Why Barry Humphries isn't afraid to cross the line
The actor, famous for portraying the hilarious Dame Edna Everage, knows what it takes to survive as a housewife superstar
"I am interested in the things that have disappeared," says Barry Humphries as he lowers his stately behind into a BBC chair, revealing wildly odd socks and a pair of black suede slip-on shoes with gold buckles that Prince might regard as racy.
We’re here to discuss Humphries’s Radio 2 series about the big band music and light opera he listened to as boy in suburban Melbourne, during and just before the Second World War. But the really interesting thing is that Humphries himself hasn’t disappeared. While contemporaries and friends like Peter Cook didn’t get much beyond middle age, the Australian comic, raconteur, stage actor, author, book collector and dispenser of bons mots has bestridden our culture for nearly half a century.
“I was never drawn to sport,” he says, settling into the seat after some huffing and puffing, “to which I attribute my long life.” It’s that simple then, no tennis or cricket? “Well, I suppose all those people were huge consumers of alcohol and I stopped drinking 45 years ago. So, my continuation is largely due to that moment.”
Is Humphries ever tempted, now he’s got the tricky first 45 years out of the way, to pour just the cheekiest of gins? “No,” he says. “When you see people who drink getting sick and bad tempered and misanthropic and self-destructive one feels dismayed, you know, depressed by it. And I have a very happy life.”
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I mention, as politely as I can, that when he shed his fedora, scarf and flapping coat, the 81-year-old had revealed a few more pounds than he’d carried in his prime. “The theatre is very good physical exercise,” he says. “I’ve put on weight since I’ve stopped working on the stage.” Stopped working, does that mean... Humphries answers the question before I can ask it. “You shouldn’t believe any of Dame Edna’s announced retirements. Not for a second."
Dame Edna Everage, it's worth recalling, is the character that has served as the main vehicle for Humphries's incisive and often uncomfortable wit, since the Melbourne house- wife superstar first appeared in public in 1954, to be joined later by the dipsomaniac Australian diplomat Sir Les Patterson. In fact, Edna has been around so long she’s outlived her own model in Madame Tussauds. “They had a very good Edna,” says Humphries. “But it’s not there any more. I’ve been turned into the kneecaps of One Direction. That’s the worst sort of sorrow, to be melted down at Madame Tussauds.” They’ve really melted you down? “No, they’ve shifted me to the Madame Tussauds in Amsterdam. That’s not exactly an elevation, is it? I graciously accept these occasional disappointments. Though they’ve probably got Adele there now.”
I sense Adele’s warbling isn’t Humphries’s idea of singing. Rather he advocates the 1930s siren Hildegarde, who “had a beautiful voice and would play the piano in long white gloves”. His show also features the tenor Richard Tauber, whose records young Barry would play on “a wind-up portable gramophone on a tree stump in the bush”. Otherwise, as they awaited the Japanese bombers that never came (“we taped cellophane to the windows to stop them shattering”), the Humphries family would listen to British comedians on the radio. “I still have a soft spot for radio,” he says. “It’s an intimate and flexible medium, you have to listen. Whereas the telly is a kind of wallpaper.”
His wasn’t, he admits, a very Australian youth. “There were no native trees, just English elms, silver birches, oaks. We had a picture of Churchill in the kitchen.” He never encountered an aborigine in Australia and only saw his first kangaroo in the flesh at London Zoo when he arrived in the late 1950s. He says this affinity with Englishness is professional as well as personal. “My grandfather came from Manchester in the 1880s and I think of myself as a northern comedian. There’s a northern tradition in this country. You don’t think of great Berkshire comedians, but you do think of Yorkshire and Lancashire. The further north you go, the funnier people are.”
Humphries was an outrider for a wave of ultra-talented Australians that crashed onto our shores in the 1960s. “I was a bit earlier than Clive James and Germaine Greer,” he says. “But I think we all brought a critical eye. There was something quite smug about 1960s Britain, self-regarding. Our astringent views were salutary.”
Humphries enjoys being astringent, though he hides truths in statements that seem designed to shock. “Why do you think Downton Abbey is so popular in the States?” he asks at one point. “Because there are no black people in it.”
And the more obviously liberal Greer continues to cause trouble, most recently with the transgender lobby, when she said of trans women, “Just because you lop off your d*** and then wear a dress, it doesn’t make you a woman.”
Which didn’t, on the surface, seem that liberal. “Germaine is very, very paradoxical,” says Humphries. “To the point of being a bit of a ratbag actually. But she’s very bright, very nice and her stuff is very good.”
And what does a man who has spent much of his life pretending to be a woman make of the debate about gender fluidity? “I don’t even connect it. What I do is just acting and an actor should be able to impersonate anything – a piano, a tree, a Melbourne housewife who thinks she’s a megastar. It really doesn’t have a sexual dimension. I suppose it’s very good, if people feel that they are housed in the body of the wrong sex, that they do some- thing about it. Though if it involves surgery it’s very radical.”
He clearly likes Greer and laughs aloud when he recalls her answer when asked why she first left Australia: “‘It’s so boring!’ She didn’t endear herself to her countrymen with that.”
Humphries has long upset those same countrymen with Patterson, the boorish drunk who has become their chief representative overseas. “But Les Patterson is extremely refined,” he says, “compared with most Australian politicians.”
Is causing offence important to Humphries? “Quite important,” he admits. “It’s very easy to become a safe figure and tempting, too, to want to be all things to all people.”
He claims to be baffled by political correctness and reckons to have been an early victim in 2003 when Dame Edna’s agony column was dropped by Vanity Fair. “A woman asked: ‘I’m thinking of learning Spanish, is this a good idea?’ Edna said, ‘Why Spanish, who would you talk to – your maid?’ Now we would read it as Edna satirising snobbish people who think maids and Spanish-speaking people are inferior. [Actress] Salma Hayek was on the cover and rallied a lot of Mexicans and death threats were received by [editor] Graydon Carter. Unbelievable! And my column was suspended. You lose your job.”
They surrendered? “Oh yes. Carter wrote a pathetic editorial saying there is a type of humour where you say the opposite to what you mean.”
Humphries bemoans the modern inability to appreciate irony or satire. “Imagine if the BBC tried to do Till Death Us Do Part again today, with Alf Garnett ranting against black people? It couldn’t be done. There is a new puritanism that we are experiencing, a nervousness. I mentioned some ideas to the BBC [Dame Edna was on Michael McIntyre’s show over Christmas]. I wanted to say something about Mr Corbyn and a faceless, nameless person at the BBC said, ‘Then you have also have to say something about Mr Cameron’. As if there wasn’t any bias at the BBC at all!”
If Humphries loves the BBC, which I think he might, it's the BBC of long ago, hen he first arrived here in search of conventions to kick over, the "extremely free BBC of the 1960s”, when the talent had their own remarkable social club. “I met David Attenborough recently and he said, ‘Oh Barry, we used to see a lot of each other in the BBC Club in the 60s.’ This man who must be nearly 90 remembered the talks we’d had all those years ago. It was really a hotbed of alcoholism, no one ever seemed to go back to their office after being in there, but it was interesting. There were directors and writers, Marty Feldman, the early Pythons, Morecambe and Wise, Dick Emery, Frankie Howerd, Spike Milligan...
“It was wonderful really and it was exciting and they would try anything. There was a real feeling that we were making entertainment. It’s not such a free place any more. There’s a fear of treading on people’s toes and I don’t like it.” With that his backside lifts, and the elaborate business of re-robing Barry Humphries in his fedora, scarf and flapping coat begins anew.
Barry Humphries: Barry's Forgotten Musical Masterpieces is on BBC Radio 2 tonight (Wednesday 13th January) at 10.00pm