Barry Humphries interview: “I am teasingly on the brink of the bone orchard.”

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.’

Barry Humphries and Lizzie Spender attend a service to celebrate Rupert Murdoch’s marriage to Jerry Hall in 2016

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.

Love Wins: a story for anyone who is running a marathon (or feels like they are)

This morning’s Pause For Thought on the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show for BBC Radio 2, because April can be a struggle for all sorts of reasons and the London Marathon is happening this weekend. Listen here.

I tried to run a 10k race once, but when the starting gun fired everyone else disappeared into the distance. I was by far the slowest, chugging along Bexhill seafront slowly in the sun feeling worse and worse. As I passed each checkpoint the steward would get on the radio and say: “Right, that’s the last one, packing up now.”

Somehow I made it almost to the finishing line, just as the big inflatable arch was being deflated. My knees hurt, my lungs were on fire and my brain was scrambled. That’s when my kids appeared wanting to run the last few yards with me, which was lovely and uplifting and kind of their Mum to organise but I also hated it, to be honest, because I didn’t like them seeing me in such a state.

I mention this because the marathon is happening on Sunday, but also because April is a time of year when so many of us feel like we’re just limping along, waiting for the winter to properly end. One minute the sun is out and flowers are blooming, the next there’s snow on the bluebells. It messes with your mind.

Ramadan is about to finish and Muslim friends tell me the last few days of fasting between dawn and dusk can be the hardest, before the celebrations begin. Christians can feel a bit flat after our own big festival but for me the story of Easter and its aftermath is that life is stronger than death, hope beats despair and love wins over cruelty, which helps me cope when the race is hard.

I’m also inspired by the people who run alongside me. One of the kids who finished that 10k with me is grown up now and will soon run a half marathon himself.

When he does, I’ll remind him of the steward who saw me hobble towards the finishing line muttering something about the humiliation of being last and said, in words I would share with anyone who hits the wall on Sunday or who feels like they’re struggling in life right now:

“Keep going. You’ll get there. And you’re not last. You’re ahead of everyone who never showed up.”

A load of people running in a marathon, visible only from the knees down, all of them looking fit so none of them me

Crossing The Channel

I met several teenagers who had crossed the #Channel on #smallboats, listened to their stories and told one of them, which reminded me of an ancient tale, in this podcast. They are us. We are them. Are you listening Rishi? I wish you were.


“I hope they see us …”

Introducing a true short story about food banks and millionaires, people who are struggling and people who have much (and the rest of us caught in between), exploring what it means to see and be seen.

You may not have heard of Sherelyn but there are millions like her: good, hard-working people who have been forced to come to food banks for help in these difficult times. In the latest episode of the podcast Can We Talk? I tell the true short story of a walk from the wealthy streets of Knightsbridge – where you can buy a bottle of water for the almost unbelievable price of £85 – up through fashionable Notting Hill and past the ruins of Grenfell Tower to north Kensington.

It’s a short walk in which life expectancy falls by thirty years, the average wage plummets and the shocking inequalities of life in our major cities are revealed. Along the way I meet a man who inherited millions but gave most of them away and a woman who sells hugely expensive homes to the super-rich. As ever, I try to listen with compassion, believing everyone is a human engaged in a dialogue with love, and each person worth hearing. This is urgent now. I’m not asking for money, I would just like to borrow your ears, to tell you a story.

At the end of the walk is a food bank. A decade ago, they gave out 40,000 emergency parcels a year. Now that figure is 2.5 million. Some people seem to think this a wonderful, uplifting example of charity in action, but surely it’s actually a disgrace that it needs to happen at all in a society where there is so much wealth? I meet a woman from the Philippines called Sherelyn who slowly shares the disturbing circumstances in which she came to this country, having been trafficked. But Sherelyn is also truly inspirational in her desire to rise above her troubles, survive and even thrive.

This story is as much about ways of seeing each other as it is about social issues. What does it really mean to love your neighbour? What if you don’t really see who they are? Do they see you? These and other questions are explored in another of my first-person short stories reflecting on meetings with extraordinary humans and what we can learn from them about how to live.
Can We Talk? is based on the belief that we are better when we share our stories, so explores our human desire to connect with each other, with ourselves and with the divine, if we believe in that.

I hope Can We Talk? is a series for all those with an interest in human connection, spirituality and better living, interviewing or storytelling. Or maybe you just want to be told a darn good tale that makes you laugh, feel and think a bit about life. Anyway, have a listen if you like …

Cole proves in this series how we all need stories in our lives. Proper stories. Well told. In a world of clips and clicks ad shortening attention spans, this hits just the right spot.

Fi Glover, broadcaster and queen of pods

A brilliant, sensitive storyteller, Coe Moreton produces perfectly formed mini epics that are both thought-provoking and hugely entertaining’

Anita Anand, best-selling author

Port na bPúcaí

The Blasket islands as seen from the road above Dunquin

This is the story of the Faeirie’s Lament.

Up late with the dying fire, the woman asleep, the wind fussing around, above and beyond, at first he does not notice the sound. Warm in the stone home, high on the back of the southern Inis. The only man on Inishvickilaune. Nothing through the small, deep-set window but the night, and black it is. Nothing to see, nothing to hear but the fizz of the dying fire, the woman’s breath, the wind. And the slow tune he plays for himself, and for her, in this lonesome place, the bow rubbing a string at a time. Angels weeping, the sound of it. Calling.

At first he does not notice the other sound, in the wind, above and beyond. Then it comes, a cold hand on his neck. Outside, in the night, behind the glass, unseen, but heard: a female voice. One long mournful note, then a falling, twisting refrain like the wringing of hands, or a wandering mind. Climbing, climbing, seeking rest, then tumbling down; a cry of bereavement, sorrow, loss. It blows away, on the wind, and he holds his breath until it returns, at first barely, then beside him in the room, as though being sung for this man, in this place, and no-one else, ever.

Every part of him is turned to the wall, to the window, although he does not move. Every cell that can hear is straining to do so. He has become a human instrument, ringing with the pure, clear sound. Over and over the song is sung, wordless and wonderful, until the fiddlers arms unfreeze and his fingers feel for the bow. Breathless and alive, he pulls notes from the air – now following, now anticipating the flight of the melody as it glides, then beats its wings, then glides again, in the night and in the room with him, without and within. Again. Again. Until the night begins to lift, and light falls in the scattered raindrops of dawn, and the music grows faint. And stops.

He has it now, in his mind. All through the commonplace struggles of daytime, the common life of man and woman tending sheep on an island, the tune does not leave him. He will not let it. Late in the evening, when the fire is covered and the woman sleeps again, the fiddler shoulders his instrument and plays, hoping that the singer will return.

She never does. One night, back on the great island, he plays the tune and tells how it came to him, embroidering the detail and relishing the attention. Others memorise the melody, take it to the mainland and conjure their own accounts of its origin. One says it was a woman sitting on a stone who heard it first, another that the melody came to an old couple asleep in their bed. There are words, says a third. They do not fit the tune, but this is spirit music, sung by a tongue that had been silent for too long:

“I am a woman who has come to you from among the faerie people, who has come by wind and wave. It was by night that I was stolen far away, to live with them. I am wandering this earth again by the grace of faerie women, but it is only for a time. When the cock crows I must leave this world behind, in sorrow.”

The tune becomes famous: first in Dunquin, then the peninsula, then Ireland. It is passed on, as these things are, from player to player, session to session, bar to bar, country to country, wherever the Irish gather. It crosses the Atlantic and is recorded by many people; and every time, the tune is a little
different, the phrasing changes, the story evolves. The poet Seamus Heaney links the spirit song with the mighty rushing wind of Pentecost and the big music that Rilke heard in the storm, and writes a poem called The Given Note. The tune becomes known as Port na bPúcaí, the sound of a spirit mourning the death of another as it is carried for burial behind the impenetrable wall of rocks on that island in the west.

Perhaps it is really the sound of a seal weeping in a cove. Or the cry of a hump-backed whale in a school moving under canvas boats. Or, as Robin Flower writes in The Western Island, “a lament for a whole world of imaginations, banished irrevocably now.”

. . .

Extract from Hungry For Home: A Journey To America From The Edge Of Ireland by Cole Moreton (Viking Penguin 2000).