Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

June 10, 2006

Interesting piece on JAM regular Julian Clary

from The Daily Telegraph

Years of being hideously bullied at school led Julian Clary to develop into an outrageous performer who took pleasure in shocking people. Now, he tells Elizabeth Grice, he is planning a dignified retreat into middle age and country life

To find Julian Clary these days, you make your way down the deep green lanes of Kent, like a caterpillar through cabbage. Eventually you come to a forgotten-looking house, half-timbered at the front, tile-hung at the back, that seems to be subsiding exhaustedly into its meadow. There is no guttering, the electrics are unsafe, but this is a place - "16th-century, or maybe 14th" - that people wait all their lives for. Noël Coward did, and stayed for 30 years. Now Clary has the same feeling about it. "This is where I'll grow old."

The high priest of smut and exemplar of camp comedy is waiting at his front door, cigarette in shaking hand. In Coward's old home, he feels cigarettes are the correct accessory, even though the place could spontaneously combust at the shake of a matchbox. Clary is a surprisingly tall man and some of the ceilings are so low that he brushes his highlights on them as he glides about, making tea and fussing over his companion, Valerie.

Valerie is a small, affectionate hound, but rather talentless compared with her predecessor, Fanny the Wonderdog, who became such a celebrated part of Clary's grotesque cabaret gigs when he was in the foothills of fame, performing as The Joan Collins Fan Club. Today, Valerie is the one wearing sequins. Her glittery, bright-red collar, decorated with a flower is the only piece of kitsch ornamentation to be seen. Her owner, in his loose jeans and with no make-up except for a little light concealer, looks like the under-gardener.

"However light-hearted you try to be about it," he says, in that quiet, frou-frou voice of his, "the loss of youth, and everything that goes with it, is quite a trauma. That's why I moved here. I thought a dignified thing to do would be to live in the country by the time I'm 50 and write books."

This must be Clary's biggest reinvention since he first put on his sister's purple feathered waistcoat at the age of 14. Embedded here with his potatoes and sweet peas, he seems so utterly and uncharacteristically content that you fear for his reputation. The other day he tried to save a lamb that was having convulsions (it died). Now he's talking about keeping hens. How can he pursue a career shocking people and live the life of a Kentish smallholder? Is this the same man who remarked, after a 20-minute sexual encounter with a stranger in Edinburgh's Royal Mile, "I didn't think of myself as a tart - but I wouldn't argue with anyone who did"?

Two-thirds of the way through his autobiography, A Young Man's Passage, Clary amuses himself by listing all the male conquests he can recall, and their occupations. It runs to 24 lines of type. He kept a notepad by his computer when he was writing the book so that when another obscure lover - or "gentleman caller" - came to mind, he could jot him down.

His sexual exploits through the Eighties sound exhausting. "No, not exhausting," he says. "Relentless, I think. A lot of gay men have a lot of sex. That's what we do. But I've stopped all that - the revolving door into my bedroom. Promiscuity. That was of its day, really.

"The good thing about getting older is that, as you become less attractive, so you have less desire - I do, anyway - to go out and conquer everyone you see. [Cruising gay pubs] is a strangely addictive thing. In the Eighties, and beyond, the whole point was to take someone home with you. You didn't ever go home empty-handed - that would mean the evening had been pointless.

"It is a very predatory thing. You didn't question it at the time - it was just what you did, what you were meant to do. Then you'd compare notes the next day. I don't regret any of it, but I don't want to do it any more."

Clary's family is pivotal to him, and it is impossible to read his hilariously honest memoirs (anal warts and all) without feeling anxious about Mr and Mrs Clary of Swindon, a retired policeman and probation officer respectively. Not to mention his Auntie Tess, aged 94, who came to one of his shows, having first taken the precaution of removing her hearing aid. As he read the final proof, thinking of the reactions of these good people, Clary admits he felt tempted to remove the most explicit sexual stuff, but he left it in because "I didn't want to write a showbizzy, bland story".

His mother, Brenda, coolly remarked that she hadn't realised her son was quite so promiscuous, but admired his truthfulness. His father, Peter, read it and didn't say a word. Auntie Tess, ignoring his condescending advice to "just look at the pictures", started on page one and was riveted all afternoon.

There was never a moment when Clary told his Roman Catholic parents he was homosexual, nor did they bring the subject up. Perhaps it was just too obvious. Perhaps their levels of tolerance and belief in personal privacy were unusually high. They sound like amazing people. Concerned mainly about his health and happiness, the nearest they came to criticism was: "Don't be quite so obvious. It's not a problem, but you don't have to go on about it."

But the point about Julian Clary is that he did have to go on about it. It was his deliberate way of dealing with taunts, even as a prepubescent schoolboy. At his secondary school, run by Benedictine monks who beat him, he and his gay friend, Nick Reader, exaggerated their effeminacy to an outrageous degree. "The bullying was hideous and relentless," he says, "and we turned it round by making ourselves celebrities. We found humour in the situation. We were very provocative, very disdainful and superior. It must have been annoying."

When he started to draw cabaret audiences for being the very thing he had been persecuted for, revenge was sweet. "It was a reversal of all I had experienced at school. I was vindicated. It was all about wanting to get revenge. Pathetic, really, but it still is the motivation."

For a time, he carried on going to church with his mother when he went home at weekends, "just to keep her company", but he found it traumatic to be stared at. "I thought they were staring at me because I was gay. But it was because I was on the telly." Though he's currently "in an interesting correspondence with a nun about forgiveness", his links with homophobic Catholicism have dissolved. "In a way, I miss it. But I've found a more personal, pagan kind of religion to satisfy the spiritual side of things." Later on, in a tiny, unfurnished attic room, I notice a large crucifix propped up in the ancient window and a single meditative chair with a shawl on it.

For someone who, as his sister Frances says, can be "lethally unkind" professionally, Clary is a sensitive man and, I imagine, a loyal friend. He says his parents gave him a great sense of right and wrong and, despite his merry-go-round of sexual activity, it seems entirely believable. In his thirties, he was shocked to fall in love suddenly. He describes Christopher as his soul mate but, for most of the time they were together, he was suffering from Aids and Clary was his carer. They lived "in the moment", never quite able to take the increasingly pessimistic assessments of Christopher's life expectancy seriously.

"The doctors did their best. They threw all these drugs at him. But they didn't really know what they were doing in those days - and I think he knew that. I am cross that he couldn't have had the medication that is available now." When Christopher died, Clary took his ashes to a beach in Portugal and experienced one of those moments, both risible and sad, that transcend bathos. "I found the very beach he took me to. I lit candles and, just as I was about to scatter the ashes at dusk, a man appeared behind me, masturbating. I packed my candles away and came back another day."

Christopher is still a part of his life. "Just because someone's dead doesn't mean it's over. My grandfather died more than 25 years ago, but I still think of him a lot and smell his smell."

There have been other "significant" relationships with men, he says, but he'll save them for the next instalment of his autobiography in about 10 years' time. "It's a wise thing to hold back." For the moment, he's living alone without any sense of loneliness, and fulfilling his idea of a seemly transition into middle age by writing a comedy thriller. True crime, the more gruesome the better, has been an abiding interest. "I get just as much of a thrill out of constructing a good sentence that gets a laugh at the end as I do from a joke."

Some in the entertainment business believe that Clary's career never really recovered after he made a lewd remark about Norman Lamont during a live television show in 1993. But he was never unemployed and, after lying low for a while - which he says was a necessary way of regaining his equilibrium - he flounced back into another round of television shows, tours and pantos. "Things needed to quieten down," he says. "At the time, my life was in crisis and I was taking lots of Valium."

His book contains some of the most perceptive reflections on fame, and how it can distort normal human sensibilities, that I have read anywhere. Now, talking about the satisfaction of having made a performing career out of being trivial ("I was lightweight - that was the whole point of me"), and of being proud of his professional longevity, he does seem faintly valedictory. "The whole business of getting famous was good fun, but it was a long time ago," he says. "I am full of gratitude for my life - and for this house."

But it would be absurd to imagine that Clary is about to give up on metropolitan life or the performing arts. The other day, he held a Women's Institute-themed 47th birthday party, with gingham-decked trestle tables, jars of produce, Victoria sponges and orange squash. It was "an interesting clash" between London types and local people.

He still has his flat in Camden, for when rural affairs, even in the company of Coward's ghost, begin to stifle him. "If I've been here a long time, I think: I must go to London and speak to someone or see a bus."
* 'A Young Man's Passage' by Julian Clary (Ebury) is available for £7.99 plus 99p p&p. To order, please call Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4112.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Probably too late - but Julian Clary was on BBC4's Loose Ends 03-Jun talking about his memoir.

2:49 am  

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