Interview: Fertile imagination

For most men the notion of fatherhood is a cause of pride and emotion, no laughing matter. But Julian Clary isn't most men

Julian Clary fathers love-children all over the country. It's up there with "World War II bomber found on moon," or "I gave birth to an olive" as a laughable headline.

Because the idea of the comedian as a super-fecund father is so inherently funny, Clary has turned it into the centrepiece of his new live show, Special Delivery. He jokes about being so fertile, he only has to sit next to a woman on the bus for her to become pregnant. He also reckons many of his wonderfully gifted progeny are dotted around the country - "That Gary Barlow, he's one of mine. As are the entire cast of Grange Hill."

But, as with all the best comedy, there is a serious element underneath. Dressed in a greyish cardy and black T-shirt - no sign of bondage gear or prosthetic skyscrapers on his shoulders here - he is engaging company, as modest and understated off-stage as he is flamboyant and outrageous on.

He reveals the thinking behind the new show. "I did seriously think about having a child, but I chose not to. I couldn't cope with all that delivering semen in a manilla envelope. I work through all those feelings on stage and use it as therapy - it's jolly good for me.

"Those happen to be the things that are going through my mind at the moment," he continues. "I'm no different from any comedian; it's silly to talk about things you're not thinking about. The practical person in me could also see that it was a rich area for comedy. It is funny for a seemingly ignorant homosexual to delve into all that heterosexual business."

There is another agenda going on, however. "It gives me a break from having relentlessly to think up new ways to say `bottom'," he laughs. "I'm sometimes envious of people who have boring jobs where they turn up, do something, and go home again without having to think about the job anymore. One of the disadvantages of my job is that I lie awake at night thinking up buggery jokes when I'd rather be doing something else."

All the prepared material is, of course, merely a springboard for what Clary does best - diving into a pool of audience interaction. It is this knack for spontaneous exchanges with punters which lifts him out of the realms of the one-joke wonders. The test of a live comedian is how they cope under fire. Clary could ad-lib until the cows come home and put their feet up with the evening paper.

"I hate rehearsing," Clary comments. "The show only comes to life when the audience are there. The rapport with the audience comes naturally. I can't wait to see them. It's like walking into a room full of friends. It's a two-way thing - I'm glad anyone's turned up."

Jon Plowman is the BBC's head of comedy entertainment and executive producer on All Rise for Julian Clary, the BBC2 vehicle in which the comedian adjudicates on ordinary people's domestic disputes. He asserts that Clary's inspired riffs are "genuinely not concocted. You're not watching a script. You feel that this is just him relying on his wit and that he can go anywhere. Danger is an overused word in comedy, but there is a spontaneity about it."

Clary's sheer enjoyment of the banter is plain for all to see. "He actually looks forward to the notion that these are real people," Plowman carries on. "He doesn't work so well with people who are obviously just desperate to get their faces on telly. He doesn't just see them as a way of feeding him material. He hasn't gone down the route of the sitcom, because he's a comedian/personality that the audience warm to."

So much so that they don't object when, say, he rifles through the contents of their handbags on stage and holds them up for public ridicule. People think he's so cuddly, they let these things pass. "He looks cute enough to take home to your mum," Plowman avers. "There's a certain vulnerability about Julian that allows mums and dads to say, `He's a nice boy really'. He's able to say the most outrageous things with this look of seraphic innocence. He can get away with murder."

As the titles of his TV shows - Sticky Moments, All Rise for Julian Clary - have proved, the 38-year-old comedian has a serious innuendo habit, and he can not foresee a time when he will be able to kick it. "Innuendo becomes a way of life," he declares. "It may go out of fashion, but it's very tied up with the English language and is therefore unlikely to ever die out."

He very much feels part of a great British camp tradition. "I do like all those people like Larry Grayson, Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd. They are similar to me. It's their whole languidness, particularly that Larry Grayson stuff of `I'm not well, I shouldn't be here'. I like all that `slightly too delicate for the world' thing."

Viewers have always been drawn to these types, too. "The British public has an affection for people who are different," Clary reflects. "It becomes safe then. It's like a Belisha Beacon warning - they know what we are. It only worries them when they can't tell."

The only sticky moment in Clary's career came when he made his now-notorious crack about Norman Lamont on live television at the British Comedy Awards in 1993. For a while, Clary became untouchable for jittery commissioning editors. "There was a sense of starting from scratch again," he sighs. "It upset me at the time, but in retrospect I enjoyed it. I needed that time to have a break. The way I look at it, there is no hurry. One has as long as one wants. It's not like the Spice Girls, where you only have 18 months to pack in everything. It's very wearing being funny."

His fans - many of whom are middle-aged women glorying in the title of "Claryettes" - show no signs of being worn-out, though. "It's escapism," he observes. "That's how I approach the show. My world on stage is fantastic. People who buy tickets for it know they're going to get camp comedy, glamour and a certain feelgood factor. I'm aware that it's very trivial and silly and pointless, but I do forget about everything else for those two hours. Maybe the audience do, too."

The second series of `All Rise for Julian Clary' starts next Saturday on BBC2. His national tour, `Special Delivery' continues throughout November and culminates at the Vaudeville Theatre, London (0171-836 9987) from 9 Dec to 3 Jan