Peter York On Ads: Julian Clary - a warm hand on the opening

W H Smith

As a new generation takes over the Tory party - "Back to the Future with David Cameron" - so we inevitably find ourselves thinking about Norman "Panda" Lamont. Lord Lamont. We won't see his like again. An earlier generation of Notting Hill Gate Tory, Norman Lamont had an extraordinary talent - a poltergeist sort of quality - for having red-top stories happen to him. There was the alleged Miss Whiplash-type who rented his house once. Panda utterly blameless.

Then there was the curious Threshers incident. A Threshers assistant had said to a newspaper that he recognised Panda, then chancellor, as the man who'd bought some booze and fags from him. There was a tremendous fuss, which I never completely understood. Was Panda being impersonated? Are chancellors not supposed to buy their own booze and fags? Was it an unsmart branch? Or were they the wrong brands - a quart of Thunderbird and 40 Embassy Regals? We were never told. But Panda was utterly blameless.

And then there was Julian Clary. We have to be absolutely clear beyond peradventure here about the Clary/Panda incident, which was a figment of Clary's imagination. Clary joked on television that he had performed an unspeakable act on Panda, which of course was entirely untrue. He said it at an awards ceremony in 1993 before an audience of millions - and a lot of thespy luvvies in the hall who seemed mightily amused. That's thesps all over, utter contempt for the values of decent ordinary folk.

It's there we turn to Clary. He didn't work on British TV for years after that. According to his autobiography A Young Man's Passage, he'd been rather down at the time, in the mood to take a life-changing risk. And to say what he did on television proved completely life-changing.

Julian Clary is a difficult, prickly one for sure. You wouldn't be surprised to hear he'd got religion - or politics for that matter. He's not a cosy queen, a Graham Norton, a Queer Eye, at all. He's often quite confrontational with interviewers. He's difficult to place in the spectrum of modern comedy too - the comedy mainstream is now increasingly middle-class, laddish and high-concept, while a lot of Clary's patter is ancient camp, almost panto, but with the old Danny La Rue guardrails off. Modern gay men usually don't like him either - too camp and sibilant. His audience is women - women who like the way he handles and humbles their bumptious, beefy boyfriends.

So which part of this interesting, difficult personality has the dynamic WH Smith retail chain bought as the voiceover for one of its Christmas commercials? There they are, selling the same DVDs as everyone else, on a price platform (two chart DVDs for £26 - is that good pricing?). There's Star Wars: Episode III - "very exciting", says Julian. He sounds bored to sobs. Batman Begins - "very dark". The Desert - "very scary". There are reminders of those famous films using some of those computer effects they used to do so excitedly in the mid-1980s. It's that generic - just retail Joint Venture advertising where the DVD people will be putting up most of the money. It's the sort of thing the plc procurement people love (the brand and advertising agency people loathe it).

The one innovation, the one bit of potential brand personality, the trace element of rogue DNA in this enterprise, cooked up between Swindon back-offices - is Clary. Clary has the one joke that goes: "Titanic special edition, very very ... wet". That's it. Not even a smatter of his mainstream camp ("a warm hand on my opening" goes down well).

At the end, as bubbles pop and wrapped presents fall out, the strapline emerges. Some of the finest minds of our generation will have pored over this; every syllable will have needed committee approval: "This Christmas, think WH Smith."

But why? For a few chart DVD offers you could get with your food shopping? For the book offering? If you're in a rather basic suburb or you're only in the market for Christmas bestsellers, maybe. For magazines - where Smiths has beefed up the offer hugely and even has the safer, top-shelf stuff - probably. Within its limitations, Smiths is more focused and better run than it used to be. But you'd never know it from the ads.