Classic Ellis: Barry Humphries, 1997

Barry Humphries was late for the Premier’s lunch, but quickly, expertly delightful – standing at a distance from the paintings round the walls and correctly guessing who the artists were, works that Carr admitted ‘looting, like Goering’ from the cobwebbed basements of State galleries, launching into off-colour stories of the great and good in his genteel mischievous Edwardian way. His wife Lizzie Spender was with him, knocked out with jet lag and baying for coffee, unimpressed by my recital of her father’s lesser verse, and Helena Carr with Bob and Nicholas Pounder the mordant bookseller, imbibing his courtly salacity with an imperturbablility that verged on Restoration deadpan. He had lately played Germany, he said, in the guise of Edna Everage and shocked that prickly nation with a joke about Eva Braun, whose name had not for reasons of taste been mentioned on any German stage in the last fifty years – another first for Edna – and Saudi Arabia where a good few sallies, he said (there were none, presumably, about adulterous decapitated princesses), misfired. He seemed no older than when we last spoke five years ago, but smaller somehow and less bug-eyed, more married.

His infinite courtesy (he would never in real life cause anybody the smallest offence; he leaves that kind of unseemliness to his rowdy creatures on the stage) was unabated as ever. He mentioned, for instance, that he owed his facility in written English to Jack Brooksbank, his teacher at Melbourne Grammar, who was my wife Annie’s father (six degrees of separation), and drew me out about the fire, enumerating the irreplaceables lost forever, nodding, commiserating. He spoke of seeing Lizzie’s famed father Stephen at Melbourne University in 1949; the icon little knowing, as Barry said in a later poem, ‘that in the throng there skulked a son-in-law’.

His wispy metallic voice, a crucible of irony and tenderness, has been imitated well by only Gerry Connolly, and I told him so. He was intrigued to hear of it, for he admired, he said, what he had seen of Gerry, his take-off of Her Majesty less than other things; and then he remembered with sudden sadness not unmixed with satisfaction that Gerry’s house, too, had burnt down, and he too lost everything in the conflagration, poor fellow.

Too many fires about.

Everyone but me drank mineral water, and I was tricked by the sly Greek chef into mere light ale. The Premier was preoccupied with a line he needed, one that conjured up a military disaster, Waterloo, whatever, to use in Question Time an hour later. This task seized the mind of Humphries, who wrestled with it vainly throughout the meal. It was interesting that a line did not come immediately, glibly to his lips. He could have been shamming, of course, and, as a lifelong Liberal, sabotaging the enemy’s parliamentary arsenal.

Carr explained to Lizzie how vulgar and raucous the State House was and gave a fair review sketch of its proceedings – boo, rubbish, go bag your head. He was now being held responsible, he complained, for the many stabbings and shootings of the past day and night (the severest climaxes of lifetimes under lesser State governments over many years) and was aggravated that the only real response, these things happen, was rhetorically inadmissible.

The conversation struck pauses now and then, though no-one was ill at ease. The absorbing grace (if that’s the word) of Barry and his occasional glissandos into Edna’s famed contralto kept us properly reminded of his astonishing talent: few artists in history – apart from Dickens, certainly, and some radio stars perhaps, Hancock, Sellers, Jack Benny – can have willed so eccentric a persona into a nation’s consciousness for so long, thirty-five years now.

He spoke of returning to Melbourne to see his mother, who was in some part Edna’s model, for the purpose of introducing to her his new little son Oscar; of arriving duly at Moonee Ponds and getting no response when he knocked; of tiptoeing round the back, and seeing through the window his mother sitting opposite a portable radio and nodding vigorously. On the radio was Patrick Tennyson, an opinionated broadcaster, lambasting this oaf Barry Humphries for the disgrace he was bringing on Australia. His mother admitted him, and they sat together listening to this. ‘He’s onto you Barry,’ his mother said. Several senile callers added their agreement to the diatribe. Seizing the moment, Barry went through to the next room and, in Edna’s character, rang up Patrick Tennyson, and was immediately put through. ‘I absolute agree,’ she said, ‘with all you’ve said, and all that’s been said, about that awful Brian Humphrey, and I happen to know, for I am privy to special information, that his mother does too.’ He put down the phone and went back into the room to find his mother staring at him amazedly. Then she had a scone and recovered herself. ‘And now,’ she said, ‘I think I should meet my grandson.’

Barry is what Kenneth Tynan called a talent-snob: he believes that the talented should be rewarded and the others accorded useful employment in the service industries. When he went, for instance, with a delegation of Down Under glitterati to a festival in Sorrento for a week that included Australia’s election day in 1980, he wore everywhere a badge declaring I’m a Liberal Lover. You can take, I suppose, the boy out of Melbourne Grammar…We also quickly revert to our schoolboy selves, and our alma mater’s priorities, and it’s a worry.

He detested Pauline Hanson of course. ‘Bringing disgrace on the country,’ he said, with a very straight face. He added some stories about Australian dentists in London, ripping off the National Health with laughing gas and a massive dental atrocity known as The Australian Trench which took about twenty minutes and earned five thousand pounds out of forty-two swiftly ravaged teeth. Some of the dentists, he added with loathing and wonder, doubled as abortionists using the same surgery. ‘It depends,’ one said, ‘which way you tilt the chair.’ They had all retired young, he said, to the Gulf of Cadiz, where they were currently tippling themselves to death and chorusing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to Atlantic sunsets.

I became aware that I might not see him again; the way one does. He has always been for me, since I saw him first in 1962, the perfect example of the audience, the reader, the listener, I would most like to impress. I once wrote a piece about him, comparing him to Merlin, the keeper of a nation’s memory. He quickly had it printed in Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye.

I left early, in order to speak at Mental Health Week in the State Library next door and to my annoyance waited a full hour to be called to the lectern. But I heard another speaker, a Dr Malcolm Dent, part of whose palliative treatment is reading, and encouraging his patients to read poetry out loud. In the seminar afterwards we recited some Henry Lawson in chorus, When you and I were faithful mates all through the roaring days. His wife, deeply loved, was a quadriplegic, he said, and had been for thirty years.

I didn’t go to Humphries’ opening of the Margaret Olley exhibition. I should have. I drove home instead, chock full of memories (writing with Michael Boddy a series for Humphries, walking long hours round Darling Point at his side, seeing one of his shows five times and being thrown, at show’s end, always the gladioli ‘with the short stem’) and didn’t write a line.

You know, there are people you love, and you never see them. And there are people you can’t stand, and you see them all the time.

– Barry Humphries, The Life and Death of Sandy Stone

  1. You are spot on Bob. He is truly a national and international treasure

  2. Wonderful, Bob : the man is a true genius. And this account of yours is so well written.

    Poetry has to be read aloud; the sounds of the words are sometimes even more important than their semantic meaning.

    A reading by Richard Burton, or even by Pam Ayres, adds so much to the experience.

Leave a Comment

* Copy this password:

* Type or paste password here:

46,726 Spam Comments Blocked so far by Spam Free Wordpress

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>