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Establishment reject - Barry Humphries

Blog | By Barry Humphries | May 07, 2024

Hello, goodbye: Barry Humphries at the Establishment, 1962. By Lewis Morley

Sixty years ago, a dazzling, young Peter Cook recruited Barry Humphries for his new comedy club – and it was a disaster

You must try to imagine Soho in the early sixties.

At Jimmy’s tiny Greek restaurant on Old Compton Street, you could get close enough to a beguiling art student from St Martin’s to light her Nelson filter, and you could eat very well for two shillings and nine pence. Or, instead, you could lash out on Dover sole at Wheeler’s or on goulash, seated near Michael Foot, at Victor Sassie’s Gay Hussar.

At the Mandrake Club on Meard Street, you might spy Tom Driberg MP’s crinkly coif bent in intimate colloquy with a handsome young visitor from East Berlin. Or you might ascend those steep stairs to the Colony Room Club and eavesdrop on a little sibilant bitchery from the first man in all London to wear black leather from head to toe, Francis Bacon. He was already famous for his Popes in midlife crisis, and his smudgy depictions of confused men committing their unnecessary lewderies on tripods and billiard tables.

By night, Soho pullulated with tourists, pimps and whores. Curtains in the upper windows of old Georgian houses blushed crimson, and doorbells labelled ‘Model top floor’ winked lasciviously.

Painted waifs from some northern city in their Dolcis stilettos tottered from Murray’s Cabaret Club to the Peeperama in Frith Street, clutching their Dannimacs to conceal their exiguous finery.

Into this milieu, 60 years ago, sauntered the young and aloof Peter Cook, who was already the star of Beyond the Fringe, London’s first ‘satirical’ revue. Satire was the fashion.

A few years later, a Sydney newspaper tsar with a khaki face, called Rupert Henderson, came to London to recruit expatriate Australian talent for a TV show on his network. It would be our answer to the Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller revue at the Fortune Theatre.

In an office off Fleet Street, he ‘pitched’ it to me. ‘You gotta understand this satire thing, Mr Humphries,’ he said. ‘The idea is you say the opposite of what you mean.’

I must have looked a bit slow on the uptake.

‘You might say, f’rinstance, that you like the Prime Minister – but you really don’t,’ persisted Mr Henderson patiently.

‘But will it be funny?’ I enquired.

‘Buggered if I know,’ was the gnomic reply.

I felt that if a job had been in the offing, my obvious inability to grasp the nature of satire had blown it for ever. I didn’t get the job.

Peter Cook was riding high. He owned Private Eye. He was Lord Gnome, and he had a circle of besotted admirers, myrmidons, and satellites.

Even those who knew Peter well would agree that he was profoundly unknowable. He always wore the impenetrable armour of jocosity; everything was a joke, uttered in a funny voice, so you never really got near him.

He had that schoolboy habit, perhaps no longer observed, of tossing his head to flick back an unruly forelock. His posture was undulant, his smile beguiling.

Cook was not an actor. He was an inspired university wag giving an impression of a comedian – only doing it better. There was something almost paralysed about his performance that was funny in itself.

He had two comic voices: a lugubrious Cockney and an implausible posh, based on the posh and mock Cockney of old radio comedians which, in turn, derived directly from the music-hall tradition. Dud and Pete, and their later incarnation the coprolingual Derek and Clive, were the last great music-hall act. And the best.

In October 1961, Peter Cook and his business partner Nicholas Luard opened the Establishment Club in Greek Street.

A strip club called the Tropicana was gutted and the interior totally rebuilt by Sean Kenny, the hottest scenic designer in the West End.

It was Sean who did the constructivist sets for the musical Oliver in which I performed for 18 months, first as the undertaker and then, later, in three revivals, as Fagin.

It was my first West End theatrical engagement, and a near-death experience. On one matinée, the revolving and ever-changing set caught me unawares and I was jammed between Fagin’s kitchen and Mr Sowerberry’s undertaker’s shop in a relentless vice of Brutalist timber.

Luckily, the warning sounded and the show stopped as I was extricated from Kenny’s dangerous mise-en-scène.

The new interior of the Establishment was also Dickensian-expressionist. It was rather dark and forbidding, with an uncomfortable resemblance to Dr Caligari’s Cabinet. There was a bar at which the satire-curious jeunesse dorée of London perched until midnight.

This far-off time in the early sixties is best described by Juliet Nicolson in her marvellous new book, Frostquake. I can report only what I saw – not seldom though the bottom of a glass.

The girls who lounged like odalisques at the Establishment bar favoured modified beehives, pink pearl lips by Rimmel, pearlised, pastel eyelids and heavily mascaraed eyes by Max Factor. False eyelashes were not yet the thing.

Before Neatawear tights, they still wore stockings and suspender belts under their Young Jaeger dresses (I’m told) and they smoked Rothmans, or Disque Bleu if they were richer or more sophisticated. ‘Soopah’ was their universal epithet of approval.

In my presence, Peter Cook once uttered the sixties equivalent of ‘Pshwah!’ when someone said of a famous comedian that he combined comedy with affection. Peter thought we could do without the affection. He was a lowbrow in music, not faintly bookish and loved baseball and, later, golf.

He was a new kind of dandy. In the affluent years he wore suits by Tommy Nutter, shirts from Cecil Gee and ties by Mr Fish. He paired this ensemble with Adidas trainers, then an anomaly.

A natural impresario, he invited Lenny Bruce to perform at the Establishment. At the time, Bruce was addicted to various stimulants and accelerants which, along with his brilliant, if scabrous material, resulted in his abrupt repatriation to NYC.

Another great comedian Peter sponsored was Frankie Howerd. By 1962, Howerd was considered vieux jeu.

But Cook saw him speak at a charity lunch, recognised his genius, and hired Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the best comedy-writers in the land, to fashion some new material for him. His subsequent successes and his later fame were all due to Cook.

He was less fortunate with me.

Beyond the Fringe went to New York and rejoiced in a transatlantic success. I was working in a show on Broadway, and so I saw a lot of him and his pretty wife, Wendy. As far as it was possible, I suppose I entered the inner court of his friendship.

It was while we were in New York that Peter recruited me for a gig at the Establishment on the strength of some Australian gramophone records of my character monologues. My morale soared.

But my brief season at the Establishment proved to be a disaster.

I realised too late that, in my short time in England, I had never done my Australian Schtick, as it’s apparently called. As a comedian, I was totally unknown.

My regional monologues came across as terribly old hat and out of step with the satirical mode, and there were no impersonations of the Rt Hon Harold Macmillan, the then Prime Minister, in my ‘act’, assuming I had one.

The pianist, hired in a hurry, couldn’t read music, and the audience, longing to be shocked by some new political impertinence, were baffled and soon bored by my implausible appearance as a Melbourne Housewife, obsessed by her home, its decor and her family.

To make matters worse, on the first night, the female London editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly, always a Big Sipper, turned up with vine leaves in her hair and cheered me loudly from the back of that long, dark and unsympathetic room. Her raucous support made matters worse. A few lukewarm reviews appeared in the press, bookings tailed off and Nick Luard politely curtailed my engagement.

I had always feared that I wasn’t funny – and the Establishment seemed to prove it.

Superstitious, like most theatre folk, I had consulted Phyllis Naylor, a famous astrologer, some weeks before. She told me I’d soon get a letter with good news.

On my last melancholy night in Greek Street, after the dismal show, the barman handed me a telegram. It was from Spike Milligan, offering me the lead role in his new show. Might I be available?

The Club’s official photographer was a tall, imposing, Chinese man called Lewis Morley which I claimed was a name derived from his real Chinese name: Loo Mor Lee.

Lewis (who took the photo on this page) and I became close friends and his photographic record of the Establishment and its habitués has become a historic chronicle of that remote epoch. It was Morley who took the celebrated portrait of a nude Christine Keeler, sitting backwards on a chair.

‘Ah Christine!’ I once said to Peter Cook. ‘Did you ever…?’

‘Of course!’ came the inevitable reply.