Julian Clary: Bolds encounter

From shock comic to popular children’s author, comedian Julian Clary knows a thing or two about pleasing audiences of all ages – and displeasing others

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“They don’t even know who I am,” chuckles comedian turned hit kids author Julian Clary, discussing his newest batch of fans. “Children are less cynical but they’re not going to humour you. Writing for them is a bit like doing panto – you’re ostensibly a children’s entertainer but half the audience are adults,” he smiles. “You can do things ambidextrously.”

Clary’s two primary fan bases couldn’t be further apart. His new book The Bolds Go Wild is the fifth instalment of his colourful children’s series, which follows a family of hyenas secretly masquerading as humans in suburban Teddington. While Clary’s young readers may be happily oblivious to his innuendo-heavy humour and racy, phrase-turning talents, odds are his other demographic – their parents – are in on the joke. It’s likely that many of them grew up with this outrageous comic dominating their screens – pun intended.

“It’s horrible and vindictive – although having said that, I’m not above cancelling people myself.”

Born in Surrey and raised in Teddington, Clary started his career with a glam stint on the alternative cabaret circuit in the early 1980s, first under the alias Gillian Pieface, then as The Joan Collins Fan Club with his whippet co-star Fanny The Wonder Dog. Openly gay and utterly fearless, his candid style demanded attention. When he was behind the mic, no one was safe. Unsuspecting spectators found themselves pulled on stage only to have their bags riffled through, with Clary’s arched eyebrows inspecting whatever oddities he found within. As his star rose, so did his television presence. His 1989 quasi-game show Sticky Moments with Julian Clary cashed in on his take-no-prisoners attitude, before 1996’s faux-courtroom comedy All Rise For Julian Clary placed the uncensored star in the role of judge, jury and executioner, dishing out forfeit sentences to guests in a bawdy slice of Friday night viewing.

For Clary, it was a whirlwind of success and irresistible scandal – until an ill-timed gag during a live broadcast of the 1993 British Comedy Awards brought everything crashing down. Targeted by the tabloids, ostracised by showbiz and banned from live telly, Clary’s explicitly over-the-top (yet certainly tame by today’s standards) joke about his fist and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont signalled an abrupt end to his thriving career. Cut to 2020 and the now 61-year-old comic has emerged from this dark period stronger than ever. After making a welcome return to stand-up and TV, Clary has gone on to publish a number of books, conquer theatre with 2007’s West End hit Cabaret and emerge as a giant of the panto scene at London’s Palladium. However, of all the labels thrown at him throughout his flamboyant four decade career, perhaps “popular children’s author” is the most shocking of all.

“The nice thing about the books is they’ll always be there,” says Clary when we speak to him from his home in Kent, where he lives with his husband in a house once owned by playwright Noël Coward. As a young adult, the vivacious funnyman dreamed of being an author long before he lit up the stage as a shock comic – but today Clary views his two main professions as different means to the same end.

“I love being on stage and being a comedian but the moment the laugh dies down it’s lost to the ether,” he tells Big Issue North. “I just like entertaining people, whether they’re at home reading a bedtime story or in the theatre late at night. It’s a kind of compulsion to amuse.”

With a father who was a policeman and a mother who was a probation officer, you might assume Clary’s upbringing was one of strict rules and regulations – but the star assures us it was full of humour. When the time came to dream up his own fictional family for The Bolds, he was keen to borrow from the lighter aspects of his childhood, using his hairy next door neighbours as an inspirational jumping off point.

“The idea of animals living as humans was a day dream I had as a child to do with my neighbours – but the actual characters are more like the Clary family as I perceived them while I was growing up,” he reveals. “The whole idea of silliness and laughter being the answer to any problem reminds of my family, my mother in particular.”

This light-hearted thread can certainly be seen in The Bolds, with family patriarch Mr Bold making a living by writing cheesy Christmas cracker jokes. Plus, as secret refugees from Africa the family are especially welcoming to anyone who crosses their path, something Clary identified as a common trait among today’s youngsters that was scarce during his own childhood.

Julian Clary under one of his aliases The Joan Collins Fan Club with Fanny the Wonder Dog in 1987

“I try to forget about my own school days,” he says, remembering his time struggling to fit in at Ealing’s religious school St Benedicts. “But things have changed a lot for the better, I’d say. Children have a much better time now. There’s much more of an emphasis on creativity and such a choice of books. I always find when you’re writing, you don’t know what you’re trying to get across until you’ve finished. It was when I’d finished the first Bolds book that I thought: ‘Oh, that’s what they’re like.’ Because of their own experiences they’re very accepting, liberal and helpful to everyone. I thought that was a nice thing to tell children.”

Although this warm and welcoming ethos is instilled in each page of Clary’s children’s books, it can be quite rare in his other line of work. So-called cancel culture has stripped many comics of their livelihoods after falling foul of online audiences and things have become increasingly tense for comedians. As someone who’s spent years revelling in surprising audiences with graphic depictions of sex, does Clary feel this moment of social justice is overdue or overkill?

“I’m a bit conflicted about it. I quite admire young people saying: ‘We’re not having this or we’re not going to engage with you.’ I think that’s bold – but I do think life is short. The problem is when it means they’re not having any kind of discussion about it. I probably think good for them – until they try to cancel me!”

Having faced the brunt of social shaming first hand after his experience in 1993, Clary knows full well the impact being cancelled can have.

“It’s horrible and vindictive – although having said that, I’m not above cancelling people myself. I think you need a good clear-out every now and then. It’s not quite the same as someone saying one thing wrong and having their whole life obliterated. It does make you cautious and I’m careful what I say on Twitter.”

Much like the now-infamous joke that damaged his career, context is a key factor that comedians must now bear in mind whilst on social media.

“Sometimes people like me are being flippant but there’s something about that form of saying something that can be misinterpreted. It’s sometimes difficult on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to judge the tone of a communication.”

Does he ever wonder what life would’ve been like had Twitter been around when he was starting out?

“I’m glad it wasn’t. Coleen Nolan came off social media because she got a lot of abuse. I remember her doing an interview and saying: ‘Why would you give your private phone number out to random people so they can send you direct insults?’ I’m well aware that anyone can contact me on Twitter and say something upsetting and I can block them but the damage is done. I’m very wary of it.”

Has outrage culture made it easier to shock audiences? “It’s hard for me to say because my audience enjoys a bit of outrage,” says Clary with a wry smile. “If I wasn’t talking about fisting or graphic homosexual acts, they’d probably be a bit disappointed.”

That said, fans of Clary’s comedy will have to wait before they can see him perform live once more. Earlier this year he was due to tour his new show Born To Mince across the UK but like many stand-ups he’s been forced to postpone his plans due to the Covid-19 crisis. Instead, he’s used his lockdown time to pen a sixth instalment of The Bolds – a process he finds gets easier with each new adventure.

“They’re very alive in my head. Each time I sit down to write a new book they speak to you and all I have to do is write down what they’re saying. The creative process is quite interesting. I’ve done a stage version as well and that’s been fun. I’ve written some songs and it’s been nice to bring them to life on stage. It’ll be really exciting when that happens.”

Having spent his professional life making audiences laugh on stage, Clary can’t wait to get back to doing what he does best. “It’s heartbreaking,” he says of the impact coronavirus has had on the theatre sector. “We can’t live without theatre – on any level. It’s needed. It’s a house of cards too because if that’s gone then so are all the things that are dependent on it. I’m very much full of admiration for all those who are trying to find a way through.”

While lockdown may have favoured the future of the Bolds, Clary’s counting down the days until he can return to shocking audiences with stand-up. “I need it. It’s all very well being at home and being a recluse – but it’s not fulfilling the other side of me. I’m certainly looking forward to picking up where I left off.”

Julian Clary’s fifth children’s book The Bolds Go Wild is now in paperback (Andersen Press)

Clue’s in the titles

Julian Clary’s work as an author extends far beyond The Bolds. Get a load of these glittering literary gems

A Young Man’s Passage, 2005
Hidden behind a very Clary-esque title, A Young Man’s Passage was the comedian’s first book release and candidly chronicles his rollercoaster life story. From difficult school days at the strict and religious St Benedicts, to uncovering his sexuality and finding a taste for showbiz via the stage and screen, Clary bares his soul about his early years.

Murder Most Fab, 2007
Maintaining a successful career in the industry can be murder – as Clary’s first work of fiction proves. Told in the form of a confession and packed full of black humour, Murder Most Fab follows rent boy turned entertainer Johnny Debonaire and the bloody and boundless lengths he’ll go to in order to hold on to fame.

Devil In Disguise, 2009
Continuing in the vein of camp comedy noir, Clary’s second fiction novel tells the tale of childhood friends Simon and Molly, two fame-hungry youths who have their friendship fractured by a mutual love interest. As their rift deepens and their quest for stardom intensifies, things take a deadly turn.

Briefs Encountered, 2012
Inspired by his home, which was once owned by English playwright Noël Coward, Clary’s final novel before The Bolds took over tells a story that’s part fiction and part reality. It follows a Coward fanatic who moves into the artist’s former home with his new lover, only to discover things going bump in the night – and not in a good way.

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