The Australian entertainer Barry Humphries died today. He felt close to that event in 2018, when he gave me this interview.
The purple wig is off. The gladioli have gone. Barry Humphries is being himself for once, but feeling his age. ‘Mortality is on my mind,’ growls the 84-year-old Australian comedian most famous for his outrageous creation, Dame Edna Everage. ‘Although I give the impression of abundant youth, I am teasingly on the brink of the bone orchard, the grave.’
He rolls the word around in his mouth, as if somehow taking pleasure in declaring his imminent departure. Or at least faking it splendidly. ‘I’m not going to get morbid, because I’m not morbid. I feel great. Apart from a cold, I’m extraordinarily fit.’
That’s just as well, because three years after apparently retiring from show business, Humphries is returning to the stage. ‘I’m more or less doing the show on doctor’s orders, you know? Keep going!’
Next month he’s performing a tribute to the Berlin cabaret scene of the 1920s, not in one of Dame Edna’s sparkly dresses but as himself, or, rather, an exaggerated version of Barry Humphries – magnificent in a natty fedora, electric-blue jacket with pink silk pocket square, white shirt and raspberry trousers.
Today he talks about what it’s like to make risqué jokes in a world turned politically correct, the struggles with alcohol that nearly killed him, and his troubled relationship with one of his sons – as well as revealing a remarkable story that suggests there may yet be forgotten skeletons rattling around his closet. But why is he back so soon after Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour?
‘I was hoping she was finished, but at the end of my farewell show three years ago I said, “You’ve been a lovely audience, thank you very much, and would you promise me one thing? Will you all come along – and bring the kids – to my next farewell show?”’
The Dame declared herself a Housewife Superstar in the Seventies, before celebrity culture was even born, and then made merciless fun of it on stage, in television specials and on her own chat shows. They included The Dame Edna Experience, in which she treated Hollywood stars such as Sean Connery and Joan Rivers as if they were naughty children, sticking name badges on them and asking the questions nobody else dared. ‘For this show, I’m afraid I have to probe deeply…’
She was never afraid of outright insults: ‘I’m trying to think of a word for your outfit… affordable!’ Audiences, too, were fair game. ‘Do you live on an unpaved road, darling? It looks like you did your make-up in the car…’
She has been an obvious influence on everyone from Julian Clary and Caroline Aherne to Steve Coogan, Sacha Baron Cohen and Graham Norton.
Dame Edna only ever referred to Humphries as her manager – and he kept the character separate too, refusing so much as to utter her catchphrase, ‘Hello possums!’
People love the Dame, but without the sparkly frocks Humphries lacks protection. Take the fuss two years ago when he agreed with his friend and fellow Australian Germaine Greer that the transgender Caitlyn Jenner (the former Olympic athlete known as Bruce) had no right to call herself a woman. ‘I agree with Germaine. You’re a mutilated man, that’s all. Self-mutilation, what’s all this carry on? Caitlyn Jenner – what a publicity-seeking ratbag.’ There were calls for him to be sacked from a Radio 2 show for that, but Humphries survived. Times are changing fast though, so does the risky stuff still work?
‘Oh, it does because the world changes but these characters are very flexible and they change as well. And because I know them so well. I think to myself, ‘“I wonder what Les thinks about that?”’
Ah, Sir Les Patterson, his other famous creation, one more loved in Australia than here. The booze-soaked, lecherous Aussie ‘cultural attaché’, whose jokes about sex, drugs, alcohol, Sheilas, Poms and foreigners are too filthy to print here. ‘I don’t swear or tell dirty jokes,’ says Humphries with a sly grin. ‘I have a man who does that for me.’
Sir Les was created way back to take the mickey out of sexist, racist attitudes – but doesn’t he now risk being seen as the thing he was satirising? ‘I think I should do a separate Les show, because political correctness has got so crazy that Les has got to come out and say it for us all. It is insane. I can hear the audience gasp sometimes, such as when old Les is talking about Japs. The Nips.’
That kind of racial humour doesn’t go down well these days, however satirical, does it? ‘Except with the Japanese,’ he says, ‘who laugh.’
So what does he feel when he hears other members of a modern audience gasp at the character’s racism? ‘I love making them gasp. I don’t crave the sound of applause. I crave the sound of sharply in-drawn breath. That’s a good sound. I’ve been good at getting that, and getting away with it.’
What would the old groper Sir Les make of the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the #MeToo movement? ‘I wondered when that would come up.’ Humphries tuts, unsure of himself. ‘I don’t know what I think about it. I told my wife, “Don’t be surprised if there’s a knock on the door.” Jokingly.’
A knock from whom? ‘Who knows whose knee I put my hand on in 1965? It’s all about the wrong knee, isn’t it? It is.’
And now he tells a story that is perhaps more unsettling than he intends it to be.
‘When I was doing a show in San Francisco some 15 years ago, the stage doorman said, “There’s a beautiful young blonde who wants to see you.” I was just about to leave the theatre but the phrase “beautiful young blonde” resonated a little bit! So this lovely girl came up and she said, “Oh, I just had to see you, because my mother is always talking about you. You had wonderful times together. Sometimes as a family we say, Mum, tell us another Barry story.”’
Humphries says he had no idea who the young woman was talking about.
‘She gave me a name which had no meaning for me at all. And so I said, “When was this?” She said, “Well, it was in the Sixties.” That explains it. I said, “I don’t have a very vivid memory of that decade.”’
Presumably that was because of the drinking? ‘Yes, and everything else. And because it was a long time ago. She said: “My mother will be very pleased I’ve seen you. But oh, the things you two got up to!” My wife was there with me, so when she’d gone we had a laugh and I was a bit sheepish.’
But then the woman reappeared. ‘She came running back and said: “I forgot to tell you, I’m not your daughter.”’
How did he feel about that? ‘A bit relieved, I can tell you…’
Yes, but if there are things like that he’s forgotten, and others are having their past brought up, does that not really worry him?
‘Of course not. If there was any likelihood that I was concealing some dark secret [from my wife] I wouldn’t say that to her, would I?’
He’s currently touring a show in Australia called Barry Humphries: The Man Behind The Mask, telling stories about his life, some of which are true. He’s always hidden behind masks, hasn’t he? ‘I suppose so. But I feel very comfortable talking to you. I don’t feel I have to give a performance or anything.’
Am I seeing the real Barry Humphries? ‘Probably. As close as you’ll get. As close as anyone gets, except [his wife] Lizzie. I have been very lucky with my marriage.’
Humphries has been married four times. The first was to Brenda Wright when he was 21, and lasted just two years. The second was to the dancer Rosalind Tong, with whom he came to England in 1959. They had two daughters, Emily, a painter, and Tessa, an actress. His third marriage was in 1979, to the surrealist painter Diane Milstead, who gave birth to two sons, Oscar, 37, a fine art dealer and journalist, and Rupert, who works in video games and co-wrote the huge hit Grand Theft Auto.
Was Humphries a good dad? ‘On and off.’ His fourth wife is Lizzie, the daughter of the poet Sir Stephen Spender. They have been married for 27 years. Is he a good husband? ‘I think I am.’ So why did the first three marriages go wrong? ‘Because I didn’t know what to do. I was very clever in some areas and very stupid in others. Most people would agree that I was not ready for marriage or early parenthood. But I’ve come round to it. I’ve survived in health and career. I’ve lived a very happy life. I’ve got two little grand-twins now, too.’
Was it difficult being a father when he was always on the move to theatres or television studios? ‘Yes. When people ask for my address I say, “Business class lounge, terminal five, praying for an upgrade.”’
Can he not afford a first-class ticket of his own? ‘I’m very extravagant. And lazy. And quite well off, but not brilliantly.’
Humphries struggled with alcoholism in his younger days and his son Oscar has written about going through the same. ‘Oscar had this illness. Has it. And he’s doing very well. He’s an abstainer. He’s about to get married. I’m very proud of him.’
An invitation looked unlikely last year, when the groom took to social media to complain he had been cut out of the will – and told at his own engagement party. ‘Changing my name. F*** you for disinheriting me. I never wanted the little bit of money anyway.’ He later deleted the post and said it was an in-joke with a friend. Dad was invited to the wedding in March after all.
Are they close again now? ‘I’ve always been very close to him.’ It must hurt when a son goes public with his grievances against the father? ‘It is hurtful. You’ve just got to see it’s part of an illness, you know? I didn’t have a phone number I could ring to complain about my parents. I didn’t have a young Rupert Murdoch to call up.’
Maybe not, but he did get a kind of revenge on his mother’s stifling suburban ways by creating Dame Edna in her image, at least initially. ‘I denied all connection, until it began to appear inevitable. I would see the roots of that character in her and in her sisters: Melbourne suburban aunties in the Fifties. In order to create a character who mercilessly satirises my childhood, I began to understand their point of view.’
What did she say when she came to see his performances? ‘I don’t think she ever did. She would have said something like, “Why must you always draw attention to yourself?” Which is true.’
He laughs, but there is sadness in it. ‘I have to laugh in retrospect, you know. It is painful. And it was painful.’
His childhood is when an unlikely obsession with German cabaret began.
‘I was brought up in a city [Melbourne] that pretends to be in the Home Counties of England, or did in those days. We had elm trees. We didn’t have aborigines. The first kangaroo I ever saw was at Whipsnade Zoo, when I came to England. We had Winston Churchill on the calendar behind the kitchen door. But at school there were a couple of boys who didn’t have to attend chapel, and it turned out they were part of a very small quota of Jews allowed at Melbourne Grammar School.’
Young Humphries became very close friends with some of those boys. ‘One was born in Vienna in 1934, the same year as myself. I’m happy to say he’s still alive and a friend. But I learned a little bit about central Europe from them. My mother used to say, “Barry, we don’t know where you came from.” That was a worrying remark.’
Humphries was fiercely clever, precocious and – as his mother made no secret of thinking – odd. ‘Jewish friends of mine would say, “Are you sure your mother wasn’t Jewish?” So in a way, I subsequently felt in myself… I felt I was a kind of Holocaust survivor.’
Does he mean he felt an affinity with the families of his friends?
‘Yes. And also there was a refugee woman down the street who gave me stamps with pictures of Hitler on them. They were on letters from her husband in Germany. Suddenly the letters stopped, and we know what conclusion to draw from that.’
His friends’ parents played recordings from the Twenties Berlin scene, which was satirical, sexy, avant-garde and rebellious. Performers took on flamboyant alter egos to say things that could not otherwise be said – which is pretty much what Humphries has done all his life.
The Nazis crushed cabaret culture when they came to power. ‘In the second-hand bookshops of Melbourne I came across sheet music brought to Australia by German refugees, by composers I’d not heard of. Their reputations were completely obliterated by the Nazis.’
When Dame Edna retired, Humphries went back to his first love. ‘I dug up that sheet music again and got an orchestra in Australia to create a little concert, which I annotate with personal stories.’
He’s working with the Aurora Orchestra and the cabaret star Meow Meow to perform the songs in the UK. ‘I’m a great enthusiast for the music, for the insolence it expresses – defiance,’ says Humphries. ‘I think it resonates for us now because there’s a lot of fear in the air, behind the gaiety. There’s real uncertainty.’ People now fear for their jobs and worry about war and the rise of extremism just as they did in the Twenties, he says. ‘You never know when it’s all going to come crashing down. And anyway, God can make me redundant any time!’
Now he’s switched to talking about himself rather than the state of the world, so what does he think will happen when he dies? ‘The awful thing is, there’ll probably be a bit of a tribute. And they’ll put together things that I perhaps would prefer were not included.’
Such as? ‘Jokes that went wrong. And they’ll be talking about what they love to talk about: I stopped drinking alcohol 45 years ago, but they still go on about my “battle” with booze. All I would say is, it wasn’t a battle. It was a defeat. Thank God.’
He stopped drinking after a near-death experience in a mental institution in the Seventies. ‘I said this is not on the menu for me. You’re a total atheist until you’re in a foxhole and the bombs are dropping.’
How does he think he will be remembered? ‘I really don’t care,’ he insists, ‘I have no control over that.’
I believe him. This is Humphries like we never see him, open and vulnerable – but now it’s time to walk to the photo-shoot and he hauls himself up, pulls down the brim of his fedora and strides off. He’s back in character: as Barry Humphries, the larger-than-life comic with a taste for sexy German jazz, a flamboyant survivor of Sixties Soho who can’t help saying outrageous things and – mostly, even in this day and age – getting away with it.