In 1985, I was among a group of students who happened to see a 15-minute set in the Edinburgh Fringe Club Cabaret by the then-unknown Joan Collins Fan Club. In many respects, Julian Clary (for it is he) has not changed the essence of his act in the intervening twelve years, for all that the programme notes to his Special Delivery tour (now concluding with a month in the West End) make spurious claims to be ushering in a new phase of Clary; as he also admits therein, he has never tired of being a "camp old knacker", and frankly, it suits him.
Although he seems to feel that doubling his entendres would be a little on the generous side (witness the running, or more accurately spurting, gag about his butler, Jism), Clary always comes over (I'm sorry, one simply can't help it when writing about him) as more cuddly than combative. Unlike his forerunners in the realm of camp comedy (Larry Grayson and so forth), however, Clary can always top an "oo-er, did he really mean that?" laugh by making it graphically clear that he did indeed, and more.
His most precious skill, though, is his ability to handle punters (there I go again). Where, say, Dame Edna Everage specialises in slowly, surgically humiliating her victims in the stalls, Clary proves that insult need not lead to injury. He can sneer at one person's coat or another's hair, even handcuff an unfortunate to him for the finale, but the mood is always warmly bantering; even when confronted (on the press night) by his "stalker" wittering away incomprehensibly at him from the front row, he just refrains from drawing blood – not that she would have noticed.
Following the likes of Phil Kay and Graham Norton, Clary's set now includes phone calls made from the stage (last Friday, to a check up that a punter's daughter in Bishop's Stortford was behaving herself). He even sends his assistant Helga (Helen Jackson) out of the theatre, armed with a walkie-talkie, supposedly to recruit a sperm donor to father her child – for parenthood is the hook of Special Delivery, complete with pram upstage containing Clary's alleged son by Helga, a nipper who inevitably bears the initials KY.
The musical numbers continue to pull things up short (it's not that Clary cannot sing; he just seems a little awkward with a singing voice as low as his actually is), and the time-warp sequence is unduly contrived, but as camp old knackers go, Clary's continues to be the biggest, pinkest marquee in the field.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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