The Last Of Edna

I saw Humphries first in 1962, fifty years ago to the week, probably, in the Macquarie Auditorium, and have missed perhaps three of his shows since then. We lived up the road from each other once, for about six months, and saw each other regularly for a while. I remember taking six different girls to one of his shows, in the Elizabethan, I think, and he threw a gladioli at me, saying ‘Here’s yours, Bob, the one with the short stem.’ I’ve spent time backstage with him, drinking champagne while he did not, and at book launchings and gallery openings and a lunch or two. And my wife’s father Jack Brooksbank taught him English style, a gift he was grateful for, at Melbourne Grammar and a pencil sketch he made of him in 1951 he gave to her ten years ago.

And I’ve always thought of him as a visitor from a better dimension generously spending with a lesser order of beings time he could more usefully spend reordering the universe, a feeling those watching Q&A a month ago shared, I think…

And to think this was his last show was upsetting, in the way that Olivier’s last big role on stage, in The Party, which I saw, was upsetting. He is not our Shakespeare but he is our Dickens, a travelling performer of his greatest hits, wrenching tears from his audience amid gales of laughter (in this case Sandy Stone’s little dead daughter June, after which he and Beryl chose to have no more children) and persecuting his audience with his knowledge of their deepest shames (wall colours, hair styles) and most intimate evasions. One he invited onto the stage proved ‘unable to walk’ and Edna, quick as a flash, asked her sternly, ‘And how did you get here? Try, woman, try. Stand up! There could be a miracle!’

Sir Les, a celebrity chef now, again extends the metaphors for sex by about thirty new additions. His brother Gerard, a pederastic priest in an ankle bracelet which rings and flashes when he feels desire, attempts to assault, and pray for, and group hug the various glamorous young people strewn around the stage. Sandy speaks of the drugged humiliations of Beryl, his widow, in her nursing home where she is picking up modern slang (‘Hi, you guys’). And Edna has been through an ashram, has learnt to love herself (‘in fact I adore myself!’), and to disinherit her tattooed and face-studded daughter and her worthless gay son Kenny, and has acquired a Balinese toy-boy fifty years her junior.

And all’s well: the hilarity unbounded, the envelope pushed, as always, the cellophane broken, the waves upon waves of delicious moral shock, the intricate puns, better even than Milligan’s (‘You’re looking at my penis, aren’t you? Well, let me introduce you, here he is, ladies and gentlemen’ pointing at his pianist), as great in his power to outrage correctness as Auberon Waugh, or Patrick Cook, or Jonathan Swifet….

But it’s over. And it’s unbelievable. Three more weeks, or less, and it’s gone.

It can’t be experienced in reproductive television, it is theatre at its most stirring, most transient and soul-embracing. It is like a great unrepeatable football final or a Sutherland mad scene or Paul Simon live with Africans. One of those irreplaceable privileges we have as human beings. And it’s going. And it’s a pity.

Some think that Barry’s politics (Tory, elitist, British, talent-snobbish, borderline homophobic) matter, but they do not. Shakespeare was a monarchist elitist priest-hole Catholic woman-scorning spreader of fatal syphilis, but these things do not matter as much as they should. I have often written that, among Australians, Barry is the only one I can with confidence in any turn of the fashion in any millennium I have been in call a genius, and I do that now.

What a night. I’ll get to the Wednesday matinee if I can. I urge the readership to do likewise. They will be uplifted into their better selves as they never were by religion.

They will understand the meaning of sublime.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Have seen Barry on the stage, and on the telly…wonderful.
    When he announced that he was giving up performing I felt strangely sad..
    Any silly woman listening to Louise Hay’s tapes in search of their inner child, should throw tapes out and go and see him when it’s still possible, and maybe they too will learn to ‘adore’themselves, or at least to value humour.

  2. I appreciate Barry’s work. Even more so that he is like those from South Park and even SNL at most times. He has a go at everybody’s weak points. I remember a Phillip Adams, the hoarder of Egyptian artifacts, Elgan Marbles-like, when he just didn’t appreciate the line about “If the dingo did it there wouldn’t be any bail’ and so on. And Barry’s own description of the original audience reaction to Lance Boyle was wonderful. The audience drooling at the mouth as this White Shoe Brigade/Alan Bond lookalike ripped off everybody on his expenses, and (tellingly and prophetically) used molls willy nilly and so forth. Then the jaw dropping as they realised that poor Lance was a Craig Thomson carbon copy! Or the original reaction to Les Patterson (was it actually AT St George Leagues Club in Sydney) when he realised that this one-off character was seemingly recognised everywhere.
    We owe Barry a lot of thanks. But he was a one-off.

    • In fact, lapping up the audience being caught out with their prejudices isn’t only down to great satirists and comics. An Australian author (ex-jailbird, I can’t remember his name) popped into a Tasmanian hotel press conference in the 50’s or 60’s and saw that the famous visiting British surgeon holding it was none other than Australia’s greatest con-man Murray Beresford Roberts (well, kiwi actually, but no matter). On spying the author Roberts signalled him to silence and pulled him aside later to joyously exclaim how he had them “eating out of his hand”. Is THAT one of the attractions for such comics I wonder? Admittedly Roberts, who could be out of jail one morning and be arrested a few days later for impersonating the Governor-General loved it, but what about comics/satirists such as Barry?

  3. I have always found his stuff hits the spot for me, razor-sharp, always good for a decent belly-laugh. Yet he’s rightie; funny ’bout that..
    As I understand it, he has done much that’s constructive in life; often there for friend and stranger alike, down on their luck.

  4. Jack Robertson

    Ah, I dunno. Bit of a one-joke career, really. And as with all those expats it was a one-joke that dated very quickly: Edna hasn’t been subversive - much less funny (except to the comically tone deaf) - for years. Barry ‘Our Clayton’s Genius’ H is beloved because he only satirises an Australia that hasn’t existed since about 1967.

    Nope. Just another derivative, modestly talented, narcissistic middle class tyre-kicker from the drab suburbs.

    • hudsongodfrey

      I think you’re either being ungenerous, or you haven’t taken the time to appreciate the hilarity of Sir Les or his best character of all in Sandy Stone.

      Besides if those legends are true, anyone who sneaks into a nunnery to leave all the toilet seats up has to at least bring a few smiles.

    • To jack Robertson:

      It is a rule of these columns that you do not criticise something you have not read or seen. If you do do you will be nbanned for life.

      Have you seen any of Barry’s thirty-two stage shows?

      • Jack Robertson

        To Dearly Beloved Host,

        Not only have I seen every single performance given anywhere in any guise since 1924 by BE - a longstanding intimate friend, by the way, godfather to my triplets, collaborator on several international arts projects and co-writer of our famous biography of Rimbaud (you’ll not have heard of it, obviously, it being published only in Old French and you being a Philistine and borderline illiterate - I can recite by heart word perfect every single line he has ever uttered. Mostly because I wrote them all.

        Anyway, you can’t ban me, I’ve already established in a scant handful of comments that I’m the most supreme mind in here.

        Prove that I lie. And ban me, sirruh, at peril of worldwide ridicule and scorn.

    • hudsongodfrey

      That or eating the coleslaw from the Qantas sick bag. To say it was in bad taste is I suspect to make too poor a pun :)

  5. hudsongodfrey

    To whit

  6. Thanks Hudson, you got the love the woman :wink:

  7. oops, there’s a little TO missing

    • Another opportunity to indulge in some whimsical day-dreaming, trying to imagine what may pass should Mr Humphries find himself in the company of the ghost of Jack passed.

      JR: “No offence, your worship, but aren’t you just another
      derivative, modestly talented, narcissistic middle class tyre-kicker from the drab suburbs?”

      BH: (purring) “Why thank you possum, how sweet of you. And you are who?”

      JR: “I’m the ghost of Jack passed”.

      BH: “My goodness, you’re one of the living dead! An Australian, are you?

      Tell me, Ghost, what will you be remembered for, when your works are written for all to see?”

      JF: “They knew me as a basher of things good, a tearer-down of those unwilling to hide their lights under the bushels, a common-variety garden vandal,
      a destroyer of tall poppies”.

      BH: “Splendid. Australia rejoices in your works!”

      • Jack Robertson

        JR: Mind you, Your Hero Worship, I didst love so your early stuff. You know, before you went electric…

        Exeunt Ghost, banned, with rattling chorus of assorted seething reeking vile canker’d Gen X jealousies & petty resentments

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