Interview: It’s child’s play for Julian Clary
PUBLISHED: 11:57 17 August 2015 | UPDATED: 16:15 17 August 2015
Comedian and novelist Julian Clary – who has turned campness and innuendo into an art-form - has written his first book for children. The Bolds tells the story of a family of hyenas, who disguise themselves as humans and move to Teddington. Interesting… says Katie Jarvis
Here are my worries.
There’s a passage in Julian Clary’s autobiography (yes, yes; there are lots of passages in it, which accounts for its title; look it up) where he describes an interview with a Guardian journalist. Despite the fact that he’s delightfully friendly and chatty with her – even makes her sandwiches (filling unspecified) – the piece he subsequently reads in the paper dubs him ‘exotically packaged mediocrity’. “The only hint I’d had that she was capable of such bad taste was the earrings she wore, which looked like salvage from a recent car crash,” Julian writes. “Dogs Today were far more amiable…”
NB to self: Remember to claim I’m from Horse & Hound; not to wear earrings; and, in extremis, to refuse all sandwiches.
Then there are the – you know – naughty jokes and risqué humour that could crop up inappropriately in our conversation, when this is a piece based around a book for children.
NB to self: Remember that this interview could be read by the vulnerable, ie former Chancellors of the Exchequer and very young people…
Extra NB to self: Avoid unintentionally suspect questions such as, ‘How are things down your end, Julian?’
And then, to prepare for the interview (which turns out to be by phone, a relief in the earring-department), I read The Bolds. And a whole (with a ‘w’) new Julian Clary emerges! Because it is delightful: very (appropriately) funny (the bottom jokes are mainly confined to rubbings on garden gates); original; beautifully illustrated by David Roberts, featuring crocs with huge teeth, laughing hyenas in hats, and pages that darken at night. And perfectly pitched for its audience, with chatty lines (“Telling lies is NEVER a good idea. I once told my friends that I was a sausage roll.”) and Christmas-cracker jokes: Where do baby monkeys sleep? Ape-ri-cots!
But, as I read, I’m intrigued by a particular aspect. Here is Julian Clary, writing about an unusual family. A family of hyenas from Africa, who dress up in human shorts and shirts and sun-hats, and move to 41 Fairfield Road, Teddington, Middlesex. Who love the new world they find themselves in but are constantly afraid of being unmasked: “’Tuck your tail out of the way, for goodness’ sake! It’s peeking out the bottom of your shorts. That would give the game away.’” Who try to fit in with those around them, despite their obvious differences; but who cope with this strange life through humour, plenty of jokes and copious amounts of laughter.
So, Julian Clary, who crossed-dressed his Action Man from the age of five; who was called a queer and a homo by the school bullies; who went on to become a famous comedian; and who grew up in Teddington, Middlesex… Are there any parallels here?
“That’s very ingenious!” he says, in a rather nice, well-modulated voice – far less theatrical than his shows might lead you to believe.
Really? I mean, I’m not trying to replace Anthony Clare, but…
“Well, I’ve always thought - and I suppose it comes out in whatever you’re writing - that laughter is a very good coping mechanism. It sounds like a cliché but that’s how I got through my school days. They were fairly grim, but we did have a laugh about it...
“And it’s sort of a camp device as well, to trivialise things; so I suppose I’ll go along with your theory. Truth always comes out in writing.”
We’ve started well – neither of us has in any way alluded to my costume-jewellery yet - but I haven’t quite finished. Because the other thing that intrigued me was the family-focus within the Bolds. There are the parents Spot and Sue, who change their names to Fred and Amelia (presumably on the basis that ‘Spot’ would stand out in a constituency that ousted Vince Cable), and twins Bobby and Betty. If I’d guessed, I’d have thought he’d have chosen a very different kind of family from mum, dad, brother and sister.
“My family was conventional. And the house I’m picturing the Bolds in was the house I grew up in in Teddington.” He pauses and quizzes me, “So you’d imagine I’d have gay parents in the book?”
Sort of yes and sort of no, I guess. On the ‘no’ side, he always writes about his own ‘conventional’ parents, Peter and Brenda, with warmth and love. His relationship with them has clearly been easy and open: he even managed to elicit from his mother details of his own conception, one morning (“Brazen as you please. Anyone could have walked in. Where were my sisters?”) during a late-summer break in 1958 at Auntie Flossie’s bungalow in Clacton-on-Sea.
He muses for a moment. “I think it’s that thing where you either write about extraordinary people in an ordinary situation, or the other way round. Sort of a rule of sitcom, isn’t it? And my way of doing it is to have a very ordinary situation but extraordinary people [ie hyenas] living within it. It’s just my experience of life, I think.
“My parents, on the surface – a probation officer and a policeman; Catholic - were very straight-laced and above-board; but, actually, they’re very unusual and liberal and outrageous in their own way. But isn’t everyone?”
(Bear that question in mind; we’ll come back to it.)
“They gave me a good outlook on life. They’re both 84 now but they’re good at enjoying themselves and ploughing on and laughing. They’ve got various ailments that they can barely tell me about because they’re too busy being amused by each other’s.”
Fair enough. This is clearly the moment where I either forge a new career based on NLP or move on in the interview. Which is what I do. It wasn’t his idea to write a children’s book, he tells me, but the brainwave of his agent. He’s written a series of successful adult novels and thought he might embark on another, “But part of the problem, when comedians become writers, is that it’s very difficult to be taken seriously. The literary world is a little bit sniffy, whereas all that’s gone with children’s literature. It doesn’t have that sort of weight on its shoulders.”
The minute he sat down to write about the Bolds – in his Kentish house that’s haunted by the ghost of former owner Noël Coward – the words just flowed. He’s written the sequel already and has another eight in mind. “I’ve got a vision of a whole row of Bolds books on my shelf.”
It feels more natural than anything Julian has done yet. “If you’d asked me as a child what I wanted to do, I’d have said writing. And so would other people, probably. I wasn’t that funny and I wasn’t that extrovert.”
In fact, he didn’t read much children’s literature, growing up. He can remember the odd foray into Swallows and Amazons; “and I remember a book about a Chinese boy but it wasn’t famous. I didn’t really like Enid Blyton, but I was reading Thomas Hardy and George Eliot – those big, thick books – from about 11 or 12. I didn’t have that many friends so it was such a reassuring thing, to be able to escape into a book.”
So let’s return to that quote about everyone being “very unusual and liberal and outrageous in their own way”. Because, if Julian’s life proves anything, it doesn’t prove that. Read one way, his autobiography is very funny – light-hearted, outrageous fun; an easy passage (there we go again) into the world of gay bars and make-up for men; of camp humour and innuendo that launched a glittering career.
But underneath, it’s also a tale of homophobic bullying, gay-bashing (genuinely violently so, at times), prejudice, Valium, panic-attacks and depression. And there are the deeply-moving scenes in which he cared for his partner, Christopher, as he succumbed to the AIDS virus in the 1990s. Julian is uncompromising, not only in describing the dreadful physical symptoms that Christopher heroically endured, but the emotional fall-out, too: “The last night he kept trying to tell me something and I kept trying to understand. It went on for hours and in the end I did something rather unsuitable for the occasion. I pretended I understood, just to give him some peace… But I feel bad about it now.”
But when I ask Julian once again about the bullying, he brushes it off - despite his earlier comments about his ‘grim’ school days. “It wasn’t awful; it wasn’t important. And it’s the same as when Christopher was dying; his way of coping was laughing. You might as well laugh as not. I don’t like life to be too tragic.”
Does he think of himself as a pioneer? Somebody who helped pave the way for same-sex marriage, for example, by changing attitudes?
No, he says; he was just being himself. But: “Life is ever so different, isn’t it! You sometimes meet straight young men who, a generation ago, would have been a little bit wary. They’re not now – it’s straight-forward. The younger gay generation are not damaged in a way that earlier generations were. They’re very self-righteous about life and what they’re entitled to, which I think is healthy. It’s all very healthy now. They haven’t been through the hard times.”
Do they appreciate that?
“I think they do. Maybe some of them don’t. But I think it’s just an interesting way things have evolved. Because I had such a hard time at school [another slight contradiction, but I’m beginning to understand why], I can see why I arranged my life as I did - because I needed to be liked. You become a performer, and you particularly become a comedian, because you need that constant reassurance that life is actually OK.”
Life has, indeed, changed. And The Bolds is dedicated to the very latest generation - his great nephews and nieces. He must be the coolest great-uncle ever.
“They’re all quite young, still – between the ages of 18 months and eight. But I certainly don’t think my own nephews and nieces, who are now grown up, ever saw me as cool. If you’re a schoolboy and you’ve got a renowned homosexual as an uncle, it might have been a bit difficult.”
He does love children (one of his revelations is that he nearly became a father himself, during a conventional love affair with an unnamed woman), and particularly entertaining them. During his various festival appearances, he’ll be reading from his books while David Roberts draws pictures, which will appear live on a big screen. “Getting a laugh from a roomful of children is the same thrill as getting laughs from adults. The idea is to whet their appetite; to tell them a story while they get the added drawings by David happening before their very eyes.
“And David absolutely is the right choice of illustrator for me. He gets it all completely, and that adds a whole new dimension. It was so exciting, getting all the drawings through.”
He’s slightly worried, he says, that he’ll disgrace himself (with inappropriate jokes – though this, in itself, is a joke) – but it will be familiar territory geographically, at least. While his great-grandmother hailed from a farm in Chipping Norton, his parents now live in Swindon: “It’s not quite what we’d hoped for, but they’re very settled there now.”
Life for Julian, on the other hand, rotates between frantic activities – panto in Birmingham this Christmas, touring next spring, writing another Bolds book – and being quiet at home in Kent with the dogs and the chickens. There’s Valerie, the black, whippety cross, who’s 16 and suffering from canine dementia. “It’s a full-time job, I tell you. She’s wandering round the house now, not sure where she is or where she’s going. But she’s not too distressed by it as long as I’m around to lead her into the right room.” And Albert, a Jack Russell crossed with a Staffy. “He’s a bit of a geezer: six years old and ginger, but he’s very sweet with Valerie – keeps an eye on her.”
A busy life, then, juggling all those strands. “Yes, but I wouldn’t like to do just one thing. They’re all a means to the same end, I suppose. Ways of expressing myself. You kind of turn yourself into a product, don’t you? It’s all about me, really: writing about myself, or being on stage, or mining my own experiences to turn into anecdotes.”
Exactly. Such as a family of hyenas, who love their life; who hide their secrets and differences with jokes and laughter.
Julian Clary is appearing on October 4 at 1.45pm at the Guildhall, Bath as part of the Telegraph Bath Children’s Literature Festival. www.bathfestivals.org.uk; 01225 463362. You can also catch him at The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival; Cheltenhamfestivals.com
The Bolds by Julian Clary, illustrated by David Roberts, is published by Andersen Press, price £6.99