For more than 30 years, the comedian has entertained stage and TV audiences with innuendo-stuffed repartee and outrageously camp jibes. As he returns to the London Palladium in Snow White, he tells Mark Shenton how the best seasonal shows work on several levels, delighting children while simultaneously peddling filth to the adults
If life is always a cabaret for Liza Minnelli, it might be said that life has always been a pantomime for Julian Clary. “I’m so lucky to find, first of all, the kind of genre that suits me. And that I can get away with,” he says.
Sitting in the chilly outdoor garden of his local pub, close to his London home in Camden, Clary is affable, engaging and honest company. A playful sense of mischief is never far away as he comments on my day-glo orange coloured fleece – subsequently, when I post a childhood picture of myself in knitted woollen shorts on Twitter, he posts a reply: “You had very similar trousers on the other day…”
Clary’s cheeky, subversive, improvisational and interactive comedy was honed – like Paul O’Grady’s alter ego Lily Savage – during a long apprenticeship in London gay pubs and comedy clubs, with characters that were first dubbed Gillian Pieface and later The Joan Collins Fanclub.
He soon crossed over to mainstream appeal via television as an exaggerated version of himself, but he never left behind the saucy seaside-postcard repartee, laden with double entendre (sometimes triple). So he is right at home at the London Palladium, where for the last three Christmases he has presided over the return of the annual pantomime.
“To do this at the Palladium, and then to be there again and again, is so lovely, and I feel in such safe hands. We have 20 dancers and amazing costumes – there’s not the threadbare feel to it that I’ve been no stranger to in the past,” he can’t help himself quipping. But then that’s Clary: his quick-fire, self-deprecating brand of humour is both honest and pointed: there’s always a sting in the tail, whether at his own expense or that of others.
Even before he joined the comedy circuit, Clary’s life as an entertainer began by doing singing telegrams –“that makes you a bit fearless”. He continues: “Working at the Comedy Store, I can remember deciding to heckle the audience before they heckled me. Midnight there was a bit rough – they’d all be drunk already, and I had 30 seconds of grace because I was in black rubber and I had a dog with me, but my act became a string of put-downs, really. I’d start insulting the audience before they started on me.”
It helped Clary hone a comedy of defensive manoeuvres, rather than intentionally offensive ones. He insists that very little of it is planned – including his now infamous comment, at the British Comedy Awards in 1993, in which he compared the set to Hampstead Heath, and said he’d just been fisting Norman Lamont, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I don’t analyse myself, but I know that I say things that seem to bypass the brain quite often. It just comes out. There’s not much self-censorship going on
The incident unwittingly introduced a niche gay sexual practice into the public conversation. Today, he says: “Taxi drivers still always mention it. I don’t analyse myself, but I know that I say things that seem to bypass the brain quite often. I don’t have a thought and ask myself, ‘Should I give it a go and say that?’ It just comes out. There’s not much self-censorship going on.”
If that episode is still widely remembered today, it’s because it caused a furore at the time – with the Daily Mail and the Sun launching an unsuccessful campaign to have him banned from television.
The summer before last, Clary finally found himself at the same summer house party in Kent as Lamont.
“We were about 10 yards apart, and I wondered about whether I should go up to him and say: ‘I hope I’ve not ruined your life.’ But then I thought: ‘He’s still a Tory – and do I really care?’ It would only have been an interesting anecdote for dinner parties.”
Making a career based on improvisatory comedy has never frightened him. “I’m never stuck for words. If I was quiet now, you’d think of something to say – it’s life, really, jabbering away.” Perhaps inadvertently, Clary sounds like a Samuel Beckett character. But he also has a rare talent for bringing it around to the person he is speaking to.
“As a journalist who writes, you get better at it the more you do it – and if you’re thinking of buggery jokes for 30 years, you get more adept at it and you spot them where you wouldn’t have thought they were. It all adds up.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Collecting trolleys at Tesco in the multi-storey car park in Kingston-on-Thames. My first entertainment job was doing singing telegrams.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Appearing at the Covent Garden Community Theatre in a show called I Was a Teenage Sausage Dog, in 1980
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Not to worry. I don’t want to sound too new-age, but you can rely on a benevolent universe to sort things out. Professionally, I’ve found things come along at just the right time. It would have been nice to have known that when I was 18 or 19.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My family, really. Or do you want me to say Lindsay Kemp?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
I’ve never got a job though an audition apart from my first. A shaft of sunlight came through and lit me up – they gave me the job. So perhaps my advice would be to audition only when there is a shaft of sunlight that you can stand in.
If you hadn’t been a comedian, what would you have been?
My mother was a probation officer, and I’m very good at solving people’s problems. People often unburden themselves to me, and I can always find a solution. So I like to think I would have done some kind of social work.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
It’s quite pagan and only takes about five seconds. I summon the energy from the earth, the energy from the universe and the energy from the audience – I do something on the inhale, from behind the curtain.
Part of the transformative, subversive joy of the Palladium pantos is that they frequently put outrageous adult humour at the centre of a multilayered Christmas confection. “The families that come aren’t just full of tiny children,” he says. “For some, going to a panto might be an ordeal, to have to go and sit through a children’s show. But this works on different levels. The children get the story and like the costumes; but if you want a bit of filth, it’s there for the taking.”
After sitting alongside a family at the Palladium panto two years ago, the mother turned to me afterwards and said that she reckoned the adult stuff went over her children’s heads. I replied: “I hope it went over your head, too.”
When a picture of Clary in his first (of about 13) costumes was recently posted on Twitter, he replied saying he hoped he wouldn’t impale a chorus boy during the run (he was also holding a giant spear). Today, he affirms: “It’s vicious – God knows what it will be like under lights. That costume is full of mirrors, so I’ll be a walking, talking glitterball!” He also wonders aloud of costume designer Hugh Durrant: “I’ve seen the designs for them all, and I’m wondering what drugs he is on to have come up with them.”
About producer and director Michael Harrison, who is also managing director of Qdos Pantomimes, he says: “Unfortunately, Michael, far from restraining me, wants more.” Clary is delighted to oblige. “They give me the basic script and story, such as it is – we all know it is really just a variety show, but the script is quite important to me – and I write all my own bits in.”
Much of its success has do with the chemistry and rapport with his co-stars. “I quite like being with a slim-hipped youth, whether it’s the Prince or Dick Whittington.” Charlie Stemp, who played the latter last year, is back on board this year: “I’ve manoeuvred a few scenes so I appear with him again – otherwise we might not actually meet in the normal run of things, but we will. He’s so nice to be around – he’s so unself-conscious and so talented but doesn’t know it. He’s still unsullied.”
They are joined again this year by regular returnees Paul Zerdin (“there’s nobody doing what he does”) and Nigel Havers (“he’s so nice to have around – someone to chat to in the wings who is always up”). And Dawn French is performing in the Palladium panto for the first time this year.
“They asked me: ‘How about Dawn?’ and I said ‘Yes please.’ I’ve known her for decades – I’ve always loved being in a room with her, but we’ve never been on a stage together.” French will play the Wicked Queen, and Clary will be her servant. “It’s interesting to see how adversarial we should be with each other. For comedy purposes, it’s quite good if we are bitching about each other, but I’m there to serve her – so we’ll see.”
Until the 2016 panto, Clary and Paul O’Grady had never worked together either, but he remembers: “We never stopped laughing. We couldn’t get through the muff scene without finding it terribly funny during rehearsals, and thought we’d be okay once we opened, but we never were.”
The pleasure was clearly infectious on both sides of the footlights. But it’s also the thing he most enjoys doing: “It’s not like in the 1980s when it was rather enjoyable to shake things up. It’s different now – I’m older and I just want to make people laugh.”
Of course, this is a commercial panto, so it’s there to make money as well as to generate laughter, a fact that Clary readily acknowledges. “It’s an important factor – let’s not shy away from that. If they book me by March, I know where I stand and where some of my money is coming from. We have jokes about that with Dawn this year,” he reveals, without giving away any punchlines.
But Clary also stresses that, despite its commercial origins, “it does come from a place of love”. He adds: “The management love that they’re bringing pantomime back to the Palladium.” The deal with the theatre was originally signed for three Christmas seasons. Although he says nothing is signed yet to continue beyond this year, “I’ve heard late-night mutterings.” As always, though, he doesn’t assume he’ll automatically be asked to carry on: “I’m sure others are champing at the bit to get in there.”
• What you think of as your disadvantages are probably your advantages – in my case, that was my mannerisms and voice. When I was trying to be an actor, they said: “We can’t employ you to play a lumberjack.”
• Your material should be based on the reality of your own experience.
• My rule when I first started was that if I did three bad gigs in a row, I’d retire. I’ve been booed off and I remember getting ice cubes thrown at me at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, but I’ve never had three in a row.
Pantomime, however, fits nicely with Clary’s current portfolio of interests: “I do lots of different things. I was at a school in Hampstead this morning, reading from the latest in The Bolds [the fourth in a series he has written, with a fifth already in the bag], and next year I will be doing a big tour in the spring with my new solo show. So I’m going back to my basics. But they’re all variations on a theme – the theme being escapism. That is what I offer the public – a way of passing the time.”
Again Clary seems to be uncannily in Beckett territory, and it’s clear that he thinks a lot about the form as well as content of his work. He talks about going to visit his parents a couple of weekends earlier. “The whole comedy thing – and particularly my brand of comedy – is practically in the genes, they’re very silly and disparaging. I was watching the news with my parents and they don’t just watch it but criticise it – the newsreader’s hair and the way she speaks. There’s little attention paid to the content of anything; it’s all about the form.”
This brings us back to pantomime and the unique rapport with audiences it affords him. “It is such a strange beast: there’s no fourth wall, you can step out of character, you can step into character, I can be Julian one minute and refer to myself, or suddenly have magical powers, and so can everyone else.”
Talking about Le Grand Mort, a play he appeared in at the tiny Trafalgar Studios 2 last year, he says: “I enjoyed it, but sticking to a script and ignoring the audience is much harder – especially when you’re so close to the audience – not to respond to someone coughing or walking out. All my cabaret instincts are to create 20 minutes of nonsense out of that. But they’re not your words, you have to be faithful to someone else’s. I don’t know how people do it – actually I do, because I did it – but it’s a different discipline.”
Panto requires different muscles, in every sense. “They’re hard work, but I like that. There’s a lot of job satisfaction from being really tired at the end of the day. There are times when I’ve complained – my mother, for example, said to me, ‘So, you’re on stage for four hours, some people work down a mine for eight hours.’ But it is physically tiring – eight of my costumes this year are not being made by the costume department but by the scenery department as they’re so big and heavy.”
Still, there’s one big upside: “I’m not mad about Christmas. I don’t really like it. Don’t tell the darling children – but it means I have the perfect excuse not to go to parties. I’m perfectly happy to be part of other people’s Christmas event, but the whole endlessness of it is tiresome to me. So being locked in the Palladium 10 hours a day in full slap and wearing something ridiculous seems a good idea to me.”
Born: 1959, Surbiton
Training: Goldsmiths College, London
Landmark pantomime productions:
• Numerous pantomimes, including at the New Wimbledon Theatre, Richmond Theatre, Birmingham Hippodrome, Bristol Hippodrome, Liverpool Empire Theatre, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Southampton Mayflower, Wolverhampton Grand and Cardiff’s New Theatre
• Cinderella, London Palladium (2016)
• Dick Whittington, London Palladium (2017)
• Snow White, London Palladium (2018)
• Jack and The Beanstalk, ITV (1998)
• Cinderella, ITV (2000)
• Dick Whittington, ITV (2002)
Agent: Mandy Ward Artist Management
Snow White runs at the London Palladium from December 8 to January 13