Interview: Billy Connolly on life among the giants of film

He's rubbed shoulders with film legends. Now welder-turned-comic genius Billy Connolly is playing a king. He reflects on the odd life of a movie star to Tony Earnshaw.

The old maxim holds true: inside every comedian is a straight actor trying to get out.

Billy Connolly admits as much to me as he plugs his new outing as a thesp – a contemporary re-working of Gulliver's Travels starring Jack Black.

Connolly strides into the cinema where the interviews are about to take place accompanied by fellow cast members Emily Blunt and James Corden. Jack Black is there, too. But most questions go in the direction of Connolly. Black sits on the sidelines and watches a master at work.

Now pushing 70, Billy Connolly has made more films than most people realise.

He made his debut opposite Richard Burton 32 years ago. In the years since he's co-starred with Liam Neeson, Willem Dafoe, Michael Caine, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench and Tom Cruise.

The Burton film was called Absolution and was based on a play by Anthony Shaffer, the creator of Sleuth. Most people haven't heard of it; fewer still have seen it.

Connolly played Blakey, a free-spirited troubadour

with a motorcycle, banjo and a plentiful supply of marijuana who ends up corrupting the students at a stuffy Catholic school where Richard Burton is a stern priest-cum- schoolmaster.

Typically of Shaffer, Absolution contains much game-playing among the principals, with the knife being twisted by Dai Bradley, the breakthrough star of Kes. As well as being berated by Burton and beaten up by local coppers (Yorkshireman Brian Glover is one), Blakey meets a nasty end.

I ask Connolly if he ever thought he would have enjoyed longevity in films when he first stepped before the cameras some 30 years ago.

"Yes," he says with a smirk. "I'm glad you saw Absolution. There was a huge financial argument so it didn't appear for years. It was a lovely wee movie.

"I sang and played my banjo. (Burton was a] nice man. The funny thing is, I was drinking then and he was sober. It was strange. (Absolution] is what made me want to do the straight roles. The vast majority of the stuff I've done is straight."

Connolly speaks the truth. He's drifted through stories about bare-knuckle scrappers (The Big Man), over-the-hill rockers (Still Crazy), 19th century warriors (The Last Samurai) and quirky FBI thrillers (The X-Files 2).

Then, of course, there was the revelation of Mrs Brown, where he played Highland ghillie John Brown to Judi Dench's grief-stricken Queen Victoria.

"Acting is a kind of thing I always wanted to do," he adds, "But I'm a wee bit limited so I'm not surprised it's gone the way it has.

"I've had a wonderful film career when you consider where I come from and what I do. I'm delighted. I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever.

"I try not to tell people I was turned down as a penguin and stuff like that. What's that penguin thing? Happy Feet. They wanted me as a Presbyterian penguin. I wouldn't go to Australia to talk about it so I didn't get it."

Gulliver's Travels is not one of Connolly's more testing roles. In truth he has little to do except adopt a regal pose as the king.

He's surrounded by a gaggle of British comic talent – James Corden, Catherine Tate – and swaps banter with Jack Black.

Sitting alongside Connolly is an adoring Corden. For the 32-year-old star of Gavin & Stacey, professional life doesn't get better than being paid to stand behind Billy Connolly and utter a few inanities. Corden giggles a lot and tugs a metaphorical forelock whenever Connolly speaks.

"It's terrific to be the king," laughs Connolly. "I've been the king for a long time and it's an absolute joy to swan around. So little is asked of you. You get the sparkliest uniform and a sword and you just swan around. It's fabulous.

"I tried to be a kind of Prince Charles-ey king. I think if he was the king he would be a jolly, casual sort of king. I rather like him."

Asked if he read Swift's novel, Connolly's face crinkles up into a giveaway smile. He's about to offer a big, fat lie. He knows it. I know it. Corden knows it. So we're all in on the secret...

"I'm seldom far from the book," says Connolly with a cheesy grin. "Catherine Tate gave me a copy when the movie was finished as a present, which was good because she was the reason I did the movie. The rest of the actors I couldn't give a s*** about..."

Corden explodes into laughter and Connolly puts his arm around his shoulders.

"James has a wonderful technique any time he comes up and does anything with you; as he leaves he touches you somewhere he didn't touch you the last time.

"It was a joy for me, I was in hysterics laughing, wondering where I was gonna be stroked!"

The conversation winds its way back to Absolution. Connolly is amazed that I've seen it. Back in London to watch wife Pamela Stephenson compete on Strictly Come Dancing, he is feeling nostalgic for old times and old faces.

Unprompted, he launches into a story. "I was making a commercial (in 1984] and the make-up guy was the make-up guy from Absolution.

"He said: 'Richard Burton's in town. He's making (the film of] 1984 and he's at

the Dorchester. But he's leaving for Switzerland this week.'

"I had to take my daughter out – she was only a little 12-year-old – so I said 'Come on with me' and I wrote a letter to him. Just a daft letter. I gave it to the guys at the door, gave them a couple of quid and said, 'See he gets it'. He went to Switzerland and he died in his house, like, three days later.

"I went to the premiere of 1984 and I met Sally, to whom he was married. And she said 'Oh, I'm glad we met because he read your letter in the car as you – as Billy Connolly'.

"God, I liked him. Although I wasn't there, it's a memory I treasure."

Gulliver's Travels (PG) is on nationwide release.

Gullivers down the ages

Jack Black isn't the first to play Gulliver on the big screen:

1977: Richard Harris starred as Gulliver in one of the first films to mix live and animated action.

1965: Japan's take on the book saw Gulliver as an astronaut fighting evil robots.

1939: The first American animated feature film was a musical version of Gulliver's Travels. Originally they planned to cast Popeye in the role of Gulliver. Thankfully they eventually saw sense.

1902: In the early days of film, the French made a four-minute, hand-drawn, silent film called Le Voyage De Gulliver A Lilliput Et Chez Les Geants, which you can still find on YouTube.