‘It’s a funny old world, isn’t it?’ ponders Julian Clary, as he contemplates his forthcoming holiday in the south of France, playing poker and drinking champagne with his good friend, Dame Joan Collins.
A funny old world, indeed. When Clary made his name on the 80s alternative cabaret circuit as The Joan Collins Fan Club, trading smutty, NSFW gay innuendos in PVC fetish gear, Ms Collins was less than amused, to say the least, issuing a cease and desist order in a bid to stop him using her name. The pair eventually bonded while appearing together in Dick Whittington at the Birmingham Hippodrome five Christmases ago – though, even then, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.
‘It was a little bit frosty to begin with,’ admits Clary. ‘I think she thought The Joan Collins Fan Club was some sort of send-up of her. But we were there six, seven weeks, and slowly we thawed out. I really like her. She’s got such energy, and she’s just fun to be around.’
The friendship is indicative of Clary’s wider evolution from comedy provocateur – let’s not forget he started out in an era when Margaret Thatcher’s government actively sought to prevent the promotion of homosexual relationships – to family entertainer and, in his own words, ‘national trinket’.
A regular on such ITV fare as This Morning and Give A Pet a Home, who has sashayed across the Strictly dancefloor and been the face of a household detergent, Clary has also just published his first children’s book, The Bolds – a notion that might have caused him to arch an immaculately plucked eyebrow 25 years ago.
‘It’s something that happens over time because, if you want to keep going, you’ve got to diversify,’ he says of his gradual shift into the mainstream. ‘I still do a tour of my filth every couple of years, but then I can do Just A Minute, I can do panto, I can write a children’s book… You rotate different activities to keep yourself interested.’
As a writer, Clary followed up his best-selling autobiography, A Young Man’s Passage, with three well-received novels. The Bolds, his first for younger readers, tells the story of a family of hyenas passing themselves off as human in a suburban house in Teddington. It’s an idea he’s carried around since his own childhood.
‘I set it in Teddington because where that’s where I grew up,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t have many friends as a child, for some reason, and I used to make up these stories to amuse myself. And there was quite a hairy family in our road, and I decided they were hyenas. I was a junior member of the World Wildlife Fund as a child, so I knew all about wild animals, so that’s what I decided. They also used to laugh a lot, which just confirmed my suspicions.’
The young Clary was a prodigious reader, but can’t tell you a lot about children’s books (though he did read one of David Walliams’ mega-sellers as part of his preparation for The Bolds) because, by the time he was 11, he’d already moved on to DH Lawrence.
‘My mother gave me all these slightly inappropriate books to read at a young age,’ he reveals. ‘I was taught by Benedictine Monks [at St Benedict’s School in Ealing], who wrote a letter of complaint to my mother, saying I shouldn’t have been reading Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley at that age.
‘I was very peculiar, in retrospect,’ he adds. ‘I used to have a long bus journey to school, and I used to have a lot of time to think and contemplate, and get self-absorbed, I think.’
He wasn’t unhappy, he says: family life with his parents – a probation officer and a policeman – and his two old sisters was full of laughter and stories. But he was a dreamer.
‘I had great plans for myself from quite a young age,’ he says. ‘And they were all about being famous and performing. But I couldn’t actually sing and I couldn’t actually act but, thankfully, so it was lucky for men that the alternative cabaret circuit was just getting started, and I found somewhere where I belonged.’
It was, he says, partly a reaction against his Catholic upbringing. ‘It was a reaction against being given a hard time for being an effeminate youth. So by becoming a renowned homosexual, I was turning things around a bit.’
Clary was the scene’s breakout star – partly because, for all his lewdness, there was always a warmth and gentleness to him that, in retrospect, paved the way for the route ahead. Not that he wanted to play things too safe and cosy. ‘When I started to go on television, I did feel the need to outrage the Daily Mail readers of this world,’ he says. ‘And it was quite easy, to do.’
A little too easy, perhaps. In 1993, an off-the-cuff, sexually explicit gag about then-Chancellor Norman Lamont at the BBC Comedy Awards whipped the red-tops into a fury, and forced London Weekend Television to make an on-air apology. History records that Clary became unemployable on British TV for several years afterwards, but the truth is more complicated: at the same time, he was caring for his boyfriend, Christopher, who was dying from an AIDS-related illness. He was also abusing drugs, and suffering from depression and anxiety.
‘There were a lot of factors involved,’ he says today. ‘It would be a bit tough if just one joke could have that effect. Sometimes you need some time off, and then something happens like that and you get the time off you needed.’
Today, at 56, Clary prefers the quiet life of the 15th Century half-timbered Kent farmhouse, once owned by ‘fellow renowned homosexual’ (and Teddington boy) Noel Coward, that he shares with several dogs and chickens (‘I did have ducks until the other day, until the fox got them’). His philosophy, he says, is to take things as they come. ‘I never plan anything. My mother taught me to just say yes to things, and you’ll have a more interesting life.
‘The best thing about being me,’ he adds, ‘is not having to take life seriously. You turn yourself into a brand, really – you sell off bits of yourself, which means you don’t have to be a journalist or work in a shop. I’m quite a trivial person, and everything I write and talk about is trivial, too, so that suits me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, August 6, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend