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Generous Barry Humphries - Martin Jarvis

Blog | By Martin Jarvis | Apr 24, 2023


My wife Ros and I were staying at a Beverly Hills hotel in the mid-1990s. That’s where we met Barry Humphries and his wife Lizzie.

We palled-up on the spikey artificial-grass around a slightly murky pool. Barry was in Los Angeles to record episodes of a new show in front of a live audience starring his alter-ego Dame Edna Everage. I was filming Murder, She Wrote, spearheaded by an equally glamorous star, Angela Lansbury.

Lizzie told us that Barry’s extravaganza was a bit of an experiment as America was not yet fully aware of Dame Edna.

At the initial TV recording of Dame Edna’s Hollywood Lizzie decided to sit among the invited audience to acquire some first-hand feedback. During a hiatus the guy next to Lizzie suddenly leaned across to her. ‘It’s not a woman,’ he breathed. Then, edging even closer, he confided, ‘I’ve been told.’

I was currently co-producing an audiobook, Second World War Poetry. We had already secured Phil Collins, Dirk Bogarde and Spike Milligan as readers. One day I dared to ask Barry if he would record some of the Australian poems. He responded with ‘Lead me to the studio!’ (Generous - nobody was being paid.)

In a blinding rainstorm I drove him up the hill to the West Hollywood studio. He told me he himself had rented a car but didn’t think it would have made it in this wind. I enquired what make the car was. ‘I’ve no idea,’ he replied. Then, ‘Oh, I think it might be a Budget.’

He asked me who he’d be meeting at the studio. I told him ‘Larry Belling the American owner, and possibly his British film producer wife Davina who has an office there.’

Barry waxed lyrical: ‘Oh Mart’n, what does it do to a woman to be called Davina?’

‘Eh?’

He elaborated: ‘Well, with a name like Davina you could hardly be an old grouch. She has to be a lovely, beautiful, bright, gorgeous, bubbly person.’ He warbled, ‘Davina!’

Of course he was spot on.

When we arrived it became clear that with the storm and wind raging, and rain battering the roof, the studio was temporally not sound-proof. Larry wondered whether Barry would mind doing the recording incarcerated in an ancient cupboard that would keep most of the ambient sound at bay. Our affable star saw no problem. He squeezed in. We jammed the door closed on him and the mic.

Larry and Barry. Larry shouted from without: ‘Running!’ Barry spoke, from within: ‘Take One’.

Barry Humphries then performed ‘Com-bloody-parisons’ and ‘Let’s Go Back’,* by the great Australian poets Kevin McHale and Norman Maxwell Dunn. From the cupboard. With only marginal external sound effects. His readings are, forever, among the most moving interpretations in the entire collection.

A year or so later Ros and I attended a performance of the latest West End Dame Edna show. As we arrived one of his team approached us in the foyer. ‘We know where you’re sitting,’ he murmured. ‘Would you like Herself to single you out?’

‘Oooh-er. No way!’

Generous, though, of Barry to inquire first. Especially as, when Dame Edna burst onto the stage she almost immediately honed in on a woman a few seats away from us. And having elicited a confession that the victim’s bathroom-fittings colour was ‘avocado’, Edna mercilessly pulverized and vilified the woman (admittedly to her great pleasure) while the rest of us virtually broke our jaws with laughter.

A year or two later the phone rang. It was Barry. ‘I’m ringing from a studio. I’m recording an audiobook – am in urgent need of a Birmingham accent. Any chance you can help?’

I was able to say well yes, probably, as Ros was born and raised there, and here she is, and would no doubt be happy to assist.

In ten minutes she had guided Barry to a seamless Brummie recording.

Great that we could, in a minor way, return a little of Barry’s major generosity.

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