The Art of Fisting the British Public
Torsten Højer

Despite enjoying a diverse career, English comedian Julian Clary is known for one thing—bringing fisting to the imagination of the British public. With a history of camp innuendo and double-entendre, he’s becoming a barometer of changing press attitudes to homosexuality. Or is he? Torsten Højer takes a look.

There’s been camp, there’s been double-entendre, there’ve been lewd jokes—in fact they’re the threesome that has supported the backbone of theatre, comedy and song for generations. But one man has been at the heart of innuendo focusing on the dirty side of gay sex in the UK for decades. Step forward and take a bow—or bend over, as he would probably put it—Julian Clary.

52-year-old Clary is billed as a man of many talents, now offering up a mix of comedian, novelist, TV presenter and actor amongst his achievements. But mention his name to anyone on a British street, and they’ll most likely think of one thing—fisting.

It’s quite an accolade, if you think about it—that one man can bring images of a man having another man’s fist penetrating his butthole to the minds of most of middle-England, regardless of whether they’re conservative Christians or swinging suburbanites. It all stems from an incident at the 1993 British Comedy Awards, where Julian Clary was invited to present the prize for Top Television Personality. On live TV and in front of an audience of millions, he opened by saying he’d just been backstage fisting the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont. The audience roared, but the critics didn’t. Britain’s notoriously right-wing and arguably homophobic newspaper, The Daily Mail, along with equally not-hot-on-the-gays The Sun, condemned Clary, and the latter even mounted a campaign to have him removed from television altogether.

It stalled his career for many years, and some say prevented him from attaining the heights he could have reached in that sector. But defiant as always, Clary continued with his trademark camp frivolities.

What’s interesting, 20 or so years on, is that despite him not changing (it’s fair to say he has calmed his comedy, but his books still bear hallmarks of innuendo—his 2005 autobiography was titled A Young Man’s Passage and his soon-to-be-published novel is called Briefs Encountered), his treatment by the tabloid press has changed remarkably.

Without a hint of homophobia, the aforementioned Daily Mail ran an interview with Clary last month, promoting his new novel. The piece focuses on the fact that Clary lives in a house that previously belonged to playwright Noel Coward (it’s thought Coward wrote many of his plays there, including Blithe Spirit). Clary’s neighbor is another camp TV personality who found fame as drag queen Lily Savage—Paul O’Grady. The article speaks about the content of Clary’s book, Briefs Encountered:

The novel flits between the past and present. Back in the past it follows the relationship between Noël Coward and his American lover and manager Jack Wilson, some of which is imagined, some based on fact. While in the present day the house is owned by a handsome 50-something actor, the fictional Richard Stent, whose clever younger partner Fran has moved to L.A. for work. Both past and present feature an interlocking series of guilty passions, betrayals and obsessions.

Let’s face it—there’s plenty of ammunition in the whole damn story for a newspaper with a proven past of attacking gay men to stick the big hard one where it hurts, but the feature skims through devoid of demonization, avoiding the lure of lewd suggestions. Whether the press has simply got bored of battering this batty-boy in print, or whether it’s a case of Clary retreating from his brashness when being interviewed by such a newspaper is unclear, but if Clary hasn’t changed his ‘act’ he is an interesting barometer of how the British press—notorious for its heavy-handedness—may be changing its attitude to gay men. Only one aspect of the interview stands out in its oddness—and that’s the fact that an editor somewhere along the line has chosen to place Julian Clary’s article with the ‘FeMail’ section of the paper, so called because it’s the bit aimed solely at women.

Is the paper worried that its macho-male readership with react badly to them not vilifying Clary in the piece? Or does it imagine only women would care to read about a big, camp, gay boy’s new novel? Or is it, perhaps, things aren’t changing that much at all?

Julian Clary’s new novel, Briefs Encountered, is out on Thursday, 29 March in the UK, published by Ebury Press.

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