Bedecked in gold lamé and baubles, Julian Clary is firmly established as a Christmas beacon at the London Palladium. In this, Clary’s fourth pantomime season at the prestigious venue, he has effectively become a permanent fixture: his face has just gone up on the theatre’s “wall of fame”, alongside stars such as Judy Garland and Ken Dodd.
But the performer and author, a man infamous for over-sharing for comic effect on stage, still has a few secrets hiding under his outlandish costume as the Ringmaster in Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Not only is Clary soon to play a serious theatrical role, starring opposite Matthew Kelly in a touring production of Ronald Harwood’s esteemed drama The Dresser, he has also written a stage show of his own, based on his successful series of children’s books, The Bolds.
“I find as I get older I’ve got to challenge myself, otherwise life gets too easy,” Clary told the Observer. “I could get bored if I didn’t keep doing different things. So I like saying to myself, ‘I wonder if I could do that?’ and then throwing down the gauntlet. It is not to do with bravery; it is just to do with stimulating myself.”
The five-week run of Goldilocks, in which Clary co-stars with Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin, Paul O’Grady and Nigel Havers, forms a break in a big national tour of his one-man stand-up show, Born to Mince, which resumes in April.
“I did my tour, then I wrote the latest Bolds book over the summer, finishing it about a week before I started work on the panto,” said Clary. “I just compartmentalise. My brain couldn’t cope with it any other way, because they are such different activities. And I like the contrast. I like being applauded on stage, but I also like being locked away at home using a different part of the brain – my inner life and all that sort of carry-on.”
Perhaps the pantomime star’s most surprising admission, however, is that he does not much like Christmas. A bonus of appearing in Goldilocks is that Clary, 60, is permanently unavailable for seasonal socialising. “Panto is really physically tiring because it means 12 shows a week,” he said. “But then I don’t have to go to Christmas parties because I am busy. I don’t like them because you have to be nice to people and smile all the time.
“I also like doing panto at such a grim, wintry time of year. You are in this magical world on stage for the run and, by the time you have finished, and perhaps had a holiday, then spring is on the way. And the show is at the Palladium, so that is endlessly thrilling. And I do get to sleep in my own bed, unlike touring.”
News that Clary’s image was to be ensconced on the theatre’s wall of fame came in the form of a “posh-looking” letter from the theatre’s owner, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and his wife Madeleine Gurdon.
“It is just a lovely thing,” said Clary. “I am up there next to Shirley Bassey and near Norman Wisdom. Cilla Black and Jimmy Tarbuck are there too. I can’t believe my luck just working here, to be honest.”
Clary’s outrageous costumes are a key element of the panto, and this year they are bigger than ever. Yet the brunt of the hard work, he said, is borne off-stage by his dressers.
“It is the putting them on and off me that is the difficult part,” he said. “They have to hoik them on to my shoulders and I just have to stagger on to the stage, take the applause, say a few lines and go off. It’s easy.”
This year he is also surreptitiously studying his dresser, in preparation for playing one in Harwood’s play.
“I spend all day with my dresser because if I am not on stage I am getting changed and so, yes, whether you want it or not, you have some sort of relationship going on. They have to make my dinner and say nice things to me, as well as change my shoes.”
The Dresser opens in August next year, so it “is not yet keeping me awake”, Clary said. “It is a play I love, and one that I thought maybe I could do – something I can get my teeth into. It is funny – and I do like making people laugh – but it is also very sad.”
Live theatre, Clary suspects, remains in demand, despite the growing attraction of on-screen entertainment. “Theatre is totally absorbing and transporting, whereas watching something on the screen isn’t for me,” he said. “It is escapism, and that is what people need.”
And those performers who can offer audiences some extravagant fun are at a premium, Clary believes. “Oh yes, people are clamouring for it. Particularly a show like Goldilocks that is just nonsense. It is lavish and spectacular, and so much work has gone into it, but it is lightweight. That is what I like about it.”
Young readers of his books can expect something a little tamer than the full-on stage persona when Clary makes a personal appearance for his publisher, Penguin.
“I know to be careful. I can multi-task,” he said. “When I am reading a story, if some of the parents titter, then so be it. There is a character called Roger the Sheep, and if you want to see innuendo in Roger the Sheep, then you can. It is entirely up to you, and the children don’t see it, hopefully.”
Clary’s growing “multitasking” career may be a joy to him, but he knows it is hard work for his agents. “There is a literary agent, a comedy agent and an acting agent and they all have to stay in touch. But that is their problem, not mine. I don’t see why I have to pick just one occupation. It is like being a field; I just rotate and then lie fallow for a while.”
Goldilocks and the Three Bears is at the London Palladium until 12 January 2020. The Dresser will go on tour from September