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Barry Humphries - Addicted to books

Blog | By Barry Humphries | Apr 22, 2023

Detail of Carl Spitzweg’s The Bookworm (c 1850)

While on tour with his one-man show, Barry Humphries lurked in regional bookshops, desperate for rare volumes

The plaque on the door of my hotel room said ‘Superior Room’.

Once inside, I searched for evidence for this rather grandiose claim. None was apparent, though there was a chocolate on the pillow. And the toilet paper had been folded into a neat point by a Polish chambermaid. If the Polish ever go home, England will collapse.

I am in the middle of a tour of English towns with a modest theatrical offering, which is proving to be very successful. Most reassuring, since I was seriously thinking of auditioning for a riser-recliner commercial.

The trip is taking me to some wonderful theatres. I had not realised how much I had missed all those little pink faces peering at me out of the gloom and rising to their feet at the end of the show. If only to fetch their coats from under the seats.

One town is beginning to merge with another, but Shrewsbury was a great discovery and I am looking forward to Buxton and Cheltenham, where Nicky Haslam, the great flâneur and generous friend, has threatened to attend.

When you are on tour, the hard bit is what I call the ‘third act’. That is, when all sorts of people from all corners of your life, past and present, mingle with the fans at the stage door – on those occasions when there is someone at the stage door.

Last night, in Malvern, Julia Allen, former headmistress of the Hall School, appeared looking exactly as she did 30 years ago when she looked after my two sons. At the same time, one of my Olivers turned up at the stage door.

I was in the first production of Lionel Bart’s Dickensian musical and in numerous revivals, in which I impersonated Fagin. Ever and anon, many of the little pickpockets I have known reappear and introduce me to their wives and children.

One of them was Davy Jones of the Monkees. Another was a singer called Phil Collins, who is apparently quite successful and widely liked.

Last night’s Oliver, Colin Patterson, had a grey beard, which made recognition challenging after an interval of 60 years. He remembered – as do I – being embraced by Georgia Brown who played Nancy and was one of England’s finest jazz singers.

Of course, there are always ratbags waiting at the stage door who haven’t been to the show. They demand my signature on multiple home-printed pictures of Bruce the Shark (an animation for which I once provided a convincing piscine voice).

There are always also a few mendicants who discourage one from inscribing their programme with their name – so you know they are planning to flog it on eBay. I am told that 20 Barry Humphrieses could win you one Danny Dyer.

Mostly, though, I love the cast of the third act, and I am always pleased that some of them have actually seen the show!

No hotel on my itinerary has failed to recognise the decorative use of otherwise worthless literature. I have made several discoveries in hotels where old books are scattered around to lend a more classy or homely touch to otherwise nondescript accommodations.

A dazzling shelf of elaborately gilded bindings in a hotel in Penang proved, on closer examination, to be a set of Danish agricultural manuals. And my room in a ‘boutique’ hotel in Casablanca contained a vitrine filled with all but two volumes of Joseph Hocking’s hundredfold oeuvre.

Most interesting are the books tourists of yesteryear left behind. In a hotel of decayed grandeur in a forest in Portugal, I ‘liberated’ a heavily foxed volume of the Monthly Review of February 1903, containing an appraisal of Machiavelli’s Dispatches from the South African Campaign – an ‘unwritten book’. The anonymous reviewer was Baron Corvo.

In a nursing home for ‘thirsty people’ near Hadley Wood, voracious readers of Netta Muskett and D K Broster, long whiles agone, must have abandoned their reading of those fine authoresses and bequeathed their books to future inebriates.

I have also found quite rare volumes and even paintings on film sets; wrack washed up from the literate past. Stacked books, often glued together, are sometimes to be seen, along with old leather luggage, in the window displays of gentleman’s haberdasheries, to impart an air of olde-worlde distinction. They proclaim, ‘I read, I travel.’

Sadly, second-hand bookshops are disappearing from many of the towns we visit. But when I find one, I always stand in a quiet corner and listen in the hope of hearing a thin, faint voice from some high and dusty shelf. ‘I’m here!’ it cries. ‘I’m the book you have looked for all your life – I’m up here! I have been for 78 years.’

It might be wedged behind volume two of George Moore’s A Story-Teller’s Holiday and the 23rd reprint of The Roadmender by Michael Fairless. But my mobile chimes and I don’t hear the little voice and I may never again discover that impossibly rare copy of Love’s Memorial by Theodore Wratislaw.

Yes, the mobile phone is usually a nuisance. But sometimes it’s a salvation. I was on an American theatrical tour in Los Angeles and, one Wednesday afternoon, I decided I wanted to go to a book fair in Pasadena. So I called my friend Bruce Beresford, the film director, who had a car, and proposed a bibliophilic excursion.

He picked me up at my hotel at about 12.30pm, and we were nearly at our destination when my mobile rang. I cursed it because I thought I had left it back at the hotel.

‘Who is it?’ I testily challenged the transmitter.

It was the theatre, asking where I was. It was a matinée day. Bruce made an astonishing U-turn and I was onstage just before the audience had started to look at their watches.

I am now in my dressing room at least an hour before the performance.

I was not always punctual. In the bad old days, I liked to dine before the show at a restaurant frequented by many of my patrons. I would linger over my dessert until my fellow diners had fled to the theatre, after anxious glances at their watches and perplexed looks at me, as I calmly sat there, sipping my coffee and Fernet-Branca.

After a dash up the Strand and a perfunctory make-up session, I was on stage disguised as someone else, to the amazement of people who had, minutes before, sat at the next table.

It feels so nice to be doing my strange job after nearly three years of enforced inanition.

My mother used to say, whenever I was ‘acting the goat’, ‘Don’t look at Barry – he’s drawing attention to himself.’

She little knew it would become my life’s work.

Perhaps that should be the title of one of my next shows – Barry Humphries: Draws Attention to Himself.

I remember the agony of telling my parents that I was abandoning my university course for a job in the theatre.

In tears, my mother said, ‘But we don’t know any actors!’

To which my father said, ‘What about Coral?’ One of my mother’s childhood friends was a girl called Coral Browne, the Coral Browne who later married Vincent Price and distinguished herself in Alan Bennett’s masterpiece An Englishman Abroad.

‘Exactly,’ responded my mother. ‘Coral was clever in her own way, but she went overseas to England and no one has heard of her since.’ I think I might have told this story before, but it bears repeating. When you are, like me, in the Christmas Eve of your life, there is a tendency to benign reiteration.

Above all else, this tour is showing me how beautiful the countryside is and how beautiful are its inhabitants.

I have been in London too long. Everyone needs to get out of it from time to time to rediscover England – where, not seldom, one can hear those strangely old-fashioned words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.