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SIMON PLANT got to know Barry Humphries as a working journalist. In this personal reminiscence, he looks back on four of their memorable face to face encounters.

Of course I was excited.

As a striving young journalist, tasked with writing about arts and entertainment for Melbourne’s biggest selling newspaper, the prospect of a one on one, face to face interview with Barry Humphries was a thrilling opportunity. A chance, perhaps, to shine on page one. But waiting for my famous interviewee on the evening of 19 November 1993, I began to I fear I might be in for a tongue lashing.

I was backstage at Her Majesty’s Theatre in ...


... after watching Barry’s latest theatre show; Look at Me When I’m Talking to You!. It had been more than a nice night’s entertainment. Much more. For two and a half delirious hours, Barry’s alter egos—Dame Edna Everage, Les Patterson, Sandy Stone and a fourth character named Daryl Dalkeith—had run amok, exposing doublespeak and pricking pretensions. The guffaws they generated reached every corner of ‘the house’, even the ‘possums’ clinging for dear life in the ‘ashtrays’, and when Edna decided she needed to be somewhere else more exciting, she hurled gladioli into the stalls and ordered that everyone ‘stand and tremble!’

We did as we were told, of course. In a Humphries show, resistance was useless.

Thankfully, I did not have an audience with Edna. I was in South Australia to interview her erstwhile manager, ‘Brian Humphrey’. But after the curtain was rung, and I was admitted through the stage door to a small dressing room, I did wonder if I was entering a lion’s den. Would Barry be just like Edna? Would I be impaled on his forked tongue, a mere bystander struggling to get a word in edgeways? I need never have worried. From the moment he sauntered towards me, and extended a fleshy hand, Barry was all charm. ‘Ah, the man from the Sun News Pictorial’, he purred. We sat by a mirror glowing with Hollywood bulbs and as I got my tape recorder going, an assistant arrived with a pot of tea. I remember it was poured into proper bone china cups. I also remember Barry’s physical presence. He was tall, around six feet, with broad shoulders and a slight stoop. His head was an arresting one, distinguished by a formidable nose, a high forehead—over which a dark forelock drooped—and jowly creases which turned into laugh lines when he smiled. Which was often.

Now’, he asked confidentially, ‘what did you want to talk about?’

The ball was in my court but not for long. Before I had a chance to answer, Barry was peppering me with questions about Melbourne, about the Herald and Weekly Times and about some of the ‘dreadful people’ who had accused him of ‘letting down the side’. ‘For a long time’, he sighed, ‘I couldn’t come to Australia without [some commentator] writing a vituperative piece’. Barry’s alleged lack of patriotism was not my concern. My editor had sent me over with precise instructions: to give readers an idea of the man behind the mask. So, that was my line of questioning and Barry warmed to it. It helped that I had read, and was carrying a copy of, his recently released autobiography More Please. He was also surprised, I think, to find a reporter from his hometown who had actually seen some of his other live shows. Not just episodes of The Dame Edna Experience on TV. ‘Television-trained people don’t applaud in the theatre’, he told me. ‘They’re having a nice time but they think, if they clap they won’t hear’.

As we chatted over tea, other pleasing connections were established. I attended Camberwell Grammar School. So did Barry (briefly). I studied Arts at the University of Melbourne. So did Barry (intermittently). I was actually at Uni when I saw Barry on stage for the first time. He was performing at the Comedy Theatre in a show titled Isn’t It Pathetic At His Age (1978) and I still have the ‘souvenir programme’ with its mock advertisements for gladiolus and bohemian photos of Barry wearing a monocle. I especially liked its reference to a ‘Koala Triangle’, ‘that mysterious zone in the Southern Hemisphere where persons of talent disappear without trace’.

Around this time, another monologist named Reg Livermore was making theatregoers sit up and take notice. His aggressive, gender bending shows, Wonder Woman and Sacred Cow, crossed Australian larrikinism with Berlin cabaret and were must-sees in the late ’70s. But much as I admired the energy and effrontery of Livermore, a Sydney-sider, it was the sheer Melbourne-ness of Humphries that kept me in his corner. I identified more readily with the world he created in shows such as An Evening’s Intercourse (1981) and Tears Before Bedtime (1985). That world, of course, was indelibly suburban.

In the mid-1950s, Barry—the product of comfortable, middle class Camberwell—set out to humorously chart ‘Australia’s vast and unexplored suburban tundra’ and he was still doing that in 1991 when he presented The Life and Death of Sandy Stone. It was daring of Barry to put his ‘old man of the suburbs’ on stage, alone, and then have him drone on for hours about his humdrum life in Glen Iris. But the idea was inspired. In the guise of the late Sandy (Alexander Horace) Stone, slumped in an armchair cradling a hot water bottle, Barry was able to cycle back through his own performance history and summon up a vanished Melbourne. A ‘transcendentally dull’ world of milk bars and Kool mints, Axminster carpets and Women’s Weekly World Discovery Tours. Barry’s ear for the way Melburnians spoke really struck a chord with me. When old Sandy talked about ‘tootling down to the Junction’ or finding a ‘possie for the vehicle’, I was hearing phrases that aunts and uncles of mine had used. Spooky!

Reading More Please, which I rank as one of the great Australian memoirs, I discovered Barry and I even sprang from the same suburban soil. We were products of Melbourne’s leafy east—on the ‘dry’ side of Burke Road—and coming together in the afterglow of Look at Me!, we were bound to find common ground. As we parted, I asked Barry if he might autograph my copy of More Please. He did so and going outside to read the inscription, I was quite touched by his words:

For Simon from Almond Street, Balwyn, from Barry from Christowel St, Camberwell’

When we next met in ...


... in March 1999, Barry was ‘trying out’ his first new show—or ‘event’ as he then liked to call it—in five years. Remember You’re Out! was a return to home base after storming and conquering London’s West End. Touring Australia, Barry followed a well tested path that usually started in Adelaide and ended in Sydney or Brisbane. Canberra was always an early stop, a staging post ahead of Perth and a good place for Melbourne media to come up and ‘have a look’. So, up I went—at Barry’s request—and took in an evening performance of Remember You’re Out!. The title, a favourite expression of his disapproving mother, had a peremptory tone to it. So did the show. Barry—an acute social observer—was always holding up a cracked mirror to Australian life, which he regarded with a mixture of affection and disdain. But the barbs he deployed in Remember You’re Out!, at the Canberra Theatre, seemed to carry an added sting.

Here was Sir Les, ‘Australia’s international cultural trouble shooter’, expectorating as never before. Sandy - the ‘desiccated sage of the suburbs’ – sounded more dozily insular than ever. And Dame Edna? She was fury in a frock. Interrogating unfortunates in the front row, and quizzing them about their living arrangements, the Moonee Ponds housewife-turned-megastar cut loose with one lethal line after the next ... in a sharing, caring way, of course.

Next morning, I was asked to meet Barry at a place I thought couldn’t possibly exist in the Australian Capital Territory: an Austrian cafe. ‘It’s a little bit of Vienna amongst the gums’, he assured me, as cream-clogged coffees and pastries were spirited our way. Barry, sporting a crushed light linen jacket with pocket square, sounded hoarse. He looked tired, too. Not the best condition for a post-show interview. But when I remarked how much I enjoyed Remember You’re Out!, and recalled some of the night’s biggest laughs, Barry brightened. ‘I like accidents’, he said. ‘People are convinced these things that happen are set-ups, especially when they work brilliantly well, but I always like it if they go a little bit wrong because it means I’m going to go in another direction and something good will come out of it’.

Have there been times when you’ve lost your way?

‘No. The laughter takes you out like a current and you can get a long way out but I can always find my way back’.

Watching Remember You’re Out!, I was also struck by how determinedly old-fashioned it seemed. The post-war show tunes heard before each act, the use of home movie-style footage, the single grand piano on stage ... not exactly ‘cutting edge’, to use one of Edna’s favourite phrases. Barry was delighted. He readily acknowledged the vaudeville nature of his ‘theatrical offerings’ and reminisced about the cavernous, smoke-filled London music halls he haunted in the early 60s. Long before that, as a schoolboy, he relished Melbourne’s ‘rather disreputable’ Tivoli theatre.

‘I persuaded my parents to take me, just once, to see the English comic Tommy Trinder’, he recalled. ‘It was the first time I noticed they laughed in a different way. My father laughed and then covered his mouth, while my mother glared at him’. Barry chuckled at the memory. ‘I see it in my audiences still, Simon, but usually it’s the other way round. The women laugh first. The men tend to be more circumspect, especially during Les [Patterson]. My task, really, is to dissolve that resistance’.

Do you always succeed?

‘Well, nobody’s asked for their money back’.

At our third meeting in ...


... in the winter of 2005, Barry was not spruiking anything. He was in town on a private visit to see family and friends but the 50th anniversary of Edna’s debut appearance on December 19, 1955 was fast approaching and a ‘lovely new show’ to mark the occasion was forming in his head. ‘This far out, I begin to get a picture of it’, he said, twirling honey onto a mound of granola. ‘But what sort of show it will be, what it will look like, I don’t know yet.’

Barry’s starting point was always a question: what have Edna, Sandy and Les have been doing since I last saw them? ‘It’s like they have lives between productions,’ he said. Edna was easy. Away from Australia for a few years, Edna had been blitzing Broadway and scooping Tony awards. Sandy, long dead, had landed on his slippered feet in an ‘assisted aged care facility’. And Les? He’d become a trouble-shooter for the Packer family. Barry likened the thought process he went through to an office building: ‘There are lights on in a couple of windows where part of me is working on the show already and, from time to time, I just put my head around the door and see how it’s coming on’.

Our breakfast chat at a South Yarra hotel was not all smooth sailing. A newspaper columnist, in the paper I was writing for, had taken Barry to task for joining protestors opposed to the re-development of Camberwell Railway Station and her zinger still rankled: ‘I was wondering when some little journo would bring up the old chestnut of, What’s he doing meddling in our affairs when he’s rich and famous, hates his parents, and doesn’t even live here!’

Barry, at the time, was busy in England and America. So, when I asked how often he did come ‘home’, he snapped: ‘I’m here quite a lot’. Then, with a sly look and a smile, he put down his spoon and leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘I happen to think Melbourne is a wonderful city, you know. It keeps surprising me. But it’s not an un-critical attitude’.

In November 2006, Barry and I were reunited in ...


... but this time we were not meeting over breakfast or Viennese coffees. Back With A Vengeance, his latest ‘effort’, was coming to Melbourne over Christmas and I was requested to not only see the show for myself in WA but spend the day with Barry and his team which consisted of an associate director, company manager, stage manager, sound engineer, lighting operator, props man, three dressers, four dancers and a personal assistant.

‘The payroll for this show is a scary document’, Barry informed me. I didn’t have time to probe. Les, Sandy and Edna had a matinee appointment with Perth theatre goers. No sign of Daryl Dalkeith this time or any of the supplementary characters, such as Lance Boyle or Phil Philby, who had strayed into Barry’s other shows. Entering his fifth decade as a performer, he was playing to his strengths. ‘Hello possums!’ A falsetto shriek announced Edna’s arrival that afternoon. Here was the Jubilee Girl herself, sparkling like a Christmas bauble and introducing archival footage charting her meteoric rise to fame. Then, flicking the switch to vaudeville, in came Les and a bevy of dancing girls. ‘It’s nice to be out tonight’, he told the appalled throng. ‘Think I’ll leave it out. You with me?’

After ‘a pause for Reflection, formerly known as Intermission’, Barry was back with Sandy in a ‘danse macabre’, followed by a second, extended Edna appearance. This ended with an orgy of gladdie-waving. Well, not quite. Back With A Vengeance really ended with a subtle effect—a coup de theatre—that left me shaking my head in wonder. One minute, Edna was commanding the stage. The next, Barry was slipping in front of the curtain—in civvies—and tipping his hat in thanks. How did he do that?

I would have to wait for an answer. On days when he was giving two shows, Barry required a late afternoon nap. That gave me time to speak with members of his ‘team’. Music director Andrew Ross was the most forthcoming. He had enjoyed a long association with Barry, writing songs with him and giving ‘notes’ after a show. ‘As soon as the curtain comes down, we chat about what worked and didn’t’, he told me. ‘It could be something as simple as the structure of a sentence. Being so specific is the thing, of course, that makes Barry the great documenter of Australian life’.

Around six o’clock, the ‘star’ re-emerged for some warm-up exercises with Ross and the Lesettes. We chatted briefly in the stalls but, again, Barry was not ready for a sit-down chat. This reluctance was understandable—he had a show to put on—but I’d crossed a whole continent to see him and my editor expected good copy. At the evening performance, I watched much of Back With A Vengeance from behind the scenes – a rare privilege. I saw dancers exercising in the wings and costumers preparing wigs but Barry’s dressing room still remained off limits. No photographs. No interview.

When the show ended, with a thunderous ovation, Barry’s personal assistant had a car waiting which deposited us at a cafe overlooking the Swan River. It was a warm night. We ordered tea. And for 10 minutes or so, we talked. ‘I feel a little vocally tired’, he admitted. But alerted that a well known admirer was in the next room, and would so love to see him, Barry darted away. I’d seen him behave like this before. In Canberra, just as we were getting going, he asked if I’d mind if we called in on an elderly friend living nearby. Our interview continued in the backseat!

I wondered if, perhaps like a magician, Barry was reluctant to give up his tricks. Was he both attracted and repelled by attention? I never got to ask him but, returning to our waterside table, Barry finally settled and we had a good talk about stage fright and superstitions and laughter.

‘There is a need for people to laugh’, he told me. ‘Not smile or titter. Laugh. And it seems I have – from time to time – an ability to induce this phenomenon. I can’t put it more modestly than that’.

That Barry is Australia’s greatest clown is, I think, beyond question. Attending his many live shows, I sometimes laughed so hard I almost fell out of my seat. And yet, invited to assess his extraordinary legacy as an actor, comic, artist and author, Barry seemed a little uncertain. I remember him looking across the moonlit Swan River and saying, dreamily: ‘This is a silly job, really. Not a job you could ever take seriously’.

On the sad Saturday evening when Barry’s passing was announced, I recalled that late night conversation in Perth and the breakfast in Melbourne and the coffee in Canberra. What a privilege to have been in his company. Before going to bed, I retrieved my copy of More Please from the shelf and there, on the title page, was the inscription Barry had made 30 years earlier in Adelaide. But there was another line which I’d forgotten, a line which seemed to capture the good feelings that always flowed between us. In signing off, Barry had simply written: ‘My life in your hands!’

Further Reading

Britain, Ian, ‘Barry Humphries and the ‘Feeble Fifties’, in The Forgotten Fifties: Aspects of Australian Society and Culture in the 1950s, Eds. John Murphy and Judith Smart: Australian Historical Studies, Number 109, October 1997

Rarely Everage: The lives of Barry Humphries, National Portrait Gallery exhibition catalogue, and Arts Centre Melbourne, 2003

Herald Sun, Melbourne

‘Edna: 50 Years a Megastar’, Weekend magazine, 9 July 2005

‘Above Everage’, Weekend magazine, 9 December 2006

Humphries, Barry

— More Please, Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1992

— A Nice Night’s Entertainment: Sketches and Monologues 1956-1981, Great Britain: Granada Publishing, 1981

— Neglected Poems and Other Creatures, NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1991


Special thanks to Claudia Funder at the Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, and Harley Medcalf, Duet Productions