A Melbourne Boy
When entertainer Barry Humphries, aka Edna Everage, returned to Melbourne a few years ago to perform in his stage show, Back to my Roots and other Suckers, I thought I'd better lash out and purchase a ticket. By that time he was pushing seventy and I was concerned he might shake off his mortal coil before I had a chance to see him live.
It was a wonderful night.The show began with Humphries as himself, talking the audience through some old home movie reels of suburban Melbourne, though unfortunately, due to hopeless disorganization we were late and I missed most of this tasty entrée.Nethertheless for the rest of the night Humphries charismatic energy radiated from the stage and I was enthralled from beginning to end as he ran through a gamut of characters including Edna, Les Patterson, Owen Steele, a ruthless business tycoon and my favourite of the night, Sandy Stone, the "decent suburban guy", a grandfatherly refugee whose heyday was in the 1950s but who had now had been put out on the nature strip in his armchair with the hard rubbish...waiting for collection.
The entire show was just Barry, his characters and a couple of dancing girls and I'm so glad I went because, as his mother used to remark about elderly actors visiting Australia, "at least you can say you've seen him."
Barry Humphries..artist, writer, dandy, wit, art collector, actor and female impersonator, is famous for mercilessly [and accurately] satirizing Australian suburbia.He has described his relationship with his homeland as "complicated", yet there is an underlying affection for his birth home and in particular, Melbourne, which seems obvious, at least to this viewer. It's the kind of satire that can only come from a kind of deep familiarity...the kind that you might have for a friend or family member that you love but can recognize the flaws in.To an Antipodean suburban girl like me, he's always seemed uniquely and confidently an individual...cultured, elegant, funny of course, eccentric, artistic and articulate...and so unlike the tired beer-swilling, macho, sports crazy version of the iconic Australian male.
Humphries was brought up in conservative Camberwell...a lovely old leafy, upper middle-class suburb of Melbourne and just a few short train stops from the less salubrious suburb of Mitcham, where I grew up among the brick veneers. Thus, even though we are different generations, I feel a small connection. My own grandmother lived in a terrace house in Moonee Ponds, home to Edna Everage and I share Barry's affection for our quaint old Victorian architecture, much of which has been systematically destroyed over the years.
Although Humphries hasn't lived permanently in Australia for a very long while he has returned to visit with dependable regularity and has always taken an interest in most things Australian, particularly the architectural goings on in Melbourne. Most recently he joined a vocal campaign to thwart plans to build an intrusive three storey shopping mall around Camberwell's unique 130 year old railway station. Like we need another shopping mall? When our ultra-modern 'patchwork' Federation Square was erected in Melbourne Central, Humphries had something to say about it, describing it, perhaps unfairly, as looking like a a 'set of dilapidated Italian luggage'. Not that he has an unreasonable resistance to modern architecture...just some of it.
We were so nice!
Cakes and Repression
By the time Barry Humphries was a teenager in the early 1950s, he was already in rebellion against the prim complacency of comfortable Camberwell. Mid 20th century middle-class Melbourne was a vat of unstirred respectability. It was a time of six o'clock pub closing, conservative politics, men in suits and hats and housewives and afternoon tea.
Born in 1934, Barry Humphries grew up in what he described as a 'clean and tasteful home'. It was, like many houses in the area, built by his father, a prosperous construction manager and because the family were well-to-do Barry was rather spoilt, lacking little by way of material goods. Yet, according to his memoirs, his father was "too busy" and his mother a little cold and distant, even perhaps, a little cruel...or at least unsympathetic. On one occasion he returned home from school to discover she had given all his beloved books away to charity, blithely declaring "but Barry, you've read them all...!" This was a devastating blow and one he has never forgotten, since over the years he's attempted to collect them back.
An attendee of Melbourne Grammar,Barry excelled in English and Art and was a keen reader and creative child. An early eccentric with an eye for the absurd, at school he used to show his disdain for the State obsession, football, by turning his back to the field and knitting.
According to Humphries , living in Australia in the 1950s was like "going to a party and dancing all night with one's mother". Evidently in certain stiff suburban circles, the artistic, intellectual and unusual were looked upon with disdain and likely to cause unpleasant cracks in the social veneer. Things livened up in Australia in the sixties, as they did elsewhere, but by that time Humphries and his entourage of characters had fled to England.
Before his escape to 'Mother' England..[hard to believe but back in the fifties many Australians apparently used to think of themselves as 'English'..weird!]...Barry Humphries spent some time at Melbourne University studying Law, Philosophy and Fine Arts and it was during this period that the precursor to Edna was created, as a character for a student revue. The university experience also led to a deeper immersion into Art and in particular, the Dada movement, an early 20th century European literary and art rebellion that upturned conventional aesthetic and cultural values by creating works that were nonsensensical and incongruous.
Humphries is notorious in Melbourne for pulling some Dada-inspired stunts in those early years, such as ostentatiously traveling on a suburban train line and having a formal waiter appear at various stations so he could enjoy a five course meal. In addition, he produced a body of satirical art, including an exhibit, 'Puss in Boots', which featured a pair of gumboots filled with custard, and a phoney pesticide called Platytox, designed to eliminate the platypus [a protected species]. Radical stuff in mid-20th century Melbourne!
After a couple of years Barry dropped out of University and took up a short career touring with the Melbourne Theatre Company. Fortuna had allowed him to discover his calling as an entertainer and the world stage beckoned.
The following video clip is the earliest I could find of Barry Humphries as himself and is part of a documentary about Australians leaving the culturally stifling homeland for more sophisticated shores. Hosted by Rolf Harris, the documentary is interesting for its 1960s perspective and there's some famous faces in there but Humphries appears at 6.08 if don't want to wade through it. (There's also some illuminating facts about midcentury Australian dentistry). I had to laugh at this comment from one of the participants:
Australia is like a big healthy, bronze, muscular, body - everything physical is there but it's got no head because all of it's brains are abroad, enriching some other culture.
Clive James, Barry Humphries, Peter Cook
Legendary comedian Peter Cook was one of the few to have faith in Barry's talent in those early days in London, though unfortunately he doesn't do much talking in the above clip. Humphries talks about his reception in Australia and offers a revealing [and funny] titbit about his relationship with mother.
A Word about Les
We've got more culture in Australia than a penicillin factory...!
One of Humphries enduring, though probably not endearing, characters, is the Australian 'Cultural Attache' and President of the Australian Cheese Board, Les Patterson. Patterson is crude,lewd, racist, sexist, homophobic; in short, the "Grandaddy of political incorrectness" and miles away from the coolly urbane Humphries. It's been pointed out many times that characters like the uncouth Les and the bitchy Edna allow Humphries to indulge in a darker side without ever having to take the blame. After all, it's not him..it's them. Still it should be remembered we are meant to laugh at their absurd opinions...and we do.
Spookily [as Edna would say] there really are characters like Les in Australia. In fact, according to Humphries some politicians of his acquaintance are worse than Les and rumour has it he is based on a real Australian diplomat. I wouldn't be surprised.
I'd like to say Les is a reflection of the past but just recently an Australian politician was in hot water for sniffing the chairs of female MP's immediately after they vacated them. Tragically, Les lives on.
Although Humphries first revue in London, A Nice Night's Entertainment was a dismal failure, the adverse reaction didn't last too long and a few years later the flop was followed by his role as Envy in the original Bedazzled film, a BBC series The Scandals of Barry Humphries, a gig with satirical magazine Private Eye which led to the creation of comic strip and film The Adventures of Bazza Mackenzie and a role in Monty Pyhton's Flying Circus.
However, revue was his first love and in 1969 Just a Show, featuredat the Fortune Theatre, proved more successful than all his other shows combined, triggering a cult following which enabled him to move from strength to strength. During this period he also battled serious alcoholism and the collapse of his first marriage[he's a notorious ladies man] but the momentum of success had begun it's roll.
Barry has always written his own material, which is quite rare in the comedy business and at 76 he is still performing, still loving the applause. I suspect that, as long as the warmth and amusement remains in those intense dark eyes, he'll simply be unstoppable. Unlike some of his Australian critics over the years [a minority group], who lament the defamation of our cultural image, I've always felt immensely proud of our Barry. After all, if we can't laugh at ourselves...what would that say about us?
Never be afraid to laugh at yourself. You could be missing out on the joke of the century.
~ Dame Edna Everage