Julian Clary rose to fame in the 80s as an outrageously camp comic decked out in garish PVC who shocked audiences with his innuendo-packed gags about gay sex. He sent his career into a tailspin at the 1993 British Comedy awards by telling the audience: “I’ve just been fisting Norman Lamont.” (The then chancellor was in the audience with his wife, Rosemary, and the tabloids had a field day.) And Clary’s 2005 autobiography, A Young Man’s Passage, could teach most millennials a thing or two about the art of oversharing, what with its inclusion of embarrassing ailments and graphic ejaculation scenes.
At 60 years of age, Clary is still touring – his Born to Mince tour has just been extended – although he says it may be his last time around the circuit. “Although I do always say that, rather lamely,” he admits. “But can you go on doing buggery jokes into your 70s and 80s? I don’t want to be one of those comedians who plays to ever-dwindling audiences. I met Danny La Rue in Australia once and he was doing a tour of care homes. I did think: ‘Fuck me, does it come to that in the end?’”
Of course, Clary doesn’t trade so much in shock these days. There’s an element of the unknown to his shows, thanks to his fondness for audience interaction – “they might be drunk, they might be mad” – but in general his shows have become cosy, affectionate affairs, full of people who have been coming to see him for decades; some of whom now bring their grownup kids along. This time, he has included a section called “heterosexual aversion therapy”: “It’s just an excuse to get four straight men on stage and attach wires to their genitals. It’s a bit of nonsense, really.” But it’s nonsense with a political edge if you’re looking for it.
When Clary first started out in comedy, he used to ditch any jokes that could potentially be deemed to have a political element: “I didn’t want to be preachy,” he says. “It doesn’t suit camp, really. Camp needs to be trivial by its very nature.” And yet simply by being who he was – an overtly effeminate male on mainstream TV, talking about “shiny helmets” and “juicy saveloys”, he was hugely political. His first reviews prompted plenty of “Get This Poof Off Our Screens!” headlines: “Things the Daily Mail wouldn’t even print now,” he notes. How did that feel at the time? “Oh, I loved it! It’s just the reaction I would have wanted from them.”
By that time, Clary had had plenty of practice when it came to outraging straight society. Raised in the middle-class suburb of Teddington in south-west London, he surprised his family by winning a scholarship at St Benedict’s, a Catholic private school in nearby Ealing. It was there he endured beatings from priests (something that wiped out his young religious fervour) and much bullying from peers for his effeminate mannerisms – something he gleefully played up to with his best (and only) friend, Nicholas Reader.
“We found a way to turn it all into a performance,” he says. “Just mincing around, really, to escape from it into an imaginary world. Because we thought, well, this may be where we’re stuck now, but we will do something with our lives.”
Their friendship endured throughout Clary’s fame, and so it is upsetting to hear that Reader died in June, especially as Clary’s eyes well up a little when mentioning him. He says he has a ritual before he goes on stage each night: a little conversation with friends who are no longer here. “Now Nick has been added, and Auntie Tess, too,” he says. “I noticed on the last tour that I’d started to think: ‘Well, I wonder who will be in today?’ And then you see all these little faces leering down at you.”
Clary says he has been thinking about Reader’s influence on him a lot since he died: how they helped each other get through school, and how Reader probably shaped his comedy career. “Because we did escape through comedy, the usefulness of laughing at things that aren’t actually nice. I was very shy [before they met] and quite effeminate, but the whole Quentin Crisp thing we adopted when we were together; that came from Nick, really.”
After school, Clary worked the cabaret circuit (along with a stint as a singing telegram), noticing a gap in the market for male glamour and escapism, and, after getting his TV break on Saturday Live in 1987, his fame swiftly soared. At about the same time, he became a regular at the “sordid little clubs” in Soho, although it’s a time he recalls with a sadness: “Because people kept disappearing.” During the Aids crisis, Clary says the attitude within the gay community was basically: “‘Everything’s fucked, so we may as well party.’ And so you would carry on – you’d go out and be gayer than ever, really.”
His parents were unaware of how reckless he was being, and so, he says, was he. “Because, compared with everyone else, I wasn’t being reckless. It was just normal. And today, people are still just as reckless. I wasn’t taking crystal meth and going to sex parties for the entire weekend.”
Although he recalls it with some embarrassment, he thinks a nasty case of anal warts probably saved him from contracting HIV. “It’s one of those things you realise in retrospect, where you think – gosh, maybe there is a God after all?” he laughs. “Because I was very keen on it … and then I got the warts, and I was so mortified I wouldn’t let anyone investigate that orifice for quite some time.”
Fate was less kind to others, including Clary’s boyfriend, Christopher, who died in 1991. In his autobiography, Clary writes beautifully – and brutally – about caring for him in his final days: cleaning up the fleshy lumps his lover was hacking up; taking him on ill-advised holidays in the sun. When he died, Clary put a circle of flowers around his face and asked the hospital to leave him lying in state for three hours: “I wanted three days, but I knew there was a queue for that room,” he wrote.
He still has the notes Christopher wrote to him from hospital, and came across them recently: “It was upsetting,” he says, “because you’re back in that moment, in the hospital. It’s quite nice to remember happier times generally when I think of him.”
Clary was still grieving, taking on far too much work, and was pumped full of Valium when he delivered his infamous Normal Lamont gag. “It’s a very good joke, and I stand by it,” he says now, slightly miffed that people remember the fisting part and not the punchline: “Talk about a red box” was largely drowned out by uproarious laughter. He didn’t enjoy the backlash – “you become a comedian because you want to be popular” – but thinks, as with the warts, it may have been another unlikely case of divine intervention. “I like to think he made me say something outrageous in order to clear my diary and give me some time off. Television was never my forte. It’s probably just as well that I stayed out of it.”
In some ways you can view Clary – who faced calls that he should be banned from television – as an early victim of “cancel culture”, although it was the right wing that Clary had offended: “And I always felt that if you’d outraged the Daily Mail then it was job done, really.” So what does he think about today’s comedy climate, where offending liberal sensibilities can cause you to be persona non grata?
“If you start worrying about that, then it’s all over,” he says. “You end up with very safe, insincere comedy. That’s where alternative comedy started – as a reaction to that.” But he doesn’t believe there’s a new prudishness going on that is stifling comedy – concepts such as LGBT venues being safe spaces, or comedians thinking long and hard about who their targets should be, are things he’s fully onboard with: “I quite understand things like safe spaces and refusing to engage because life’s too short. I get that.”
Would he have appreciated safe-space venues in the 80s? “Well, no,” he laughs. “People think of that time as the dark ages. It wasn’t, but it was a bit grim. But I didn’t really play the gay circuit – I needed heterosexuals to pick on.”
I’ve got these mannerisms, this voice and all the things that could be a problem in life. So I decided to emphasise them
Does he ever worry about jokes that could be deemed to stereotype gay people? “No, because I don’t ever think of myself as a stereotype. I have the right to be a camp, effeminate homosexual.” He remembers going on highly politicised Pride marches in the 1980s. “Back when it was all chants and whistles. We would be quite cross, as opposed to the commercial celebration thing it is now, which is also great.”
He attended Pride this year, although it was – to paraphrase Withnail – by mistake (he was going elsewhere, but got caught up in things). He found himself shocked by just how debauched it all was. “It was a bit scary, the number of people and the …” he adopts a reaching-for-the-smelling-salts voice – “levels of intoxication. I was worried for people – how are you going to get home? Where will you go to the toilet? I came over all paternal, much to my surprise.”
Clary says the recent embracing of sexual fluidity and non-binary identities is a great evolvement: “Why not? We are all on sliding scales and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t move around. I know people get very worked up about it, but speak to teenagers and they’re perfectly accepting of it all. People come out really young now; they can change their minds, and no one screams. It’s a very good omen for the future.” Indeed, even this self-styled “renowned homosexual” thinks such labels would have been helpful to him during his own sexual awakening. He embarked on a heterosexual affair while he was a student at Goldsmiths, University of London. “I was terribly good at heterosexual sex, I quite mastered it,” he admits. “But obviously emotionally, and in other ways, it wasn’t what I needed.”
Clary seems to enjoy his current life half out of the spotlight more than he did his peak fame years. Along with his tour, he has the “unexpected joy in my life” that is writing children’s fiction – earlier this year, the fifth of his The Bolds series was published. The books are based on a story about the neighbours Clary made up himself as an eight-year-old boy – about a family of hyenas who have disguised themselves as humans and live in Teddington.
“I just regress to being a child when I write them,” he says. Clary has just written a stage version, too, and the experience is so rewarding that it has put him off the idea of writing the next volume of his autobiography. (The first one only went up to 1993.) “I’m contemplating whether I can really face that,” he says. “It’s so much easier to write a children’s book – 25,000 words, thank you, goodbye. You don’t have to bare your soul.”
So what, after several decades of fame, does Clary think his legacy is? “Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “What do you think?” I think the way he brought the gay experience into people’s living rooms, at a time when it was seen as something unpalatable by much of the press and public, must count for something. “Demystifying gay sex … yes, I’ll take that,” he muses. “Specifically anal intercourse, because people just cannot cope with that, in all sorts of cultures.” He smiles: “It’s a very strange legacy, isn’t it? But I did design it. I’ve got these mannerisms and this voice and all the things that could be a problem in life. So I decided to emphasise them all the more. That’s what comedy can do,” he concludes. “You can just turn things the other way around and suddenly they’re an asset.”