Barry Humphries: I Remember

Richard Barber 5 April 2022

Creator of housewife megastar, Dame Edna Everage, and cultural attaché, Sir Les Patterson, Barry Humphries, 88, recalls a life crowded with a succession of eye-popping episodes

For as long as I can remember, I've loved dressing up... 

This is me in a sailor hat, aged five, in the garden of our home in Melbourne. I was a very happy small child, the eldest of fourI have a younger sister and two brotherscontent to play on my own.

My parents often referred to me as Sunny Sam. I was always cheerful and always indulged by a large number of aunties. On Sunday afternoons, I had to perform a little cabaret. There was a camphor box—I still have itin which I kept a sailor suit, a Chinese outfit with a hat and a pigtail attached, a Red Indian suit, a diverse range of costumes. I’d appear and they’d all laugh and clap and then my mother would urge me to sing Nymphs and Shepherds. But I was too shy and had to go behind the curtain. Then she would say: “Pretend to be the wireless.”

Edna was named after a childhood nanny I adored.

But Mrs Everage’s personality was more like my mother’s and her friends’, intensely houseproud suburban wives. By 1958, when this photograph was taken, I’d begun to appear on Australian television. Edna was very rudimentary in those days, dressed in a stretched twinset of my mother’s, a discarded skirt and a conical hat she bought to go to the races but never wore.

The hair, though, is my own! Gathered around this early evocation of Edna is the cast of the TV review, broadcast live all over Australia.

This photograph of me painting on an Australian beach is rather naughty.

The elastic had gone in my swimming trunks, something captured by a wicked friend of mine. I’ve been a lifelong enthusiast and I like to paint in oils. I also draw in pen and ink in restaurants. I’m having an exhibition in London later this year of those drawings. I’m rather a good caricaturist but then I suppose the characters I create on stage also fall into that category.

In 1959, I made my first journey to the UK. I sailed on an Italian boat from Melbourne to Venice from where I was meant to catch a train to England.

But I stayed in Italy and spent all the money I’d saved up so, by the time I finally reached London, I had precisely 4d in my pocket which bought me a phonecall to my more affluent sister, Barbara, who was living there and who lent me 20 quid. I’d brought Edna’s costume with me in case I needed it and dug it out of my suitcase for a shipboard fancy dress competition.

I'd admired the poetry of Sir John Betjeman since I was a schoolboy.

He wrote about the suburbs very well, a subject that particularly interested me. He’d been to Australia where someone had given him a record of some of my early monologues about which he’d said nice things. So I wrote him a letter asking if we could meet. He answered very swiftly and enthusiastically, asking me to join him for lunch at his little flat in Cloth Fair by Smithfield Market. When he subsequently said: “Call me John,” I felt I had a new mentor.

We became good friends. Even when he was half-paralysed lying in bed in Chelsea towards the end of his lief, I would go and read to him. He particularly liked schoolboy stories of derring-do and poetry of all kinds, most particularly those written by poets who had fallen from favour like John Masefield. He also encouraged Harold Wilson’s wife, Mary, to write poetry.

In 1960, I was cast as Mr Sowerberry, the undertaker, in the orignial production of Oliver! 

Lionel Bart wrote a not very good song, "That’s Your Funeral", for me. I was also understudy to Ron Moody as Fagin who was marvellous in the role but never missed a single performance. I finally got to play the part on Broadway in 1962 when an actor called Clive Revill was cast as Fagin  because he was off a lot.

In a local New York pub, I befriended a man who I only later discovered was the beat writer, Jack Kerouac. Four years later, I was a full-time Fagin in London with Phil Collins playing the Artful Dodger. I also took on the role in Cameron Mackintosh’s award-winning 1997 revival.

I'd long been a fan of Salvador Dali who I also met in New York.

 I was in a bookshop one day and he came in to sign copies of his autobiography. He and I got talking and we later invented a language together. It was meant to be Australian Aboriginal but in reality it was nonsense which we both spoke fluently. His wife, Gala, was a predatory creature who took a fancy to me.

She dragged me back to her hotel where she insisted on cutting my hair which she put in an envelope and gave to me. I still have it somewhere. They invited me to their house in Spain; we had quite a few adventures. Dali always had to be the centre of attention. He didn’t have the smallest idea who I was.

I got to know Leo Sayer quite well in his days of fame.  And I’ve recently reconnected with him in Australia where he lives. He’s a lovely fellow.

Here we are being presented to the Queen after a concert at Windsor Castle in 1975. It was the first time I’d met her and I found her very pretty although rather shy. I think she was rather intimidated by this giantess of a woman.

I’ve been presented to her on a number of occasions since and I’m a big fan. She’s magnificent. I will hear not one word against her.

At some time in the mid-seventies, I did a documentary for the BBC. 

It featured Dieppe in France and its attraction to artists. I found an old theatre there which was no longer used and I was immediately drawn to it. I love old theatres. Well, to tell the truth, I love all theatres: I’d go on any stage, if you asked me.

This particular one had been a beautiful, now decayed, opera house 50 miles from England. The picture was taken by a lovely photographer called John Timbers who photographed me a lot in the old days, as did Cecil Beaton.

I was 50 in 1984 and I simply couldn't accept I'd grown so old.  

Maybe that explains why I might have been wearing a little make-up in this photograph, if you look closely. Everyone seemed so young in those days and I can’t believe I’m still at it. I mean, who would tour the UK in their late 80s in a one-man show?

But I like to think I have a young spirit, something I’m pleased not to have to draw people’s attention to. A lot of things give me a lot of pleasure which is why I intend to live forever.

My silent Bridesmaid, Mads Allsop, was played by a couple of actresses. 

Then, in 1987, I found Emily Perry who became the definitive Madge in my TV series, The Dame Edna Experience. I’d auditioned a number of elderly actresses for what would be a recurring role. All of them tried too hard. Some were whimsical, some camp, but most were far too over-the-top to resemble an oppressed, inarticulate Kiwi spinster whom life had passed by.

I used to visit Emily at the end of her life in Brinsworth House, a retirement home in south-west London for entertainment professionals. She’d say to me: “Oh Barry, we had such wonderful times, didn’t we? If only I could remember them.” She died aged 100 in 2008, an example to us all.

Flatteringly, a number of high-profile performers were keen to be on my TV show.

Lauren Bacall, who became a good friend of mine, was one of them as was Tom Jones, a very popular guest. It took some courage to appear alongside Edna who, by this stage, had lost all her inhibitions and was inclined to say exactly what was on her mind.

She had a hot seat and, if she took against someone, she’d press a button and they’d be tipped backwards, a device that has since been stolen by Graham Norton with no hint of an apology, still less a royalty.

Lizzie Spender, daughter of the late poet, Stephen Spender, is my fourth wife.

We’ve been married for over 30 years now. I have to thank Wife No. 2 for two daughters and Wife No. 3 for two sons. Between them, they’ve produced 10 grandchildren on whom I dote. But then I’ve become a lot smarter which is why this marriage has endured.

For over ten years of my life, I had a serious alcoholic illness. I finally put the cork back in the bottle in my late 30s and haven’t touched a drop from that day to this.

For details of Humphries' Tour, click here

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