Not playing safe: an interview with Julian Clary

Julian Clary doesn’t like to take things too seriously, and we love him for it. Melissa Blease chats to him ahead of his appearance in The Dresser at Theatre Royal Bath and asks him how he’s coped with such a grown-up acting role

Julian Clary

“It was the 1980s!” says Julian Clary, looking back to the days before he became a household name synonymous with the words ‘outrageous’, ‘hilarious’ and ‘high, high camp’; “anything could happen!” And at the end of one of his 1980s-era cabaret tour dates in Liverpool (The Joan Collins Fan Club: think, excessive glitter, tawdry glamour and lashings of wily wit and wicked innuendo), almost anything did.

“You tried to steal my Fanny?!” Yes, Julian, I’m afraid I did. When dearest Fanny the Wonder Dog – Julian’s faithful furry co-star: an elegant whippet stoically accepting of wearing a wig and being coaxed into doing ‘impressions’ – came to literally lap up her applause at the end of the show, I attempted to kidnap her. “Oh, I’m so glad your attempt was unsuccessful!” says Julian; “but if I’d have known what you tried to do, I could have put your story in my new memoir!”

The memoir of which Julian talks is The Lick of Love, written by Julian during lockdown and published in October. “It’s a sort of autobiography, but actually all about the dogs in my life,” he says. “Since Fanny, I’ve always had a dog by my side, so it’s in four parts: Fanny, Valerie, Albert and Gigi. The current two are 13-year-old Albert, who is probably a sort of Jack Russell/Staffie cross, and Gigi, who we got at the beginning of lockdown. She was rescued from a graveyard in Serbia, so she’s very feisty and a little bit damaged – still feral underneath it all really (like most of us), but great fun. Oh of course there’s lots of showbiz stuff in the book too, but the emphasis isn’t on all that; it’s all about the therapeutic value of having a dog beside you as you move on through your life.”

Writing books is just one aspect of this multi-faceted, multi-talented renaissance man’s career that we could easily focus a whole feature on. Julian has written several books to date, including his early autobiography A Young Man’s Passage and six of his ongoing series The Bolds, for children. Other fascinating CV strands include multiple TV appearances including his own 1990s quiz show Sticky Moments, his regular inclusion on the BBC Radio 4 Just a Minute panel, and the ongoing international tours of various one-man shows. But we’re putting all of that to one side today to focus on Julian’s recent penchant for treading the boards in some very ‘serious’ theatrical roles.

Next month, Julian will visit Theatre Royal Bath to appear in Ronald Harwood’s beautifully-observed 1980s play The Dresser (rescheduled from September 2020), stepping into the role of Norman, the patient, devoted but outspoken dresser of an emotionally and physically fragile, ageing actor.

“Norman is a very clever, complex character,” says Julian. “But his delivery and his way of expressing himself is subtly funny – it’s possible, I believe, to do both humour and pathos at once.” So can we expect to see a more serious side of Julian Clary, in Bath? “I don’t think I’m very good at being serious at all!” he laughs. “The Dresser, though, does feel like a very proper, grown-up thing to do. I’ve done a few big acting roles now, and I’m learning that there’s a big difference between being an actor and being a ‘turn’ – and I’m generally known as a ‘turn’, aren’t I? But I think I’m doing okay; I played Leigh Bowery in the Boy George play Taboo, and the MC in Cabaret – as long as you keep your mind open to opportunities, you’d be surprised what comes your way. And I really took a shine to The Dresser; I can see enough of me in Norman to make it work and it’s so beautifully written. My challenge is to say it exactly as it’s written because I can’t improvise, which will be my temptation.”

Improvise? In traditional theatre?? “I learnt not to do that the hard way,” says Julian. “A couple of years ago I did a play called Le Grand Mort at the Trafalgar Studios, which Stephen Clark wrote for me. I was fine in rehearsal, but on the first night my cabaret/comedy instinct to talk to the audience directly kicked in. I was ever so pleased with myself; I thought I’d really bought the play to life. But when I came off stage, the director said ‘Julian, this is not about you, it’s about the playwright’s intention’. And of course, the director was right. But I find it very difficult to ignore an audience; if someone coughs, I want to remark upon it, and if someone in the front row is wearing funny shoes I want to improvise around that. But I won’t do that in Bath! The texture of The Dresser is so wonderful, and I’m working with a lot of other actors, and it’s definitely not All About Me! That’s what I’ve learnt to tell myself hundreds of times: it’s not all about me.”

But given that The Dresser is a two-hander, it sort of is all about Julian – and, of course, well-seasoned stage superstar Matthew Kelly, who appears alongside him as the actor that Norman supports so sensitively, known to his loyal acting company as Sir. “I haven’t worked with Matthew before but I know him quite well now; throughout lockdown, we spent at least six hours a week on Zoom calls learning the script together, and we developed one of those strange Covid friendships. But I’ve had enough of Zoom calls now! I’m champing at the bit to just stand up and do the play.”

Ah, lockdown; how was it for Julian? “I’m of an age where I didn’t mind it so much,” he says. “I got into a routine of walking the dogs, cooking my husband’s dinner and going to bed early, and I did a lot of writing which gave me some form of creative purpose. Starting to work again and not getting home until gone 11 at night has been quite a shock to the system. But I was ready for it; I was getting a bit fidgety, really. And my husband is definitely relieved because I only had him to pick on for all those months, so he’s off the hook now!”

I can only imagine how easy it would be to put ‘on the hook’ by this super-astute, intelligent man with a voice that’s the aural equivalent of a large Bailey’s, and a quicksilver wit. Did Julian Clary know, back in his Joan Collins Fan Club days, what an eclectic, hugely successful career lay before him?

“When I started out I thought, I’ll just do this for a year or two,” he recalls. “I liked the self-sufficiency of doing my own act and arranging my own bookings; it was a kind of lightweight life which I enjoyed. So no, I didn’t think for one minute that I’d still be doing it now. But if you hang around for long enough and you’re happy to diversify, other avenues open up for you. But I’ve kind of made myself into a commodity – I write about myself in books, or talk about myself on stage, or recall my childhood, sort of, in the children’s books. It’s all related, really, and it’s interesting to do the same thing in many different ways.” But how on earth does Julian keep his apparently inexhaustible inspiration levels up?

“Because so much of what I do is improvised, it feels kind of new to me, so hopefully new to you too,” he says. “And I like an element of danger; I like to frighten myself into doing something, pushing myself to the point where I think failure could be just a blink away. The worst thing that could happen is that I get booed off stage – and if that happened, I’d just go home and still be me, so it wouldn’t matter, it wouldn’t be such a big deal compared to many other people’s ways of earning a living, which generally has far greater consequences and more responsibility than my way of life does. I always wanted to be lighthearted about everything; that’s still my mission.”

So, other than lighthearted, I ask Julian to describe himself, in his own three words. After much deliberation whereupon both ‘good company’ and ‘shallow’ end up being kicked to the kerb, he eventually comes up with his self-definitive trio: “I’m calm, fickle and amusing,” he says. “People say that an aura of calm sort of radiates around me; if I’m amongst excitable people, they quickly calm themselves down. Fickle because I’m determined to be fickle, and I think that’s the right attitude towards my life anyway. And amusing, one would hope, because that’s what people pay to see me be. Amusing covers lots of things, doesn’t it? A mindset, an attitude. If you allow yourself to forget to be amusing, then the joy very easily disappears from your life. Nothing is worth getting too upset about, I find.”

Not even when a young, mouthy Scouse journalist tries to kidnap your beloved Fanny? “I’m definitely not going to let you near Albert or Gigi when I’m in Bath!” he says. But with Julian, as the last 18 months have proved – let alone the last four decades – anything could happen…

The Dresser with Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly is at Theatre Royal Bath from 9–18 September;