From the Archives, 1992: Frankly Barry Humphries

First published in The Age on October 11, 1992

Frankly Barry

Masks removed, Barry Humphries talks to Larry Schwartz about his mother, alcoholism, the cringe and why he wrote that book.

Barry Humphries with the cover of his autobiography behind him.Credit:The Age Archives

The man in the brown fedora and red spotted tie is musing, in the back of a chaffeur driven limo, on possible uses for Prince Henry’s, no longer a hospital. A centre for “disabled, lesbian puppeteers,” he suggests.

Back in his hometown to promote his autobiography, Barry Humphries had earlier spotted a peppercorn tree outside the Channel Seven studios and recalled hastily plucking its branches and leaves to adorn himself for a short-lived stint as Bunyip for a children’s television show.

Melbourne is still his favourite Australian city, he says. He was surprised recently to learn that Florence had been selected as twin city for Sydney and thought Wollongong might have been a better choice.

Now, gliding along St Kilda Road, offering an impromptu, irreverent tour en route from one radio interview to the next, he notes a building he says resembles a “red brick dunny”, the Victorian College of the Arts’ School of Dance.

An hour or so earlier that morning, we came upon him in his 33rd-floor city hotel room, flushed with early morning massage, hair moist and dishevelled; dressed in what appeared to be wine-red pyjamas.

“This is my, ummm, jogging outfit. Not that I’ve been jogging. I never do.” Jogging is bad for the health, says Humphries, who will later change into a charcoal three-piece, pin-striped suit.

Barry Humphries with koala and Qantas bag arrives in Melbourne in 1965.Credit:The Age Archives

“He is such an actor one can’t decide when the acting has stopped,” Patrick White once wrote in a letter included in Humphries’ autobiography, ‘More Please’ (Viking, $34.95).

Though he occasionally lapses into levity when we meet, he never once resorts to the mask of now-famous personae (Dame Edna, Sir Les Patterson, Sandy Stone). In a candid interview, over Japanese tea, he holds forth on his life as told in the new book, in which he is frank to a fault on aspects such as his alcoholism and sometimes troubled relationship with his parents.

“Most of my writings have been in disguise. They have been extensions of the stage characters of mine who have had some celebrity. And it’s funny expressing oneself as directly as that, of course, because you can put all kinds of ideas, thoughts, opinions, prejudice and jokes in another persona.”

Now married to Lizzie Spender, daughter of the English literary figure, Sir Stephen Spender, he has four children from previous marriages.

He writes in the third person to tell of some of the darkest hours of alcoholism and concedes he has deliberately not dwelled on the pain of failed marriages.

“Clearly, since this is a shared pain, I am observing certain self-imposed laws of courtesy and politeness to others involved.”

He says he has found that being candid has its drawbacks. “In a sense, the more frank one is, the more the reader expects to learn. So that they say: ‘Yes, well you were terrifically frank about that but why didn’t we learn about your sex life?’ … It is a bit of a no-win situation.”

Humphries says he was impressed by books about him by Peter Coleman and John Lahr and has not written his to set the record straight.

“A number of publishers over a long period of time have asked me to write a book about my life and, frankly, it seemed a rather conceited thing to do.”

Dame Edna Everage reading The Age newspaper with headline ‘Poms give Dame Edna the raspberry’ in 1981.Credit:Fairfax Archives

What persuaded him otherwise? “Reading these other people’s accounts. I thought: `Yes that’s a view of my life. Perhaps I should have a shot at it myself. I don’t think one can go so far as to use the word catharsis. But I will say that it released a lot more memories.”

Not all of them pleasant. He had arrived at his hotel to discover management, apparently unaware that he is a reformed alcoholic, had laid on a bottle of champagne.

He says he has not touched alcohol in 21 years. Was he never tempted? “Not faintly. I don’t particularly like the idea of rat poison either. I don’t feel drawn to it.

“I mean, I serve it to my friends, I see it as a … diabetic would look at a box of Black Magic. I do look at pubs and wonder how I managed to spend so much time in them.”

He writes with wry humour, “A doctor told me that my liver was inflamed and asked me how much I drank. It was a difficult question to answer. Did he mean, for example, before or after breakfast?”

With horror, when another asked if he had ever considered Alcoholics Anonymous: “I felt soiled and degraded”. (He would later attend AA meetings).

The spoiled son of a prosperous builder (“Little Lord Fauntleroy of the Golf Links,” as he has it in the book), he grew up in a house in Christowel Street, Camberwell, he says is now owned by a Ukrainian family.

The book culminates in a scene where he thinks he is dying but discovers instead the sensation is happiness. He says: “I have had an interesting life and I have a very busy, very full and happy life now and perhaps some of that joie de vivre emerges from the book.”

The entertainer talks of the book title: “I have a great deal less avidity than I did, you know. It’s not only the journal of a spoiled child. It’s also, in some respects, the journal of a rather greedy person. Hungry for experiences, excessive experiences.”

Barry Humphries at Bondi Beach.Credit:Fairfax Archives

In one agonising scene, Humphries recalls a “rather ghastly event”, his mother’s rejection of a birthday gift, a pair of second-hand earrings for which he had long saved his pocket money.

When the big day arrived, he proudly watched his father present his mother with breakfast in bed, until her face darkened after she had unwrapped the paper.

“‘How much did they cost?’ I muttered a price. ‘Daylight robbery,’ exploded my mother. She thrust the earrings at my father. ‘Eric,’ she commanded, ‘I want you to go straight down to that little Jew and tell him to give Barry his money back.’”

Though he acknowledges he might not have written as he has of his mother had she been alive, he is convinced he has not been unsympathetic.

“… My portrait of my mother, who was an intelligent, I think frustrated and sensitive and inhibited woman, like many of her generation (pause) … emerges as a person and perhaps even sympathetically at the end. I hope so.

“Not, certainly, as a monster. But as a person who was genuinely distressed and puzzled by the behaviour of her son.”

Elsewhere, his mother comments on a failed New Zealand tour. “You see. You’re not popular everywhere.” This is the kind of thing that mothers say, he claims.

“Instead of praising their children, they are always there to cut them down to size.” This, he jokes softly to himself, to prepare them for Australian journalists.

He is reputedly a difficult interviewee. British journalist Lynn Barber once noted that, as far as Humphries is concerned, “your role as interviewer is merely to record his bon mots for posterity”.

She recalls how “he (quite rightly) jumped down my throat” when she claimed that some might say his desire to dress up as a woman showed he was sexually confused.

In the hotel foyer, his publicist volunteered that Barber’s aggressive style was perhaps not an appropriate approach with Humphries.

When we met moments later, I played the coward, congratulating him on the book, likening it to Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography. Humphries chattered away affably, inviting us to accompany him across town in the limousine.

The book is extremely readable even if, as some have noted, he flaunts his book learning and has the less erudite among us reaching for dictionaries to discover the meaning of obscure words.

In her review for ‘The Independent on Sunday’, Barber cites “opsimath”, “flocculus”, “reboant”, “pilose”, “grumous” and “stercoraceous”.

“Like many Antipodean intellectuals, he does not wear his learning lightly,” she says.

Barry Humphries will tell you that he has generally enjoyed “good press” in Australia. There is, however, a “vociferous minority” in the media, he insists, including the ABC reporter who recently asked radio personality Mike Carlton, now in London, what it feels like “to be a turncoat”.

Humphries writes: “There is not one Australian singer, artist, writer, actor or film director whose success abroad has gone unpunished by an envious minority of his countrymen.”

He claims that Harry M. Miller once told a journalist: “That man Humphries is an idiot … We have enough trouble convincing the world Australia is sophisticated, yet we have this idiot ruining the country.”

This is presumably at least partly over the grotesque parody in the Barry McKenzie cartoon strip and film. We have McKenzie to thank for celebrating incontinence in a range of ockerisms, authentic colloquialisms or those invented by the entertainer. “Pointing Percy at the porcelain.” “Shaking hands with the wife’s best friend.” “Draining the dragon.” And so on.

We have McKenzie’s creator, Humphries, to thank too for a variety of colourful ways to describe/celebrate another pastime.

As he writes: “If he wasn’t ‘chundering’, Barry might be ‘laughing at the ground’, ‘playing the whale’, ‘parking the tiger’, enjoying a ‘liquid laugh’ or ‘technicolor yawn’ or, simply, ‘calling’.”

One-time friend Phillip Adams recently wrote that the McKenzie film, for Humphries, was “an act of exorcism, wherein he showed his deep loathing for the Ocker”.

Deep loathing? Not so, says Humphries. “Phillip quite often misses the point in his, how can I say, sometimes rather equivocal praise of my work. He writes exhaustively about me. It’s embarrassing.”

Adams claims Humphries “helped to confront and cured us of the cultural cringe”.

Humphries says he sympathises with the stars of real-life soap, ‘Sylvania Waters’.

“By the way, I understand there is tremendous anxiety and paranoia about the celebrated Donaher family. The anxiety is: ‘might we be seen to be common?’ It’s a kind of puritanical fear. ‘Might we be revealed to be ordinary people?’

“I mean, Carlton & United Breweries – it’s a story I repeat ad nauseam – hated the McKenzie film and wouldn’t give us any cans of Foster’s lager, then a very little known beverage, barely known outside Victoria, and available at one Fleet Street pub.

“Wouldn’t give us any beer because they felt the film displayed their product in a vulgar way. At the time there were commercials being done… in which people in a boat on Sydney Harbour were seen to be sipping Foster’s lager from what looked like liqueur glasses with sort of crooked pinkies, to show it was not just a yobbo’s drink.

“Later, they cloned the film. I always deeply resented the fact that I didn’t get the commission that I felt I was due particularly since I had abjured the alcohol and I thought it’s even more noble for me to promote this ghastly stuff since I don’t drink it even.”

He has encountered criticism in some quarters for alleged reactionary views. Adams writes that he dislikes his politics and dismisses him as “deeply conservative in his beliefs,” noting his longtime association with ‘Quadrant’ magazine.

Ross Fitzgerald sees him as “extremely conservative politically”.

Humphries counters that there is no basis for this assumption of right-wing political allegiance.

“I can’t imagine what it’s based on except that I’ve never particularly cared for people who espouse political orthodoxies either of the left or the right.”

He laughs that there are several “landmines, don’t you think?” in the book, intended to stir a little controversy.

Among them, a jibe at “sensationalist works of Australian history like Robert Hughes’s ‘The Fatal Shore’” the note that the most vociferous champions of republicanism are of Irish descent and the phenomenon is “just another form of Pommy-bashing”.

He plans to again chronicle his life, particularly the last 20 years he deems inadequately covered in ‘More Please’.

“I feel that there is a possibility of another book. I hint at a volume two, rather shyly since I rebuke Clive James for spreading his book over multiple volumes and I dread to read the life of Robert Hawke in three …

“I don’t know where it will end. Will it bring it up to his promotion of a meat pie? Or will it take us up to the Harvard lectures? Is anyone going to say to the former Prime Minister: ‘Don’t you feel rather guilty lecturing overseas?’”

Once cautioned by friends that Edna was such a Melbourne character, who would not be understood in Sydney, he has watched his creation gain international fame.

A woman at a book-signing in Leeds, England, told him she was “terribly distressed” because someone had told her eight-year-old son that Edna wasn’t a woman.

In the US, he plans to do a film for the Disney Corporation, “a movie for Edna in the Deep South”.

“I don’t think Americans get all the nuances of Edna,” says the entertainer who returns here early next year for a one-man show.

“But they do see her as a funny person and, since the death of Lucille Ball and Ethel Merman and Eleanor Roosevelt, for that matter, there is a vacancy perhaps not fully occupied by Lily Tomlin and, who’s the other one? Bette Midler.”

Not that he has by any means been forsaken by his Australian fans.

Humphries took two calls after an interview with Neil Mitchell at 3AW.

“I just want to say to you, you bring back all the good memories …” said a woman identified only as Penny. “I see you and I go right back to those days.”

Nostalgia for a man whose antics included splashing H.J. Heinz’s Russian Salad on the city streets to resemble human vomit, then lapping it up with a spoon? Who writes that he discovered as a schoolboy “a very special pleasure and excitement to be derived from shocking people …”

Before striding out to a waiting limo to be confronted by a Vietnam vet seeking to interest him in a book he has written, Humphries takes leave of listeners, apologising that he cannot take more calls.

“It would have been nice to have got an abusive call, wouldn’t it?” he says.

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