ARTS / Show People: Just carry on camping: 42. Julian Clary

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The Independent Culture
IN one episode of Sticky Moments, Julian Clary's spoof gameshow, a contestant declares that his ambition is 'to get to the top'. Clary's eyebrows reach for the ceiling and he hitches his stars-and-stripes silk costume at the vast shoulder pads as he pouts to camera: 'I'd prefer to get to the bottom, myself.' Squeals of laughter from the teen audience, and Clary smiles slyly. He is in his element.

Now 31, Clary has established himself as an expert operator of deadpan innuendo and ironic camp. With his gently bitchy comments about contestants' clothing and constant double entendre, he teases but will not humiliate or patronise. (If you humiliate them, he points out, you don't get a laugh.) With smut-and-titter comedy in vogue, suddenly Clary is in demand for work other than gameshows.

After the disastrous Trick or Treat (where he played second fiddle to the dismal Mike Smith) and the more successful Sticky Moments (where he could set the pace), endless stage tours and the superb Desperately Seeking Roger (a trip to New York to find his idol Roger Whittaker), Clary has just finished shooting his first big-screen role in Carry On Columbus, and a new sitcom, Terry and Julian, which starts on Channel 4 on Friday.

Inevitably, Clary is compared to others who have made a living from innuendo, notably Kenneth Williams. Journalists are particularly fond of trying to pin down his heritage, and he is sensitive about this to the point of impatience. All he knows is that it works. 'You'd think innuendo would become extinct,' he confessed, 'but I don't think it ever will.'

Clary was born in suburban west London: father was a policeman, mother a social-worker. He went to a Catholic public school, but feels that this has little bearing on his material: 'I spent my childhood happily riding my bike and making sure I stayed on the pavement.' He says his parents were not difficult when he came out with the by-then obvious fact that he was gay. 'Growing up,' he said, 'was all quite jolly.' But he has confessed to having been badly beaten at school by a monk: 'I was quite an effeminate 12-year-old and he probably wanted to knock it out of me . . . It's made me very wary of men in black robes wielding cricket bats.' Clary can't resist turning the confession into a gag.

After the sunlit childhood, things got a little rougher. Having left Goldsmith's College, where he studied English and Drama, Clary worked as a Gay Tarzanagram while trying to get an act together on the alternative cabaret circuit. This became The Joan Collins Fan Club, starring his dainty mongrel Fanny (who, alas, has since retired). Then came Friday Night Live and big-time TV. At this time, he became the subject of homophobic attacks in his home in south-east London, but he doesn't talk much about that. A year ago his lover of three years died of Aids. He doesn't talk about that either.

Clary's act is, he is quick to point out, only an act. The outrageous clothes and flamboyant make-up worn onstage are not copied off it. He now leads a sedate and undramatic home life. But the fact that his stage persona is fixed and polished can only be to his advantage.

In Carry On Columbus, the film that revives the favourite Sixties bust-and-bum genre with which comic actors from the 1980s alternative stable (such as Rik Mayall and Alexei Sayle) were suddenly keen to get involved, Clary plays Diego, the prison governor. With Jim Dale, Leslie Phillips and Bernard Cribbins starring alongside Nigel Planer and Adrian Edmondson, the original meets the revival, old style meets new, head-on. Clary admitted that were Kenneth Williams alive, he would probably have played Diego, but denied he was playing Williams rather than the part itself. The fact that for years the Carry Ons were their stars is a tough legacy for the new cast. But Clary will have an easier job than most, as he thrives on exactly the sort of humour the Carry Ons provided.

The new sitcom, Terry and Julian, is a vehicle for his stage persona. Terry (Lee Simpson) is an ordinary bloke who just happens to have Julian Clary living in his flat. 'I wanted the parody in the title,' he says (it was going to be called Meet the Rent Boy), and claims that it is sending up the suburban world in which homosexuals have no place unless they keep quiet. In the fifth episode June Whitfield of Terry and June makes a guest appearance: parody and original meet again.

Clary admits he wants to 'rock the boat a bit'. He's done that already. TV has always had its tame camp men - John Inman in Are You Being Served?, Larry Grayson. But were they or weren't they? We never knew. And there was a safety in that not knowing. Clary leaves you in no doubt. He says he doesn't want to be a spokesman for camp: 'Really, I'm not on a crusade.' But, he doesn't need to be, he's already redefined the representation of gays. Just by being himself, he has banished coyness from the box.

The first episode of 'Terry and Julian' will be shown on C4 at 10.30pm on Friday.

(Photograph omitted)