The world might change, but Julian Clary - and his innuendo-stuffed schtick - remains delightfully the same
If you don't like audience participation, and you own a penis, you might want to avoid Julian Clary's Position Vacant: Apply Within. At the start of each night's show, Britain's self-proclaimed 'Lord of the Mince' prowls through his audience with a cattle prod and shepherds ten men onto the stage and into a sheep pen. He auditions the captives to find a husband, and by the end of the night there is a wedding with bridesmaids, confetti and a bishop.
It doesn't always go smoothly. "People get drunk," says Clary, "and you must remember that one in five members of the general public are completely mad." At one Sheffield show, a wide-eyed (and, Clary guesses, chemically charged) suitor clambered over the sheep pen and ran off the stage. But most play by the rules, and innuendo-heavy hilarity ensues. "I have a knack for picking interesting and funny people," Clary says, adding slyly: "And people are surprisingly easy to control."
Clary is explaining the mechanics of his tour on the phone from his home in Kent, a "ye olde" manor house once occupied by Nöel Coward. At 54, with three decades of television and stand-up behind him – Position Vacant marks his eighth tour of Australia – Clary is still, as is widely reported, one of the most polite and thoughtful showbiz types you will come across. He's written four books (including autobiography A Young Man's Passage, in which he writes beautifully of caring for his boyfriend Chris, who died of AIDS in the '90s) and claims Indigenous artist Gurrumul as one of his favourite musicians ("I love that I don't understand what he's singing about!").
Clary says his soft-spoken politeness comes from his parents, a policeman and probation officer who raised him to say please and thank you in Surbiton, Surrey. Being polite is simply who he is, he says, "but it's also become a comic device: to lure people in and then talk about fisting when they least expect it."
Australian audiences got their first real taste of that stealth comic approach on Clary's first big TV gig, game show Sticky Moments, which aired late at night in the early '90s. It was less a quiz show than an excuse for a brightly dressed, androgynous Clary to spout an hour's worth of innuendo – always with a quick, thickly eyeshadowed glance to camera. The episode's losers received plaster busts of Fanny the Wunderdog, Clary's pet whippet, while winners took home something equally insubstantial. "We were just allowed to get on with it and deliver the program without interference from the channel, which doesn't happen nowadays," says Clary. "It's all a variation on a theme with me, really – the freer and more dangerous I can be, the better it is."
Sticky Moments remains Clary's favourite of his TV projects, although he looks back fondly at his winning stint on Celebrity Big Brother in 2012. "Everyone told me not to do it," he recalls. "I'm an introvert and the idea of performing all the time doesn't come easily." But the win brought him to a new, younger audience, and knowing that the public voted for him meant a lot. Would he do another "celebrity" reality show? "I've already done Strictly Come Dancing so I don't know what's left really. The jungle? That one's a bit more humiliating, I don't really think it's for me."
Times have changed for queer comedy, and Clary acknowledges his schtick plays differently now that gay men are getting married and drag's gone mainstream. "Life has just evolved over the last 30-odd years – it's inevitable. I suppose I wanted to shock more when I was younger and I felt it was a necessary part of the demystification of gay life for the rest of the world. That doesn't feel like such a pressing thing now. Making an audience gasp in horror doesn't happen so often, but nor does it need to. Underneath all of that I've always just really wanted make people laugh."
In Position Vacant, he says he (and the audience) inevitably whittle down his potential husbands to two choices: a young stud and a funny (but less studly) guy. "It's usually the funny one that the audience wants me to marry," says Clary. "And I guess that's significant: that, yet again, what's important in life is who makes you laugh."
So he always chooses the funny guy? Clary laughs. "Not necessarily – it depends what mood I'm in."