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Barry’s last words by Roger Lewis

Blog | By Roger Lewis | Aug 29, 2023

I’m getting to be like John Gielgud, when he lamented, ‘All my real friends are dead’ – Michael Winner, Bryan Forbes, Barry Cryer and now

Barry Humphries. I knew Barry for about 40 years, ever

since I interviewed him for a colour supplement. We subsequently met in odd spots of his own choosing, such as the Freud Museum in Hampstead, where he reclined on the couch – or the National Galley in Wales, so he could point at a picture by Anton Mauve and remark on the coincidental use of mauve paint.

Served a meagre portion of pie in the cafeteria of a veteran car museum in Coventry, he said to the waitress, ‘Has news of my diet reached the kitchen?’

I miss him terribly – he was a sort of father figure, whose approval and admiration I always sought.

‘I enjoy all you put your pen to, whereas my maladroit sentences seem to announce my decline,’ he said to me once.

Far from it – his letters and (latterly) emails I will always prize, and was proud to receive. He also wrote, ‘We’re off to Australia on Wednesday and, like all old men going upstairs or opening the fridge, I can’t remember why.’

Usually, our correspondence revolved around artists and authors. ‘I used to haunt the Gotham Book Mart in the hope of getting a glimpse of Edward Gorey and instead I met Salvador Dali.’ Or ‘I went to Hove with John Betjeman to meet Bosie, who talked of the races. We couldn’t divert this stream of turf talk.’

Wilde often turned up in out chat. Barry didn’t appreciate Rupert Everett’s biopic. ‘It was all about the agony and ecstasy of pillow-biting. A few of Oscar’s quips chucked in and a few totally apocryphal scenes, like in the pub where hesingsTheBoyILoveIsUpinthe Gallery to a spellbound audience of Frogs in fancy dress. It’s shithouse.’

He was good at being caustic, like this on Victoria Wood: ‘The worst work I’ve ever done was when I was trying to be liked. I’m not good at it, but I’ve fooled a lot of people. Victoria was exceptionally likeable. That epithet would be a posthumous insult if it ever cropped up in my obituaries. So would be “delightful”.’

He was highly attentive to language: ‘Have you noticed the current modish word is “unprecedented”?’

Another expression he hated was “to be honest”, “perfectly honest” or “absolutely honest”, which Barry thought portended dishonesty, mendacity. ‘Oh and what about all those inclusive TV commercials? They are so conspicuously inclusive, you wonder why they don’t include Eskimos or Kalahari bushmen. Racism, I presume.’

Political correctness, of course, set him off. He’d not be told by anyone.

When he was notoriously cancelled by the Melbourne Comedy Festival a few years ago, he told me, ‘The Barry was always a silly name for a comedy award. Perhaps the Lezzo has a more accurate ring.’

He signed petitions in support of J K Rowling, who was in the soup with the transgender mob. ‘It is pitiful we have to go out on a very dangerous limb to defend the truth. By condemning the Stasi who excoriate JKR, we are now on the blacklist.’

Yet Barry never stopped working. There was, for example, what he called a ‘non-event’ with Rob Brydon at the Palladium, where he had to discuss his favourite cinematic comedy moments, introducing clips. ‘I can’t think of any, except the cabin scene in A Night at the Opera or the dwarf in Don’t Look Now. I thought the pram and governess scene in Battleship Potemkin might be risible and the green-chunder scene in The Exorcist.’

I recommended Shelley Winters swimming underwater in The Poseidon Adventure. ‘Thanks to you, the subaqueous Shelley made an appearance,’ he reported the next day. ‘That Sheila can certainly hold her breath.’

During lockdown, Barry dodged the curfews and went to Cornwall, ‘to Zennor, where I fell off the cliff in March 1962. The helicopter rescue made the national news.’ All the rules and restrictions made him nervous. ‘Skulking about does make one feel a bit Jewish, like dodging the patrols in Vichy France.’

He never liked the sound of Hastings, where I’ve lived since 2018. ‘What’s at the end of your pier? A derelict theatre? A palm-reader? Michael Kitchen and Honeysuckle Weeks? It’s not for you, Roger. You might bump into Inspector Foyle, but otherwise it’s a depressing place, like all those other sinks on the South Coast, full of cheap B and Bs and whiffy retirement homes, reeking of old roasts, cabbage and rarely changed Depends ... You’d be better off in Sidmouth.’

He then added, ‘Sydney Harbour looks very grey this morning – so I think I’ll give Larkin’s letters a miss.’

Then, in January, the bad news came. ‘God has touched the pause button on my life. Various ills and inconveniences have assailed me since before Christmas. I ended up in Sydney being devoured by an enormous Siemens scanner. The company that funded Hitler’s election had discovered tumours in my spine.

‘This desolate news is just for you. I felt somehow I should tell you. They have zapped me, and the doctors are hopeful. I’m surrounded by little nurses from Galway and Manila. The doc says I can’t go back to London until late March, but who’d be in a hurry to go back there anyway?’

In April, he said, ‘Just entered my fourth month in hospital. They say I’m nearly out, but I’ve heard that before. I loll here like an odalisque watching old TV shows – London as it was a couple of years after I got there. Not much traffic, pretty and forgotten dolly birds, sideburns, flared pants and impossible baddies. Wonderful action stuff really performed by the actors.’

It got worse. I had a heart attack; he broke his hip. ‘I’m horrified to hear your desolate news. Now is not Our Time. What a pity we’re not in the same institution. The supernatural is all we have to rely on and it never lets us down and even if it does, we are completely unaware of it.

‘With love to you and dear Anna. Your bedridden friend, Barry.’