Classic Interview: Julian Clary

julian clary

Julian Clary starts his new live tour, Position Vacant, this weekend. Details here. This interview, first published in The Times, dates from his last tour, Lord of the Mince, but, as you can tell from the title there may be a degree of "creative/artistic overlap". As someone tweeted when Clary was on Jonathan Ross last week flirting with the men in the audience in pretty much the same way he has been doing since he was calling himself The Joan Collins Fan Club in the late 1980s, "Good to see Julian C taking a radical departure with his material..."

But you don't go to Julian Clary gigs expecting interpretative dance. Position Vacant is probably going to be full of the usual glorious lashings of smut and innuendo plus costume changes and plenty of audience particpation fun. It is what Clary does best and few do it better. After a dip in his profile he has bounced back with a vengeance since his appearance on Strictly Come Dancing. Always an interesting audience at his live shows – straight, gay, grannies and trannies. There is only one Julian Clary...


There are no second acts in American lives, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum. In British comedy, they do things differently. In 1993 it looked as if Julian Clary’s profile had peaked. But now the gag-cracking doyen of double entendres is about to take those innuendos on the road again.

It was Clary’s pre-watershed joke about a backstage sexual act with Norman Lamont, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, that contributed to his profile slipping. The star of Channel 4’s Sticky Moments was not blackballed, but he did not quite scale the expected heights. In 2004, his lumbering quickstep made him an audience favourite on Strictly Come Dancing: he came third in the final, but first in audience’s affections: “God bless the public,” he sighs graciously.

Five years on we are sitting in his elegant Camden Town flat with his two lively dogs. Since Strictly he has been busier than ever, penning two novels, a candid warts-and-all autobiography and starring as the MC in a stage version of Cabaret.

But there is a niggle about his upcoming jaunt: “I did a corporate gig last year and was so enthused that I phoned my manager and said: ‘Let’s go on tour.’ Then I went: ‘Oh, dear.’ ” Nerves have attacked Clary before, leading to panic attacks. “Though they could happen in a supermarket queue. Anywhere really.” When he performed his new show, Lord Of The Mince, at the Edinburgh Festival in August, you could sometimes almost smell his unease. Why put himself through it?

“I missed it,” he says in soft-spoken tones. “I’ve done other bits and pieces, but I’m 50 and I wanted to see if anyone remembered me.” It seems more about challenge than ego. “You wonder if you can still do it or if you have had your day. Since Strictly I like daring myself to do things.”

In his live show he enters on Rollerblades and, in Edinburgh, looked like he could topple over at any moment. “Sooner or later there will be a raked stage and I’ll end up in the stalls.” But it was worth it for the feeling after the curtain went down: “You feel purged. Performing is like an enema.” He seems to relish making things difficult. “I always wonder if I’ll get through a show. I don’t go in for self-confidence, but what’s the risk? Learning to say ‘yes’ can be an interesting experience.”

Clary is a mass of contradictions — an introverted show-off, with a flat in bustling NW1 and a house once owned by Noel Coward in Kent, where Paul O’Grady is a neighbour. He loves both the rustic idyll and the passing life of the city, always moving, occasionally pausing to vomit on his doorstep on a Friday night. “Sometimes I open the shutters in my kimono and people on the bus see me.”

He is not big on self-analysis, but ask what shaped him and the answer is immediate: “St Benedict’s School.” At the Roman Catholic public school in Ealing he was bullied by pupils. One master said that Clary brought it on himself with his effeminate behaviour. His response was to ratchet up the camp: “I decided I would make all these things into assets and have people applaud me for the very things that made my life difficult. I decided to sell myself that way and it doesn’t seem to go away.”

This stance made him a star on the Eighties alternative comedy circuit, but Clary would never have predicted that it would bring him national treasure status. His mainstream resurgence has attracted a fanbase who may not be prepared for his smut. Along with his loyal gay following, middle-aged, middle-class couples love him now: “I’m so well-spoken, maybe they think I’m a nice young man. A lot of people who have seen me onstage are getting their horizons broadened.” He delights in plucking heterosexual men out of the audience to help him to remove his skates. Revenge, perhaps, on the playground bullies.

He is a little fuller-faced nowadays, but it is hard to believe that he is 50: “Too old for Alcopops, too young for Midsomer Murders.” Botox may have helped: “I was first in the queue when that started. I had lines that made me look cross all the time. It’s not very painful, but you do feel the needle crunching against the skull.” Despite wanting to cling to his looks, he is happy about waving goodbye to his youth. “Life sorts itself out. I don’t have the energy to go to parties just at the time that I don’t want to go to parties.”

If the filthy one-liners remain, in one crucial way this tour will differ from his first flush of fame. Back then it sometimes seemed as if the gig was something that interrupted the partying. “We used to have ‘meetings’ and there were two kinds of meetings. A ‘meeting in the dressing room’ would be a joint, an ‘executive meeting’ would be cocaine. I saw a recording of my 1991 Aldwych Theatre show where I’d had a joint before the first half and was very slow. I don’t know what I took in the interval, but I was four times faster.”

He still drinks, but not on duty. “I don’t know what we will do now: have a cup of tea in the hotel bar?”

There is a contentment to Clary these days, which may be connected to his relationship with Ian, an ad man. “He works in London and I see him mostly at weekends in Kent. He lives in South London — and obviously I can’t be seen there,” he says, mock-haughtily.

The only blot in recent months has been the suicide of his nephew, Christian, in Majorca in the summer. After agreeing to discuss it, his eyes fill and he halts, simply saying: “It’s difficult for everyone in the family . . . ”, and falling silent.

Wiping a tear, Clary says that he would like to cement his relationship with Ian: “We are thinking of getting married, but we do not want a civil partnership. We want equal opportunities, not a special thing for gay people.”

Clary has always been quietly political, pro-Tony Benn and Peter Tatchell. As a student, he did his dissertation on the radical playwright Edward Bond. How does he reconcile hardline agitprop with primetime campery? “You can do lots of different things,” he insists. “My life hasn’t been an endless stream of buggery.”


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