Barry Humphries (London Sunday Times Magazine, March 17, 2019)
From the outside Barry Humphries home in north west London is unassuming. Inside, every inch of wall is lined with gorgeous pre-Raphaelite paintings, book cases heave with first editions. There are thousands of books. I wait for him in a pale blue sitting room with tones of hyacinth.
His wife Lizzie is there. She is tall and elegant and very funny. Before long she and I are showing each other our impersonations of Olivia Colman as we discuss her performance in The Favourite. Humphries joins us with, “It gives lesbian porn a bad name.”
He’s wearing a purple linen jacket, a green pullover and purple corduroy trousers but the corduroy is horizontal, in perfect keeping with the idea that Humphries likes to blend in, seem normal but is actually completely the other way. He defends Colman saying she was very good in the Night Manager. Lizzie and I chorus ‘but she’s the same in everything’. Humphries smiles. “So am I.”
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Humphries is the creator of many diverse personas – Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and the ghost Sandy Stone. Often they could say things that Humphries himself could not. Humphries is a rare breed – a man who is altogether a man who is available and unavailable at once. He’s intimate, yet detached, kind and razor sharp, cutting.
We’re here to talk about his return to the London stage for Rob Brydon probes Barry Humphries Live On Stage. Did he know Brydon already?
“Yes I wrote to him and I said I admired his work so we met for dinner.”
So, it’s like a bromance? Will he rehearse this probing? No. It’s totally spontaneous,” he grimaces.
You wonder if it’s hard for Barry Humphries to be Barry Humphries. Last year he put on an intriguing show at the Barbican with the Australian chanteuse Meow Meow. It was a fascinating journey through songs from the Weimar Republic, composers who were banned by Hitler that Humphries had rediscovered as a child. He was whip smart and funny as himself.
“I’m getting confidence now to do things as myself. I’ve always preferred to be heavily disguised but a disguise I’ve never used is the disguise of myself.”
He’s just back from Australia and is still suffering from jetlag. Where do I live in LA he asks apropos of seemingly nothing, but the eyebrow is raised.
I am giving you a scoop,” he whispers. “Edna’s coming back. She’s in very good shape. She’s been measured for new frocks and 3 songs have been written. She’s back there at the end of the year after opening in Australia.”
Edna did a retirement world tour a couple of years back where she put away her sequinned winged glasses for good.
“My first song for that show is written and it’s all about why Edna didn’t retire. It’s a wonderful song explaining to the audience why it was impossible to retire. It says there were too many people trying to copy me, including Barry Humphries and it was time they reacquainted themselves with the real thing. Too many clones.”
Edna got into trouble before she retired or maybe it was Barry Humphries because people were saying she was very anti-trans. Is it the same political situation in Australia?
“Oh, nothing has been more grotesquely interpreted. Edna carefully said she thought that men who had themselves castrated did not become women and that got taken the wrong way.”
Edna was still causing trouble even in her retirement.
“She was about as gone as Cher or Dame Nelly Melba of whom your younger readers will know nothing (Australian singer who did many retirement concerts).
It seems Humphries works tirelessly. He’s revising the comic strip Barry McKenzie, writing the new Edna show and the meantime he has the Palladium.
I remember going to an Edna show in Drury Lane and I caught a gladioli. “You catch gladioli like you catch Ebola. Right place right time you get it..” I laugh, he smiles.
“I like anyone who can make me and an audience laugh.”
He hopes his Palladium show will be a conversation about how comedy has changed, about what’s funny and what isn’t.
Does he think that the fashion has changed in his and Edna’s lifetime? “Not in a drastic way. More and more people want to be comedians. In my day not many people wanted to be a comedian as an ambition. It wasn’t profitable. But with television and all the other outlets and also fame attached to being a comedian, comedians are the new rock stars. Billy Connolly was the first rock star comedian.”
What will be some of his greatest comedy moments?
“I’m still deciding but there will be some scenes from the Marx Brothers, Steve Martin and Woody Allen. And I’d like to include some of my own early films. Lizzie says if she hears me laughing in another room, she knows I’m laughing at one of my own jokes. She can tell.”
He remembers going to his first comedy show.
“It was an amazing discovery when I went to The Tivoli with my parents. The Tivoli was a disreputable theatre in Melbourne which had variety shows but on this occasion my parents went because I was a fan of someone called Arthur Askey, a British comedian. To hear a man onstage making the whole audience laugh was a miracle to me. I thought I wonder how they do that and the seed was planted, little knowing that I might one day…”
In the past, Humphries has described Edna as being opinionated, acerbic and bolshy and did he even like her? “I like the effect she has on the audience. She makes them laugh.” Thus, Edna gave Humphries the gift he’d wanted as a child. And it must have been hard for him to give her up to be onstage as himself as he is much shyer.
The prep for Edna – the dresses, the wigs, the make-up, the dancing, the eight shows a week must have been very exhausting. And everyone’s always asking where does Humphries end and Edna begin. Suddenly there was no circle. Edna was ended. But it seems he couldn’t live without her and her voice. She’s coming back later this year. There’s already a tour of Australia and US dates planned.
He is nostalgic about the comedians and the Australia in his youth.
“When they’d done every stage in England several times, when the audience could repeat the words of their comic routines they went to Melbourne to the Tivoli. They made jokes I didn’t understand and I noticed my parents exchanging guilty looks, must have been naughty jokes. Risque. Little did I know I would become a risqué comedian. A blue comic as they were called.
When I first got a gig at a return serviceman’s club in Sydney in the 1950s, they said to me ‘the audience likes blue material and at the age of 22 I was so naïve I wore my Sunday best blue three-piece suit. I thought the material was fabric.”
Humphries has had a 64 year career onstage. By now he knows the difference. It turns out he has quite a thing for Brydon.
“Every time I turn on the television Rob is there on the deck of a ship. He seems to live a wonderful life on board those ships (he does a commercial for P&O cruises). I am consumed with envy of Rob. Benevolent envy.”
As Humphries he’s extremely benevolent. As Edna less so. He cuts an impressive figure today – so colourful and energetic and still has the legs for Edna. Does he feel 85?
“No, I feel 52.” He likes to paint. He enjoys a good restaurant – especially one owned by a celebrity chef – and he has friendships with many luminaries including Prince Charles and Camilla. He’s done countless world tours and has written two memoirs – My Life As Me and More Please, both achingly well written. He has courted danger and controversy throughout.
I’ve always wondered though is it a political statement. Why is it that Edna never wears a bra?
“She’s never been embarrassed to say that she was blessed in many ways but not that way. She waited for something to appear but it never took place. She found the twinset helpful and that if she wore elaborate spectacles no-one’s eyes dropped south of the glasses. She’s never tried to be a sex object. She’s very relieved she’s not known as that. They’re a miserable lot, the sex objects”
He is the master of being attached and detached all at the same time. It’s been so long since he had a drink, he doesn’t really treat it as an issue anymore.
“It’s a nice thing but a life’s a life. For some people like me it’s off the menu. It just doesn’t work. I have it in the house for other people. I could give you an absinthe if you want one. I brought upon myself some horrible events.”
Did he find that Edna had taken away the voice of Barry Humphries so that’s why he found it so hard to return to the stage as himself? And maybe himself was never himself.
“It’s more like I find the voice for it. Whatever the thought it I think who would be best saying this? Me, him, her, it so I choose like a casting agent. When I saw The Favourite, I thought Edna would be very good in the Colman role.”
Edna a lesbian? “No. As she once said, she doesn’t even like the word. It leaves a nasty taste in her mouth.”
I remember her saying that. “It was one of her famous utterances.”
Does he ever think her humour was too cruel? “Nobody ever asked for their money back. she’s fundamentally caring.”
His parents were far from encouraging. I remember my mother saying ‘look at that comedian. It’s pathetic at his age but the comedian she was referring to was only about fifty. These days 85 is the new 50.”
Humphries was not there when his mother died. He was told she was in hospital but it was nothing serious. But contrary to the end she would say, ‘look at these lovely flowers Barry sent me’ but he had sent no flowers.
“I come from a family who have a great deal of prudiness about illness. If someone was very ill we’d say he hasn’t been very well lately, which means dying.”
Also, perhaps the family didn’t tell his mother she was gravely ill.
“That’s right. I had a vision of someone coming back to Australia after a long absence and going to the family home and finding it was occupied by Ukranians and then you say to your sister what’s happened to mum and dad? ‘oh, they died but we didn’t want to worry you.’
Does he forgive his parents?
“Yes, I sympathise with them. I agree with them wholeheartedly about everything that they said to me that offended me at the time. My parents were very nice. They had a hard time with me. Whenever I did a performance or asserted myself in any way at a family gathering my mother would say, ‘don’t look at Barry, he’s drawing attention to himself.’ I thought that would be a good name for a show. Barry Humphries draws attention to himself one more time. Maybe I’ll call my new show that. My mother had a series of phrases. They weren’t original but they were, on her lips, rather devastating. She timed it perfectly. She was a frustrated artist I think and they are dangerous people, frustrated artists. You know Hitler was a frustrated artist. She was very hard to please so I grew up with the assumption that women were impossible to please and some of them obliged me by conforming to this, by being impossible.”
Humphries has had four wives Brenda Wright, a dancer (1955-1957) when he was 21 and she was 19. It ended quickly. Of the marriage she has said, ‘there’s nothing about Barry Humphries that I want to remember. My marriage to him was a long time ago and thankfully every year takes me a little further away from it.’
Rosalind Tong (1957-1970) a dancer, artist Diane Millstead (1979-1989), mother of his two sons Oscar and Rupert and Lizzie Spender (actress and equestrian, daughter of the poet Stephen (1990 till now) He has two daughters, Tessa and Emily from his 3rd wife.
“Women are impossible but not Lizzie. She’s the exception. It took four marriages to find her.”
Perhaps he should have kept them as girlfriends and not actually married them.
“I was doing very well financially and I thought I’ve got to get rid of this money somehow.
Is that close to what happened?
“Yes, the Ukranians improved the family home greatly. Sometimes I think it would be funny to advertise the new show and then say to the audience coming in very sorry ladies and gentleman but Dame Edna has passed away. We didn’t want to worry you.”
Humphries is presented with a contraption and he grimaces. He says to his assistant who has just delivered it, “You had to do that in front of a journalist, didn’t you… So far the grim reaper has made very few inroads but my hearing has suffered.”
His hearing doesn’t seem to be any different with the contraption but I can hear a high-pitched squeaking. The hearing aid has done the opposite to aid and it’s reminding Humphries of all the restaurants he doesn’t like to go in because they’re too loud – “the Caprice is deafening.”
He once wanted to open a restaurant called The Oubliette, which he would fill with Shostakovich like music so no one would be able to talk at all.
“In the middle ages they used to chuck somebody in a hole and then they forget about them so the Oubliette was a restaurant where you are forgotten and the waiter never comes. I remember one time in the 1960’s when a cookery writer at The Express invited me to lunch at The Savoy. I could choose whatever I wanted and she would interview me about food so I ordered Oysters Zarina which are oysters with caviar on them and you dip them in cream. Must have cost a fortune. The chef came to the table and said, ‘you’re the first person to order Oyster Zarina since Ambassador Ribbentrop’.
He seems a little sheepish about being 85. There must be a sense of time running out.
“Is there a follow up to the CBE and if so, how long does it take?” Humphries is already a dame as Edna. Perhaps people might think a Sir would be superfluous.
“People have said it’s not strictly kosher, Edna’s damehood.”
What age does he feel? “I feel about 52.”
We discuss a man in Holland who tried to change the date on his birth certificate because he identified as 45 instead of 65. He wasn’t allowed. One can change one’s pronoun but not one’s age.”
After the trans-phobia, Humphries got into trouble because he was pro Brexit, anti-Brussels and now he is redefined as anti-Brexit.
“I think I have actually but I don’t have any interesting political views. What was lovely about being in Australia was they’ve never heard of Brexit. I was in Sydney writing and Lizzie was visiting her horses. We have a flat with a view of the harbour. I’m reviving Barry McKenzie the comic strip. I thought what would this character so popular in the sixties be doing now and I worked it out.” (it first appeared in Private Eye, now it’s destined for The Oldie.)
He’s come back to England because he wanted to see some Australian mates who are not in Australia any more.
“There are no Australians in Australia any more. Only Chinese.”
The Australians of his generation like Germain Greer and Clive James are very much part of the British heritage. “I wrote a clerihew about Clive James. Dear old Clive James is still alive. We know he’s not dead because he’s telling us about all the books he’s read. Germain is still alive. And I’m very glad. And Rolf Harris is still alive. I never liked his appearance.”
What does he fear? “Obscurity and ghosts. I’m very scared of ghosts. I believe in them and I’m very wary of them. I don’t like to sleep in haunted places and Australia’s very spooky. Ghosts are there. Explorers and senior citizens. I’ve promised to be one. There is a theatre in Adelaide called Her Majesties. They are building it and I promised to be a ghost there.
He once said of his children, ‘I think their abiding memories of their father are a man surrounded by suitcases. Now he says, ‘They’re all doing well. Two daughters in Melbourne, one a painter, the other an actor. My son Oscar is an art expert and dealer. My son Rupert co-wrote a video game called Red Dead Redemption and he’s hugely successful. All of these children of mine are mostly well behaved and don’t require any financial support. What more could you wish? Rupert has twins and I dote on them and Oscar has a daughter.”
“Edna heard that Barry Humphries was claiming to do an Edna act and a few terrible drag queens were doing Edna as Edna. She needed to set the record straight.”
I still think he just couldn’t let her go.
Rob Brydon probes Barry Humphries Live On Stage at the Palladium April 28th