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An Interview with Julian Clary
An Interview with Julian Clary words by Emma Cox
If I was expecting Julian Clary to turn up to our interview in a fanfare of sequins, make-up and high camp, I’d have been sorely disappointed.
When we meet at a high-end, luvvie-friendly hotel in London’s West End, Julian slips into the room unnoticed, apologises for being a couple of minutes late, and slides into a seat before ordering a pot of tea and a plate of ‘good quality’ biscuits.
I’ve read interviews describing Julian as ‘shy’ but after meeting him I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. He’s softly spoken and unassuming, yes, and he insists that it’s just me and him in the interview as an audience makes him feel ‘self-conscious’.
But he also holds eye contact and is confident and forthright on his opinions. He’s also, as you’d expect, very funny. And no question is out of bounds…
Julian let’s talk about your tour first. It’s called Born To Mince, isn’t it?
Yes. The last one was The Joy of Mincing. Before that was Natural Born Mincer, Lord of the Mince, Mincing Machine. You get the general idea. I just like to get ‘mincing’ in the title. I like the word. Mincing, mince, in any formula.
It’s only three years since your last tour. Why did you want to do another so soon?
Because I miss it, and what I have to do with my life is rotate various activities. So children’s books are lovely, and I really enjoy making children laugh, but a part of me wants to talk filth and I’m not one for depriving myself of that pleasure.
And how do you feel about the writing process?
Well it’s written now sort of - but it’s all in gestation because I’ve got another few months to go, so now I’m discarding what I’ve already written and changing it.
I like the process. It gathers pace. The quality of the writing gets better as I get closer to it, through fear probably. The best stuff will probably rise to the surface when I’m in the car on my way to the first gig.
I wake up in the night. The brain is a funny thing, you know - a random, completely formed 20-minute section just comes to me just before dawn. Why is that?
For example, I’ve been reading a lot about gay aversion therapy recently, so I had this idea that we could try heterosexual aversion therapy and get some men out in the audience, wire up their genitals, and show them pictures of Coleen Nolan.
If there’s any twinge of arousal they’ll get 40 volts through the testicles.
Is that legal?
Well, it sounds entertaining.
I’m glad you think so. It’s what passes for entertainment these days.
So you wake up in the middle of the night and have to scribble this stuff down?
I do, much to my husband’s annoyance. In fact he doubles as my secretary so I dictate and he has to wake up and write it all down. He’s also my gardener, house keeper and nurse. I enjoy an enema before breakfast most days.
And how do you enjoy actually seeing fans in the front row - is that part of the pleasure for you?
It rather depends on what they’re wearing. It’s a Spring tour so I’m hoping for some cheerful floral print dresses with maybe a light pashmina. That’s just the men. And did you know one in five of the general public are mad? I have to be careful who I hold eye contact with. Among celebrities the percentage is higher, of course…more like one in three. Have you ever interviewed Richard Osman? Barking!
Let’s talk about the outrage. Obviously you get a kick out of getting people to gasp, do you?
It’s one of life’s pleasures, in my opinion. It’s one of the reasons people come to see me: they desperately want to hear graphic descriptions of homosexual sex acts. They want to see if I’ll go too far. It livens up their otherwise dreary lives I expect. It gets the heart rate going, much like fairground rides or watching a horror movie.
Was this more true when you started out in the 80s?
Yes… because prejudice, ignorance and fear were rife back then. I felt if you talked about the mechanics of gay sex, for example, it would be shocking to them but it would demystify it. They would leave better people than when they arrived.
Do you feel like you have achieved that now?
Well it’s not just me, it’s just, you know, we’ve all grown up. The world’s a better place these days.
You said people are less easily shocked, which I think is true, but they are also more easily offended these days.
Does this give you a different challenge?
It’s funny… What were we talking about last night? I wanted to put something on Twitter. It was about the Duchess of wherever she is, the Duchess of Sussex, being pregnant. My husband said, “Yes, but who is the father?” And I thought, probably years ago I could’ve put that Twitter and we’d have all chortled. Now, I thought, “Well, I just can’t because it’s going to cause outrage.”
There’s this new word, ‘snowflake’, isn’t there? I would blame social media I think, where there’s people who spend all day arguing. Be very careful what you say.
And why do you think you now care if it does cause offence? You used to court controversy.
It’s different. It’s a different sort of controversy. If it was really controversial that I was an ‘out’ gay man on television, then that’s something that I would feel more self-righteous about. Implying that the Duchess of Sussex is putting it about is probably not true at this stage of their marriage!
So I can’t really feel self-righteous about that.
Could you pass me the biscuits, please.
Oh, dear me, I’m sorry.
And do have one. They’re rather more-ish.
I’m fine, thank you. Although your humour does sometimes make people gasp, it’s also harmless and lovely and warm. Do you think that’s a fair description?
I think so. I’ve been around the block a few times and if people buy a ticket to see me, chances are they quite like me or they’ve been before. So there is a warmth and affection, but there is a sort of expectation of the boundaries being pushed a bit. So I’m happy to oblige!
How much audience participation would there usually be in your shows? Should people avoid sitting in the first five rows?
No because I wander around now, so you’re not safe anywhere. I’ve always found people’s lives are more interesting than mine, and so I’m interested in talking to people and improvising, really.
I did a straight play last year, Le Grand Mort, and it was really enjoyable, but I really had to stop myself from talking to the audience. It was in a very small theatre at Trafalgar Studios. I wanted to talk about someone’s hair and their handbag and the shoes they were wearing, and you just can’t apparently. I’m told that, when acting in play, you are expected to say the same words in the same order every night. Who knew?
I had to stop myself from seeing the audience whereas I’m very alert to them when I’m doing my own show.
It’s such freedom to be able to say what you want, and maybe go down a blind alley, or create a bit of comedy, magic perhaps if you’re lucky, if the wind’s in the right direction. I do like it more than anything.
And yet there’s a line in the press release which says ‘this might be the final mince?’. Does that mean you’re thinking of retiring?
Yes, it was rather lame of me to say that but I suppose it’s because I am 60 during this tour.
I’ll be in Bury St Edmunds and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be for my birthday than on stage in Bury St Edmunds. And I do think it might be the last one. Because at what age does it become inappropriate to talk about things that I talk about?
I also wonder, would people want to see much more of me? I’m quite drawn to the idea of being a recluse. I’ll lock myself away, watching Cash in the Attic and live in filth. People will wander past my house in years to come and say ‘That’s where Mr Clary lives. He’s let himself go. To think he once pleasured the entire Llowestoft Rugby Team in one drug fueled night. And now he’s lying there caked in his own excrement…’
You are very different in real life than your stage persona?
Yes. Thank goodness. I also… if I don’t become a recluse…I’m quite fanciful of a change of direction when I’m 60, doing something different. I think it’s important to stretch yourself, don’t you? Chocolate finger?
But what I don’t want to do is say ‘This is the final tour’ then everyone will say, ‘Oh I’d better go and see him before he dies’, then five years later I’m back. I always feel slightly conned when people do that.
So what I’m thinking is don’t be surprised if it is my last tour, but then again, the old age mincer might be coming your way in five years time. If I’ve got a tax bill I can’t afford or my husband has run off with Christopher Biggins.
In the meantime you’ve just done Panto over Christmas and that’s something you’ve done many times. Why do you like panto so much?
It’s kind of a perfect hybrid between stand-up comedy and storytelling. You’re allowed to step out of the scene and comment, and I’m allowed to talk about someone’s coughing. I’m allowed to pick on the audience. It’s a pity they let children in, but you can’t have everything.
I like being part of a big ensemble and these shows are very lavish.
I had about 13 costumes this year and they weren’t made by the costume department, they were made by the scenery department because they were so huge. You could just see my head poking out the middle.
Your tour goes to the Palladium as well?
Yes, I finish up the tour there. So that’s a perfect full circle.
I did my show there years ago, My Glittering Passage, I think it was, and it’s a Frank Matcham theatre like the Hackney Empire. They’re built for variety, so they really work for comedy. There’s no getting away from it, it’s got a certain magic about it, the Palladium.
Do you enjoy the actual travelling part of touring?
Yes, I tour with one tour manager, and we travel together. Bertha has done my tours for the last 25 years so we know each other. When she first came to be my driver she was lactating, she’d just had a baby, and she’s a very safe driver, part of her motherly instincts, self-preservation for her children.
She’s the only driver that I’ve ever had where I’ve dared to close my eyes, because I’m a very nervous passenger. Her children are now at university, if they haven’t graduated already. So, yes, we know each other really well, I trust her, and we have a laugh but I don’t have to make small talk either.
I like being in a different town each night, a different theatre.
I never get bored because it’s always really … “Harrogate, hurrah!”
Do the audiences vary hugely, depending on where you are in the country?
Yes, they do. The rumour used to be that they’re more extroverted up north, and they’re more sitting with their arms crossed in the south, but I don’t think that’s true any more. You never know how it’s going to feel. I don’t play Chatham any more because it’s a s**t hole.
Why? What happened at Chatham?
They didn’t laugh. Fifteen years ago, it was. Scarred me for life.
Is there a particular favourite town or city?
Glasgow. They’re so funny, so witty. And they heckle, which I’ve always liked. I love everywhere I’m going, or I wouldn’t go there, and the Palladium will be special. Cardiff, St David’s Hall, that will be lovely. Harrogate’s a beautiful theatre.
And how do you feel about heckling?
I think if you’ve paid for your ticket, you can do whatever you want. I often have a set-to with the theatre staff because people take photos, and you see the ushers creeping down the aisles and shh-ing and wagging their fingers and telling people they can’t, so then I go down and say ‘yes you can’, and pose for photos with them.
Of course you can take a photo, you paid £25. I mean, why not? It’s not a Chekov play, you can eat, drink, take photos, you can shout out. You can urinate in an empty cider can if you must, I don’t care.
Let’s talk about your series of children’s books, The Bolds. Is that a wonderful thing, having success with something brand new later in life?
Yes, all the best things in life are unexpected and unpredictable. That’s one of them. It wasn’t even my idea, someone asked me to do it, but it turns out that making children laugh is just as lovely as making grown-ups laugh, and they don’t know who I am, and they don’t care who I am.
There’s something about that age group, six to 10, they’re quite grown-up in many ways. They’re very accepting of the storylines, which strain credibility sometimes!
The Bolds story is something I made up as a child and the stories can go on and on if anyone wants me to, they’re all in my head. They’re all milling around. I used to make up stories as a child, and I created this fantasy about the neighbours being hyenas.
I think it’s using a different part of the brain. But it’s quite a nice part of the brain and it’s a world away from the adult stuff obviously. It’s going in an opposite direction, it’s really liberating for me to almost be a child myself again while I’m writing for children.
Do you test your ideas out on children?
No, I just write. I have my nephews and nieces so there are a lot of children around in my family. They might get the story first, but it’s too late to change anything.
How many do you think you’ll write?
The next one’s already written, number 5, ‘The Bolds Go Wild’ will come out in March 2019. I think they want a sixth one. I don’t know. I used to read the Just William books and there’s about 20 of those. I liked the fact that they keep going. When I was a child, if I found a book I liked I was always sad that I got to the end of it, and I wished they’d written another one.
So children do like The Bolds and they can go back for more, and of course children who were ten when I started writing them are now sniffing glue and taking crystal meth [laughs].
But there’s new children coming along all the time too.
Do you do signing events at all?
Yes, I do. I do events for children at festivals and going to schools and I do the events with the illustrator David Roberts, it’s all very interactive. It’s lovely. It gives you a warm glow.
Do you have any other unfulfilled ambitions that you haven’t done yet? Other than the straight acting that you mentioned earlier.
I quite fancy doing another volume of my autobiography. I want to call it A Night at the Lubricant. I spent weeks thinking up funny titles. My last autobiography finished in 1993 so there’s a lot to say.
Did you enjoy writing the first one?
Oh, I loved it. I love delving in. It’s funny, the human brain. You think you don’t think you remember but you start digging around and it’s all still in there.
Do you think the tone of the second one will be quite different from 1993?
Yes. I think you’re different from your 60s to your 30s. Thank goodness.
Are you happier now than you were in your 30s?
Yes, and I think that’s the compensation for getting older, isn’t it?
Additional Q&A - The Life and Times of Julian Clary in his own words
I don’t know if I realised I wanted to perform until sort of puberty time.
And then I thought I was going to be a pop star. That was the fantasy. I couldn’t sing or play a musical instrument, but I was quite convinced. Then I realised I couldn’t sing, so I thought I was going to be an actor when I left university. Then I realised I couldn’t act.
I wrote to the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, saying, ‘How’s about it?’ I did get a few auditions, but I was hopeless.
So, through process of elimination, I found that the comedy world was a world where all the things where I’d had a problem with acting and singing - my voice, my mannerisms - could be an asset.
First stand-up gig
My first acting job was with Covent Garden Community Theatre, which was touring in adventure playgrounds.
Then someone there told me to come and do a show at the Earth Exchange, which is a vegetarian restaurant in Highgate. I did an act called Gillian Pieface, who was a faith healer.
I was terrified. I was probably drunk. I think something must have been okay to make me want to do it again.
First dabble with make-up
My sister was a dancer, a tiller girl. She’s four years older than me, so when she was 18 I was at an impressionable age. I used to watch her putting her make-up on and I wanted to put it on myself.
When I started doing comedy, I was looking for a gimmick or an angle that no one else was doing, so I thought, well there you are. And it was the 80s. Perfect timing.
First appearance on television
It was a show called Live From The Hippodrome. I was interviewed by Janet Street Porter, and top of the bill was Dusty Springfield. I didn’t realise the audience in the studio couldn’t hear me. I was trying to be funny and I wasn’t getting any laughs because they couldn’t hear me.
It was all a bit mortifying. I went home and sat by the phone thinking I’d made it, and nothing happened.
First presenting job
It was a show called Trick or Treat on ITV with Mike Smith. It was a Saturday early evening game show on ITV. The rather daring producer called Michael Hurll had seen me on the circuit and took a chance, so that was it.
It was in 1999, Cinderella at the Theatre Royal in Brighton. That was lovely. I fell in love with it there and then.
I thought, ‘Oh, this is something that I can do’. And you can entertain adults and children at the same time. You could dress up, and you could wear makeup, and do what you like. Happy days.
First reality show
I’ve done Strictly Come Dancing and Big Brother but Strictly was first.
I watch Strictly nowadays and I think, ‘Those poor souls’.
We did 10 weeks. They work so hard now and the show is twice as long. And in my day you did your turn and then you went to your dressing room and had a snout. Now they have to stand there gurning in the background.
I didn’t take it seriously when I did it. I was dancing with Erin Boag. She’s so lovely and she was such a brilliant teacher so I really got into it. They teach you things you never forget, the appreciation of music and of dance. I was lucky.
I don’t think I’d do another one. I think I got in and out at the right time with all of those things. Big Brother became a bit humiliating towards the end, but when I did it we just sat around doing nothing much.
It was My Life With Fanny the Wonderdog, which I wrote with Paul Merton. I remember we ignored our deadline and we wrote it in three weeks in an office on Percy Street. It was great being locked in a room with Paul Merton and his extraordinary mind.
I’d always wanted to write. Before I wanted to be a comedian, really. As a child, even. When you say something funny, it’s there and then it’s gone. When you write something funny, it’s there forever.
Mick Perrin Worldwide
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