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The consummate amateur

Features | By William Cook | September 2016

Portrait of Barry Humphries by David Hockney, currently on show at the Royal Academy
Humphries as Sir Les Patterson. ‘In Les I can release my alcoholism,’ he says

At 82, on his fourth wife and still working hard, Barry Humphries is happy to an almost annoying degree, found William Cook

For a man of 82 who’s just spent a sleepless night in hospital (thankfully nothing serious), Barry Humphries is looking remarkably bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He seems scarcely any different from the first time I met him, 24 years ago, when he was a sprightly 58. His big bug eyes gleam with mischief, his smile lights up the room and his hair, still thick and dark, could give Melvyn Bragg’s bouffant barnet a good run for its money. ‘I attribute my long life and good health to avoidance of all forms of exercise,’ he tells me, with a chuckle. He’s a man with an insatiable appetite for life.

‘Time accelerates,’ he says. ‘When I was in the States the other day I went to a novelty shop and they had cushions with messages embroidered on them. One of them said, “I always thought old age would take longer”. I echo that sentiment. You think it’s going to take a long time but, boy, suddenly it accelerates! You keep thinking, “I’ve got so much else to do!” ’

We meet in his tall terraced town house in West Hampstead, his London home for forty years. A dark and cosy eyrie full of books and paintings, it feels like the home of a Central European intellectual, which is apt. Humphries has always felt a deep affinity with the culture of Central Europe – ever since his schooldays in wartime Melbourne, when the art and music of the city’s German Jewish refugees was a thrilling contrast to the genteel tastes of his Anglican suburban peers. ‘One lady I knew had a suitcase of Expressionist prints,’ he remembers. ‘She told me that the Gestapo were standing over them       when they packed their cases.’ For Humphries, this strange, exotic salvage, transported to Australia from the cabaret bars of Berlin and the coffee houses of Vienna, held the promise of a more creative life elsewhere. He came to London in his mid-twenties and found his Heimat here in West Hampstead, a part of town that’s always felt faintly Viennese.

This summer Humphries repaid his lifelong debt to German Jewish culture with a Weimar Cabaret show, which he performed in London and Edinburgh – a medley of ‘degenerate’ classics like Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, which Humphries first heard on a rare imported record in Melbourne as a boy. Back in 1967, while playing Fagin in Oliver! in London’s West End, he auditioned, incognito, for the MC in Cabaret and was summarily rejected. ‘Let us know when you’re working,’ the director said to him, unaware that his name was already up in lights just up the road. Half a century later, he’s finally playing the MC, in a cabaret show of his own making. It feels like a happy ending, poetic justice of the nicest sort.

It must have been a relief to get some respite from Dame Edna Everage, that monstrous alter ego who’s been his spouse for sixty years. Just as Weimar summed up everything that was lacking in his Australian upbringing, Edna summed up everything he hated about that comfortable, constricted life. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that he’s everything Dame Edna isn’t: cultured, cosmopolitan, sensitive and reflective. How ironic that this small-town philistine has become his virtual twin.

John Barry Humphries was born in Melbourne in 1934, the eldest of four children. ‘We thought we were English. We had no convict ancestry, unlike the rough, common people in Sydney. We had English trees, English gardens, English flowers. No aborigines, no sign of a kangaroo, except at the zoo, no koalas in the trees, no snakes. We lived in a sort of Cheltenham in the jungle.’ It was a bizarre beginning, which may have inspired his absurdist humour. From an early age, he felt out of place.

‘My mother used to say, “We don’t know where Barry came from.” She’d say it quite loudly and quite often, in front of company. And I thought to myself, “Well, if my mother doesn’t know where I came from, what is this strange, alien feeling that I have?” I think it might have been because I was beginning to realise I was some kind of artist – not of the first rank, but an artist all the same, a person on the periphery of real life, an observer.’

His father was a prosperous builder who put up smart new villas for Melbourne’s aspiring middle classes. Barry used to accompany his dad on site visits, giving him an enduring interest in the inside of other people’s homes. Like all good artists, he’s always been a nosey-parker. ‘To this day it interests me very, very much what houses people choose to live in,’ he says. ‘Dame Edna is always asking audience members where they live.’ Edna’s first monologue, in 1955, was all about her lovely home.

His mother sounds like a frightful snob, fearful and disapproving of any deviation from her conservative lifestyle. He recalls a family outing when he was a child, to a guesthouse on the outskirts of Melbourne. ‘A strange looking group of people appeared and my mother whispered to my aunt, “Jews!” ’ In fact, these petty prejudices, borne of social insecurity, were fairly typical of bourgeois society in Australia (and Britain) in the 1940s, but while most of his peers accepted these banal bigotries, Humphries rebelled against them, and turned them into comedy. ‘I decided, after experimenting in the Noël Coward manner, that perhaps the joke lay close at hand, closer to home.’ His mother was undoubtedly a major inspiration for Edna, though he always denied it while she was alive, in order to protect her feelings. Yet although the character is cruel and cutting, it’s not entirely unaffectionate. Significantly, Edna was the name of his first and favourite nanny.

Humphries went to Melbourne Grammar School (‘a pathetic imitation of an English public school’) and then on to Melbourne University, but he dropped out to become an itinerant actor and an anarchic performance artist, playing grotesque practical jokes on unsuspecting members of the public (one of his favourite stunts involved eating vomit from Melbourne pavements – actually a tinned concoction called Russian salad). However, it was when he addressed his mother’s world – the world of interior decoration and class distinctions – that his act took off. ‘There was a kind of gasp of recognition, which manifests itself in laughter, but the laughter really represents the recognition of the audience that they are themselves on stage.’

Humphries came to Britain in 1959. If he’d stayed in Australia, he says, he probably would have fizzled out. He arrived in London at the perfect time – it felt like the dawn of a new age. ‘Extraordinary things were happening,’ he says. ‘There was a lot going on.’ He saw the first night of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, but the most revolutionary show was Beyond the Fringe, which killed off traditional revue and heralded the beginning of the satire boom. ‘I was really caught up in it all, and I knew so many of the people of the period.’ Peter Cook booked him to play Edna Everage at his new Establishment Club in Soho. Back then, Edna was a mousy figure, far too quiet to please that raucous crowd. Humphries was a flop, but this humiliation was a blessing. If he’d been an instant success, his career might have ossified. Instead, he spent the Sixties as a jobbing actor, rather than a pampered star, and his comic perspective developed into something deeper. It was his saving grace that fame came relatively late.

Most impresarios would have dropped Humphries after such an abject failure, but Cook was heroically indifferent to the whims of fashion. He stuck by Humphries, casting him in Bedazzled, his groovy remake of Faust, and hiring him to write The Adventures of Barry McKenzie for Private Eye. This coarse and cheerful comic strip, about a randy, boozy Australian rampaging through Swinging London, was very popular, but the Eye’s editor, Richard Ingrams, eventually dropped it on account of Humphries’ drinking. Apparently, Ingrams thought the strip was ‘brilliant’ but he couldn’t deal with Humphries missing deadlines. ‘Humphries was at that stage a serious alcoholic,’ Ingrams told Adam Macqueen, the author of Private Eye: The First 50 Years. ‘You couldn’t do a strip cartoon like that.’

‘I was intimidated by Ingrams, who was very much like a head prefect, and always looked disapprovingly in my direction,’ remembers Humphries. ‘He was a grown-up. I still felt like a student.’ Ingrams had given up alcohol in the Sixties. In the Seventies, after some spectacular mishaps, Humphries followed suit. ‘I enjoyed the experience of intoxication, and now I can find intoxication in many other things,’ he says. ‘I’m very glad I put the cork in the bottle so long ago.’ Unlike Peter Cook, he’d managed to stop drinking just in time. ‘There is a certain point in alcoholism, a point of no return.’

It’s surely no coincidence that this was when his career took off. Cook’s            early faith in him was finally vindicated, as Mrs Edna Everage mutated into Dame Edna Everage, housewife superstar. Edna became a huge success, anticipating the rise of Margaret Thatcher, and rather overshadowing Humphries’ other characters – like Sandy Stone, Australia’s most boring man – which are really just as good. ‘I’m still writing Sandy Stone monologues,’ he says. ‘I’ve included a monologue in every show and slowly this character has deepened, so I begin to understand and appreciate him, and finally feel myself turning into him.’ He no longer needs make-up to play the part. He doesn’t even need a costume. He plays Sandy in his own dressing gown.

Personally, I’ve always been most amused by Sir Les Patterson, his drunken Australian cultural attaché – a nightmare vision of the man he might have been if he hadn’t stopped drinking. ‘In Les, I can release my alcoholism,’ he says. Tellingly, of all his characters, Sir Les has caused by far the most offence Down Under. This surprises me, I tell him. I always thought Australians were laid back. ‘Australians are deeply conventional – deeply conventional!’ he declares. ‘On the surface, you get this easy-going thing. In fact, we’ve got an enormous bureaucracy – we like being bossed around.’

He’s been married four times, and has raised four children – two from his second marriage, two from his third. ‘Marriage is very rarely successful,’ he says. ‘I rushed into it far too soon – about 35 years too soon.’ Happily, his fourth marriage has bucked the trend. Since 1990, he’s been wedded to the beautiful and talented actress and author Lizzie Spender, who even manages to look absolutely stunning (and about half her 65 years) when she pokes her head round the door to say hello with her hair in a towel and no make-up on. Lizzie is the daughter of Stephen Spender, chronicler of the Weimar years – that era which meant so much to Humphries in his youth. At the risk of sounding soppy, it seems to me that in his fourth and final marriage, his life has come full circle.

If anyone else had been quite so jammy (beautiful home, wonderful wife, incredible career, rude good health) I’d probably be eaten up with envy, so why do I feel so pleased for him? I think it’s because he’s such a happy chap, and happiness is infectious. Unlike a lot of celebs I’ve met, he positively oozes joie de vivre. ‘On the whole, most of my life has been a pretty happy one. I’m very lucky. I regard myself as an extremely lucky person.’

The thing that keeps him happy is his fascination with the world around him. He doesn’t hobnob with showbiz folk and rarely sees other entertainers unless he’s working. ‘My friends are not theatrical people – I mostly like the company of writers or painters.’ He seems far more interested in writing and painting than performing, and far more interested in the wider world than the ups and downs of his own career. His two fine memoirs, More Please and My Life as Me, display an acute ear for dialogue and a novelistic eye for detail. An avid collector of modern art, he’s also a decent weekend painter (‘I look at my work with fatuous self-satisfaction’). His main pleasure, when he’s touring, is finding forgotten masterpieces in provincial galleries. As his friend John Betjeman once told him, ‘Art never lets you down.’

For me, the key thing about Barry Humphries is that he became a comedian quite by accident. For him, performing has only ever been a part of life, never its raison d’être. He’s an amateur, in the best and truest sense of the word. ‘I have no recollection of making a firm decision to be a comedian, or to enter the theatre,’ he concludes. ‘I felt no sense of vocation.’ After all these years he’s still just playing at it, still mucking around while he waits for something else to come up. Of course there’s no way of knowing, but I suspect it is this splendid amateurism which is the source of his enduring happiness, and the thing that makes him such an interesting and entertaining man. 

This story was from September 2016 issue. Subscribe Now