I look at Clary for some assistance, some acknowledgement that this is a gag about woolly knickers. Did he mean 'Winter Drawers On'? Am I meant to be sniggering? And what did he mean by "straight" play? Off-stage, six-foot something and classically good-looking in jeans and a very stylish shirt, with just the merest smattering of mascara, Julian Clary looks a bit, well, sotto voce and I suddenly don't feel too confident I'd win any favours by asking him what he means.
To be frank, Clary has been a bit quiet all round lately. Apart from compering a Channel 4 cabaret show last autumn called The Queer Comics, the screen has recently been very devoid of Julian and his camp comedy, his outrageous Lycra bodystockings, his star-spangled post-modernist Kenneth Williams sniggers about sucking a Fisherman's Friend. In his glory days his horseplay would see him pluck members of the audience onto stage, joust with them verbally, and then dismiss them with the merciless jibe; "there you go, back to obscurity."
Cruelly, the same could be said to have happened to Clary. Now aged 36, he's been away touring Australia for five months, writing a new series of his C4 sitcom Terry and Julian, and generally having a nice time in his north London flat with his former stage sidekick, the ageing, arthritic Fanny the Wonderdog. In his absences, the hungry beast that is television light entertainment has gorged on the likes of Reeves and Mortimer, Steve Coogan and AbFab, to provide it with the surreally "alternative" comedy that once was Clary's almost sole domain.
Only 18 months ago, Clary was a ubiquitous presence on our screens. To him went the honour of hosting festive occasions (welcoming in Christmas dressed as a reindeer in C4's Camp Christmas), the alternative game show (Sticky Moments), the chat show (Radio 1's Intimate Contact with Julian Clary), wacky sitcoms and, of course, spin-off books, spin-off records and endless live comedy tours where his fey put-downs, incredibly still undiminished by television overkill, had audiences in fits. Even flops could not tarnish his lustre; neither the dire game show Trick or Treat, nor a role in the disastrous 1992 movie Carry On Columbus, seemed to matter. Julian Clary was it, he was in, and everyone loved him.
His politeness ("I never use dirty language. It's unnecessary") and overwhelming charm, mixed with a gift for comic timing and pregnant pauses, made him not only the darling of C4 but also of mainstream audiences. His name became a byword, not for sad homosexual jibes a la John Inman, but for witty, provoking behaviour which audiences of whatever sexuality admired.
In Sticky Moments, his spoof game show, he would play unfair tricks on contestants, such as sending them back to their seats for social ineptitudes like having a centre parting or wearing an anorak. Winners weren't much better off, receiving only a ghastly bust of Fanny the Wonderdog and a bunch of wilted freesias for their pains. Clary didn't need to be everyone's friend, a sort of Woganesque character trying to please the world; in his words, he played a "screaming queen" whose penchant was to be faintly rude to everyone whilst wearing ruffs, bows, bells, furbelows and Statue of Liberty outfits. And people loved him for it.
It seemed all to come so easily. Brought up in Teddington by his mother, a probation officer, and father, a policeman, Clary always had the gift of the gab. He says it helped him during his years at St Benedict's Catholic boys' school in Ealing, where he and a friend, Nick Reader, would disarm anti-gay flak (Clary says he knew he was gay from the age of eight) by dressing in odd socks and using archaic words such as "forsooth". "I had a certain celebrity status being the school queen," he confesses.
On the hunt for an Equity card after an English and Drama degree at Goldsmith's College, London, Clary's first venture into cabaret was a mad caper called Glad and May, performed with a friend, Linda Savage. Clary wasn't at first all that interested in cabaret. "I only did it so there wouldn't be an 18-month gap in my CV," he says, although fellow students recall that even then Clary was confident he'd make it on his looks alone, if nothing else.
Savage and Clary, dresssed as charladies, would rush up to women in the audience, grab their bags and read out personal letters and diaries. Amazingly, apart from one occasion when they were booed and pelted with ice cubes for reading out a woman's letter from her partner in Pentonville Prison, they got away with it. "Of course, I died many times on stage when I first started," says Clary. "But you think well, the first five minutes was good. Then you reach the moment when you think, well, the first eight minutes was good. And it just goes on from there."
It went on from there to his solo cabaret act, the Joan Collins Fan Club, with which he and his dog achieved a cult status. In the days where stand- up could mean grim "alternative" comedians belting out political invective, the sight of Clary mincing about with music, frilly clothes and a performing dog was indeed a delight. C4 signed him up and his audience expanded overnight from thousands to millions, encouraging him on every venture to get away with murder.
But what he did not get away with was being naughty on television about an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer. Really naughty. Hosting the British Comedy Awards, live on ITV in December 1993, he made a reference to Norman Lamont that finally made TV executives wonder whether he could be trusted any more. Clary declared: "I've just been fisting Norman Lamont. Talk about a red box." Lamont and his wife, Rosemary, were in the awards' audience. To make matters worse, Michael Barrymore, the next presenter on, demonstrated the remark graphically, just in case any deaf viewers at home hadn't quite got the joke.
There was an almighty hoo-ha. "Hamfisted", screamed the Star, which said Clary must be banned from television. The Sun was not far behind. "His outburst referred to an act so gross it would be difficult even to describe in a family paper," wrote columnist Gary Bushell. There was an on-air apology from LWT, and Clary was dropped from a Radio Scotland Christmas show. He had stepped out of his neat role of polite jokes about sausages and bottoms, and he was not to be forgiven.
"It got blown out of all proportion,'' says Clary now. "You're on for 15 seconds and you're expected to be funny. I dared myself to say it when I was in the wings waiting to go on. I thought it was slightly near the knuckle, but had one known what a fuss there was going to be, I wouldn't have bothered really. There you go. I've not been invited to an award ceremony since."
But Clary is not really the way the tabloids painted him. He is camp, but seldom crude. In Susan Sontag's book, Notes On Camp, she defines campness as being "a vision of the world in terms of style . . . a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms." Bring on those jibes about centre partings. However, another Sontag theory explains perhaps why Clary went for the high dive in such spectacular style. "Camp . . . is a feat goaded on, in the last anyalysis, by boredom."
It's tricky. Being outrageous has a sort of sliding scale; the trouble is that once you've got the audience cottoned onto the fact that turning up on peak-time telly wearing only chainmail and tons of green eyeliner is funny, every so often you have to go a bit further. "I got bored," agrees Clary. "And after a while it didn't seem very daring. It started out as daring to dress up and be outrageously camp. After a while it became safe. Oh yes, calling a tour "Glittering Passage" started off as daring, but then it changes. I always wanted to be mainstream and successful but I got bored by it. I'm not saying I'm done with all that yet, but there comes a point you think well, I've come as far as I want to come, or I've said what I want to say. I mean, the third Australian tour wasn't that different from the first." He pauses, and looks at me. There is a dreadful silence while he fiddles with a box of matches.
"The thing about comedy is that you can't do it successfully without sincerity," he continues eventually. "It stops being funny. Like old material. One of my favourite gags was: 'There's nothing I like more than a warm hand on my entrance.' I'd say it when I started off a gig. But there came a point where I couldn't say it any more. It just stopped being funny."
But it is funny, I say, snorting with laughter. "Well, it might be for you," says Clary, courteously, in his flat, polite voice. He eyes me as if I am one of the anorak-toting losers on Sticky Moments. "I do occasionalhy wheel it out, and it gets a respectful round of applause. But what I want is a good old laugh from down there," he says, pointing to his stomach. "You can't go on stage if you're bored with your material. There are others areas of the mind which need, shall we say, stimulating." I have an idea to giggle, but looking at Clary it doesn't seem appropriate.
There's another long pause. "Light Entertainment is a very good word," he says suddenly. "It's what it is. Light. People watch it when they're doing the ironing. It's dispensible." He stops for a minute. "You start wondering if that's it. A series, a tour, then another series and another tour. I'm quite happy not to work, frankly. I can spend months doing nothing with the greatest of ease. I've got my flat, and my car, and my dog."
He goes silent again. He's a graceful man, but one thing Julian Clary is not, is a bundle of laughs. He is clearly uneasy talking about himself. Short of asking him what his favourite food is (we've already discussed the pattern on top of the matchbox), I start reaching for anything in order to keep him talking, and question him about Fanny the Wonderdog whom I last remember seeing on stage impersonating the Duchess of York.
"It's important to spend time with her in her last few years. She's 15 and she enjoys it if I've got a day off," says Clary, suddenly voluble. "And she's so demanding. Partly gone in the head. It sounds silly to say it, but it's important to have quality time with a dog. There's more to life than work." Indeed. His last long-term partner, Christopher died of Aids in 1991. Does he now live alone in Camden? "Yes." That's that then.
As if to further demonstrate his ennui with television, Clary is acting in his second straight play (if you count the children's shows in Covent Garden as his first). On 15 June, he will open at the Lyric, Hammersmith in Jean Genet's The Splendid's. A British premiere, the play is part of the London International Festival of Theatre, and being in it worries Clary. "I've had to unlearn all sorts of things," he says. The play is a sort of Reservoir Dogs, a two-act thriller featuring a group of gangsters plus a policeman under siege in a snazzy hotel. Clary plays a gangster.
"Straight acting is very hard for me to do. You don't realise how addicted you are to hearing a laugh; and if it's going badly, and you feel you're boring the audience, you can't just say 'Oh forget this, let's have a song'. I've had to learn about not running the whole show on my own, the way I'm used to." Of course he's nervous that the drama establishment will slate him, or the cabaret establishment misunderstand him, or worse, that hordes of Clary fans will rock down to the Lyric and start rooting for some tacky stuff. "I have a fear of people coming and expecting camp comedy; and I have a fear that I might respond to that.''
Does he worry about his profile being dented if the play flops? "I want my profile to be as low as possible," he says. "I'm doing it for myself." And that's all he wants to say. "Have we terminated?" It's clearly time to go. "I'll give you a lift," he then says.
In his sporty Toyota, low slung with leather-seats, he relaxes. No, he hasn't learnt his lines yet. Yes, he'll drop me off at the Marylebone Road. After the play, is he up for anything else? Well, yes, he's been having ''talks''; and one of the ideas is big, namely hosting The Generation Game. That classic show, the format of which Clary mocked so mercilessly in Sticky Moments? The very same. He's on the shortlist and he's been in to have lunch with the big guns from BBC 1.
"From Genet to The Generation Game. I'm sure, though, the BBC will come to their senses and offer it to Bob Monkhouse, but I'd love to do something with 17 million watching. It's another example of the unexpected coming along, but my agent's been rather quiet, so . . . " He shrugs, as if it doesn't matter much. Would he really like it? "Yes." Without taking his eyes off the road, Clary says "yes'' with such fervour that I wonder if he really meant it when he said that light entertainment was dispensible.
! 'The Splendid's': Lyric, W6, 0171 312 1995, from 15 June.