We’ll always have a soft spot for someone who can make a fisting joke. The flamboyant funnyman is our Comedy Award winner
The more people you can make laugh, the better, is my philosophy, I guess,” says beloved comic Julian Clary.
For 30 years now, he has glittered at the heart of the British comedy scene, an unapologetically camp tour de force. The Lord of the Mince and the king of innuendo, he first made a name for himself on the alternative comedy/ cabaret scene of the early 1980s, under pseudonyms including Gillian Pieface and The Joan Collins Fanclub.
Inspired by the likes of David Bowie and dancer/ choreographer Lindsay Kemp, Julian’s glam make- up and tight, skimpy
PVC outfits made him a provocative choice for mainstream TV channels, but he was lapped up by audiences who delighted in his scandalous and offensive humour.
As we sit down to talk about his career, leading up to winning this year’s Attitude Comedy Award, I ask if offending people’s sensibilities was always part of his intention. “Let me try and answer truthfully,” Julian starts, “because sometimes in retrospect you can rewrite history, and that would never do.”
After a moment, he continues: “I think if you saw me on the comedy cabaret circuit, the pubs and clubs of the early Eighties, in a very left- wing environment, it wasn’t that shocking. It was when it crossed over to mainstream and television and The Daily Mail and all of that nonsense, then it became shocking. But I enjoyed it: it was deliberate and heartfelt.”
These days, as Julian approaches his 60th birthday next spring, the urge to offend isn’t as strong. “If I’m going to do a gig in Harrogate or Chatham, then there’d probably be some people who are going to be offended,” he says, wryly. “Good for them. But no, three decades on we have all evolved, and it’s more about the joy of making people laugh. That’s where I get my kicks now, and I always did, really; the outrage was just a thing that happened along the way. A bit like crystal meth.”
One of the most memorable moments of outrage was that which followed the infamous "Norman Lamont incident" at the 1993 British Comedy Awards. Arriving on a fake foliage- strewn stage to present an award, Julian’s opening gambit — “It’s very nice of you to recreate Hampstead Heath for me here” — was followed by a joke that he’d just been fisting the former Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Although it was after the watershed and went down well in the room ( laughter continued as Julian read out the nominees), 18 viewers — out of an estmated audeince of 13 million — complained and the tabloid press made it headline news, resulting in Julian deciding to clear his schedule and step away from the limelight.
“It’s more like a bad smell!” he retorts, when I suggest the incident has followed him around like a dark cloud for the past 25 years, though it’s hard to imagine that many people would take much offence today. We don’t dwell on it at length — as Julian says, what is there to add that’s not been said already? — but he’s made peace with it and now says: “Not many of my jokes are remembered 25 years later, let’s face it, but that one is. So it must’ve been one of my better efforts.”
Julian’s mainstream success started with gameshows in the late- 1980s, first as co- host of Trick or Treat, then fronting his own show, the irreverent and anarchic Sticky Moments. What was it that gave him the confidence to mince into mainstream TV slots and be outlandishly camp? The answer is simple: to create a world where camp was king, where wearing heavy make- up and black rubber
For three decades, Attitude’s 2018 Comedy Award- winner Julian Clary has gone from provocative prodigy to national treasure — but he
has always minced to the beat of his own drum
Julian wears blazer and shirt, both by Gucci at Matches Fashion MAKE_ UP GROOMING AND HAIR Nibras, using Clinique and Moroccanoil
was the norm, then inviting people — often straight people — to be part of it. “That was a comedic device,” explains Julian. “To make the straight world the curiosity, to reverse it all. You can achieve a lot by amusing folk, I find. You can sit them down and reason with them and go through the whole demystifi cation process, but if you can just make them laugh instead, it’s a quicker means to an end.”
Speaking of demystifi cation, part of Julian’s early brand of comedy was talking ( through innuendo) about gay sex, at a time when gay people weren’t seen as equal in the eyes of the law, and there had been few, if any, openly gay TV stars. To have a camp- as- Christmas comedian talking about the intricacies of sodomy was envelope- pushing, but it came naturally to Julian. “I speak in a certain way and I have certain mannerisms, so I just thought, ‘ Well, this is what my act is going to be about,’ and I went with the fl ow.
“These days, people know a lot more [ about gay sex] than in the Eighties. I know it’s not all happiness and roses, but gay life is a lot better than it was. Take it from me.”
Indeed, these days, Julian’s life does seem fairly rosy. He splits his time between a townhouse in Camden and rural living in Kent, and two years ago married his partner, Ian. When Attitude spoke to him last, for our Attitude Heroes podcast series, celebrating 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, Julian joked that he was mourning his single status — but he reaffirms that their relationship is grounded by a mutual ability to amuse. “He’s marginally funnier than Stephen Mulhern on Big Star ’s Little Star and at my time of life it doesn’t pay to be too picky.”
Julian's husband has promised him a Siamese kitten called Roxanne as a birthday present next year, but in terms of celebrating the landmark, he’ll be midway through his upcoming tour, Born To Mince ( almost called Bed Knobs and Knee Pads), and is scheduled to perform in Bury St Edmunds, in Suff olk, that night. I ask if that’s a planning oversight, but no: “I’m hoping to still be alive and not incontinent. But I love working on my birthday; it gets me off the hook [ of celebrating] and I’ll be in a beautiful theatre making people laugh. If all goes well, anyway. I mustn’t presume…”
His comedy roots can be traced back to his childhood in Surbiton, Surrey, where he grew up watching Are You Being Served? and Bruce Forsyth and Larry Grayson hosting The Generation Game.
Although school life was tough — he went to a strict Catholic boys school and was bullied for his eff eminacy — Julian had supportive parents and describes his family as “very silly” and “We are all, sadly, unable to take life seriously.”
He adds: “I was growing up in the Seventies and I can see, looking back, that life was quite hard for both my parents.
“They both worked full time and my mother used to come in and start cooking before she even took her coat off . The Seventies were a time when there weren’t enough hours in the day — but what got us through was having a laugh and making disdainful remarks about the neighbours or whoever was reading the news. ‘ Awful tie… She might have combed her hair’.
We were obsessed with form above content, I now realise. Nothing much has changed in my life.”
Julian is known for his high- camp humour, and I ask when he first knew what camp is.
“I always thought my grandmother was camp; she was camp. My grandmother would trot down the road of this little village in Norfolk with her basket on wheels. She had a camp walk. She was fl ying the camp fl ag!
“I was amused by that before I understood it, really. It’s funny, isn’t it? Camp is an attitude, but as a child you don’t analyse any of that. Could it be genetic?”
In recent years, Julian has taken to his role as the author of children’s books with much finesse. His acclaimed series of tales, centred around the Bolds — a family of undercover hyenas — has added another string to his bow, one that’s proved creatively satisfying and a welcome break from the cheeky innuendo on which he’s based his career.
“When you’ve spent all your adult life being as rude as you think you can get away with," Julian explains, "if you [ then] go in an opposite direction, you often discover a whole new world.
“To activate my inner child and write these stories that have been in my head since I made them up when I was about seven or eight, I really love it.
“I also like doing book events for children — who’d have thought it? They don’t know who I am, so it’s nothing to do with ego.
"It’s to do with longevity and survival. It turns out that making children laugh is every bit as satisfying as making adults laugh. Who knew?”
Of course, on top of his stand- up tours and book- writing ( he promises to write a second autobiography one day — his fi rst stopped just before the Norman Lamont incident. The second is tentatively titled, A Night At the Lubricant), Julian’s also a panto institution.
After an acclaimed turn in last year’s
Olivier Award- winning Dick Whittington, he’s set to appear in the London Palladium’s big- budget production of Snow White this winter. “Lord knows, I’ve been in some dowdy, threadbare productions,” he says. “But now it’s jaw- dropping. Frankly, it’s a variety show dressed up as a panto. I love the lavishness of the shows, and we have a progressive, daring director called Michael Harrison who encourages me to be as fi lthy as possible. It would be rude not to oblige.”
As we come to the end of our conversation, Julian hints that his 60th birthday may prompt “a change of direction”, although he’s tight- lipped as to what form it will take. “I don’t know,” he says when I push him. “Well, I do know, but I’m not telling you. I think it’s terribly important that I maintain my celebrity mystique!”
So, what would the young, fresh- faced
Julian Clary think of the fact that in 2018, he’s what people might call a national treasure? In true- to- form, camp fashion, he says: “I prefer: national trinket.
"When I started, I thought:, ‘ I’ll do this for a couple of years, then I’ll have to get a sensible job’. I think he’d be surprised at my tenacity and that I’ve managed to string it out as long as I have — I am!”
CLARYICAL ERROR Julian,with Jonathan Ross, caused controversy on live TV at the 1993 BritishComedy Awards
BITCHY: Joan Collins Fan Club, with Fanny the Wonderdog,in 1987