Bridge Disaster! You’d bring it to life!”
“I’ll think about it.”
I never did get around to doing it.
I’ve been performing as a comedian here in the Czech Republic for the last four years and, while my comedy has been received well-enough for me to have repeat bookings at the European Theatre Festival… maybe I should take Billy’s advice and bring The Tay Bridge Disaster to life. Looking back and telling you about that 1989 event today, I have realised I am far, far more comfortable as a performance poet than as a comedian.
Billy did eventually perform The Tay Bridge Disaster in the 1994 BBC TV series Billy Connolly’s World Tour of Scotland.