Nol Coward’s my ghost writer: Julian Clary reveals how living in a house haunted by the playwright’s spirit inspired the plot of his new book

Chrissy Iley

Last updated at 11:39 PM on 24th February 2012

Julian Clary is standing in the snow in a thick jumper outside his grand old country house. It is half-timbered, 16th-century and seems to be leaning into the snow. He is waiting to help me out of my car.

The house used to belong to Nol Coward up until the 1950s and is haunted. Julian wants to make sure I don’t slip in the snow because that’s the kind of thing the spirits of the house do – make people fall over. Coward wrote Blithe Spirit and much of his best work here. The house is said to have quite a few ghosts. Some of them cause trouble and they often keep him awake at night. Trying to write here has also been problematic.

‘You feel that weight of expectation, as if Nol Coward himself is breathing at your shoulder.’
Julian still has a house in London’s Camden but spends most of his time
in Kent doing country things. ‘A brisk walk through the woods with my
dogs makes me happy.’

Haunted: Julian (and the ghost of Nol Coward!) at his Kent home

Haunted: Julian (and the ghost of Nol Coward!) at his Kent home

He is 52 now and more content than he’s ever been. When he moved here a few years ago he was looking for a new challenge. His friend Paul O’Grady, who lives a field away, had seen that Nol Coward’s old property was coming up for sale.

‘Paul told me about the whole Nol Coward aspect and that’s why I came to look at it. I still have my Camden place and as long as I can afford to I will keep both. Here, it’s sometimes rustic and isolated – I do feel the need for London. I feel the lifting of spirits when I get back there, but I feel the same thing when I arrive here, too.’

Julian did find a new challenge – doing less television and more writing, both for stand-up tours and novels. He has a new book, Briefs Encountered, which is his best yet. It is clever and witty, with characters you really care about, the central one being the old manor house itself.

The novel flits between the past and
present. Back in the past it follows the relationship between Nol
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 fifty-something actor, the fictional Richard Stent,
whose clever younger partner Fran has moved to LA for work. Both past
and present feature an interlocking series of guilty passions, betrayals
and obsessions.

Actor and playwright Noel Coward (1899 - 1973) at his writing desk at the Kent home

Actor and playwright Noel Coward (1899 – 1973) at his writing desk at the Kent home

There’s also a character who arrives to check the house for ghosts with divining sticks. She discovers the vortex where the ghosts come in and out and describes a few of them. Although that may seem weird, it actually happened. I know because the character is based on me and my divining sticks, which I brought out when I was last at the house. I saw a ghost in a Cavalier costume and another younger man with immense sadness.

‘I never forgot that,’ says Julian. ‘It became a fact that the ghosts were there. I like the idea of the past carrying on while other people are here. All the strange things that have happened in this house – pictures falling off the wall, things breaking – it was like the house complaining about every modernisation I did. That’s why I was worried you might fall over getting out of the car; that would be typical of the house making its feelings known.’

The house’s owner in the book is also attracted by its link to Coward. ‘When he sees the house for the first time it speaks to him, compelling him in. That’s pretty much how it was for me. The survey was shocking. It said, “Don’t buy this house”, but I was drawn to it. I felt as if I wanted an adventure.’

All the strange things that have
happened in this house – pictures falling off the wall, things breaking –
it was like the house complaining about every modernisation I did.

The book took three years to write. Research was intensive and mixing the present and the past was a painstaking balancing act. ‘It’s a fictional account of the difficult relationship Nol had with Jack, who had a drink problem.
We know Nol bought this house as a chance for them to get away. Then,
in the mid-1950s, Nol discovered that Jack had been syphoning off his
money and he wrote him a very final letter. My version is a bit more

There is an intense personal connection, too. ‘Isn’t it funny how life imitates art’ says Julian. ‘My estranged partner moved to LA for his job and part of the reason for me writing this book was to work through all of that. He’s much younger than me and work is important to him. Had I been offered a part in an American sitcom I would have gone, so why shouldn’t he Funnily enough, he came back two days ago. Some of the book is taken directly from real life. He’s terribly private though, so I’m picking my words carefully. I don’t want to upset him so soon after his return.’

Neither the fictional character nor Julian coped well with separation. Last time we met he told me the relationship was over. ‘Yes, well, things change and I can’t be held to account for what I said before.’ So does Julian think the book, which he sent his partner when he’d finished it, brought him back

‘I do. I was working towards that when I was writing it. Working out what I wanted to happen, then making it happen.’ He says there’s even ‘been talk’ of a civil partnership. ‘Claridge’s would be an ideal setting. But we may change our minds. Sometimes when I think of a reception and speeches and referring to my husband, I don’t think I can face it.’

Julian admits to feeling ‘very grown-up’ these days, a far cry from his wild times starting out on the comedy circuit as The Joan Collins Fan Club – ‘I’ve been unfaithful and I can tell you it’s not worth the trouble. Monogamy is so much easier.

‘I’ve got happier as I’ve got older – that’s the gift of life, isn’t it Writing books, doing tours and pantos are very nice. I don’t get drawn into analysing it all. If I feel any over-analysis coming on, I get rid of it by watching Deal Or No Deal. By the way, it’s 4 o’clock.’ By this he means I have to go. Deal Or No Deal is about to come on.

Briefs Encountered is out on Thursday 29 March, published by Ebury Press.