Barry Humphries: ‘I defend to the ultimate my right to give deep and profound offence’ | Culture
Barry Humphries’ latest stage show celebrates the music of the Weimar Republic – radical, risque and ultimately banned by the Nazis. The performer, best known for his monstrous creations Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson, believes there is no better time to highlight the danger of censorship. Today, Dame Edna’s sly prejudices and Sir Les’s outlandish views (his monologues are peppered with references to spags, slopies, muff-munchers and shirt-lifters) are regarded by many as relics. Some might even regard them as “degenerate”, just as Hitler did the art of the Weimar Republic. As for Humphries, he is scathing about what he calls “the new puritanism”.
We meet at his agent’s office in King’s Cross, London. At 84, Humphries is super bright, fearlessly opinionated and more rakish than ever. Baggy check suit, bright green tie, matching pocket square that could double up as a tablecloth, snakeskin shoes and fedora, he looks every inch the boho dandy.
The grotesque global superstar Dame Edna Everage and the foul-mouthed priapic dribbler Sir Les Patterson are hilarious spoofs of old-school Australian bigotry. In the flesh, Humphries is unrecognisable from Everage and Patterson. Intellectually, he could not be more different – a bibliophile with 30,000 books at home, most of them read. While Dame Edna and Sir Les are loud and boorish, Humphries is quiet and urbane (“I never swear,” he says). He sounds more like a 1950s upper-class English gent than Sir Les. And yet people continue to ask – with good reason – where do Dame Edna and Sir Les end and Barry Humphries begin?
His return to the stage is unusual because he appears as himself, curating an evening of songs sung by the Australian chanteuse Meow Meow. Weimar Cabaret pays homage to the cultural revolution that blossomed between the end of the first world war and the rise of Hitler. It was a short-lived period in which jazz, expressionism and dadaism flourished. Humphries is a huge fan of this period. It shouldn’t surprise us. Dame Edna and Sir Les are caricatures every bit as savage as the paintings of Otto Dix or George Grosz.
Humphries says none of his characters give him quite as much pleasure as Australian ambassador Sir Les, best known for his puce cheeks, huge appendage and formidable frothing. “I enjoy playing Les more than any other character because it release my inner vulgarity. It liberates my repressed ribaldry.” In 1999, Sir Les appeared with Kylie Minogue at Nick Cave’s Meltdown, in a duet that concluded with him chasing her round the stage and whipping out his famous (and thankfully fake) “frightener”. Sir Les is an acquired taste. When I first came across him in my teens, I couldn’t believe somebody could be so disgusting on TV and get away with it – he was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.
Does he still have sufficient saliva to play the dissolute ambassador? “Well, look, the same question was asked by Prince Charles.” Like Edna, Humphries is an accomplished name-dropper. “He said: ‘Do you have some kind of tube running down your mouth?’ and I said: ‘No, I produce it myself.’ It really is organic. I can expectorate six rows into the stalls.” He looks at me with undisguised pride. “That is an accomplishment, isn’t it? I can almost hit a target half a block away!” Does the royal family like Sir Les? “Prince Charles likes Les a lot,” he whispers lubriciously. Of Dame Edna’s formidable gladdy-chucking feats, he says: “With the gladioli, I can get them into Camilla’s lap if she’s sitting in the front row of the dress circle.” How does he know? “She told me.” British royalty seem to adore Dame Edna as much as Dame Edna adores them.
Dame Edna remains Humphries’ most successful creation. She first appeared in the 1950s when he was living in Australia. Edna was a parody of polite, decent, small-minded suburban housewives. “Edna was painfully shy at first. Angonisingly shy.” His eyes twinkle. “Hard to believe!” And how she evolved – the voice became louder, the diamante spectacles more spectacular, the purple rinse more flamboyant and the ego more untamed. The amazing thing about Edna is that she was never regarded as a man in drag, she was simply Edna. In the late 1980s she was given her own chatshow, The Dame Edna Experience, which paved the way for Mrs Merton (who had more than a touch of Edna about her). Edna became a brilliant pricker of pomposity. She was merciless on her guests, memorably telling Jeffrey Archer: “If you can’t laugh at yourself you might be missing the joke of the century.”
Ultimately, Edna satirises the nature of celebrity itself – the faux intimacy of stars who actually hold their fans in contempt. She talks of “the little faces” in the audience, “looking up, grotesque with gratitude”. In her song That’s What My Public Means to Me, she sings: “You can keep the company of Roman Polanksi and Bianca, it’s after nobodies like you that I hanker.”
After Humphries’ mother died, he admitted Edna was largely based on her. In the past, he has painted a picture of a cold, unhappy, priggish woman who would point out Jews in the street as if they were a lower form of life. Louisa Humphries wanted her Barry to be a somebody, and she was embarrassed when he opted for a career in theatre. She would often say: “We don’t know where he came from.”
His mother seemed to take pleasure in him getting bad reviews. “She’d say: ‘Don’t be depressed, Barry. There’s something you have to learn – not everybody likes you!’” Did she mean that she didn’t like him? “I’m not sure. There was a kind of relish. I think she was finally a bit proud of me, but she teetered on the brink of being embarrassed as well. She was very complex.”
Nowadays he sees a lot of his mother in himself, “the same mentality – a bit waspish, prepared to see the negative side of people and situations”.
Humphries says his childhood was stultifying. His father was a builder who made good, and bought into middle-class life. Despite living in Melbourne, the family were little Englanders. “We were pretending we were in the home counties. We had nice churches, English gardens with nice lawns, crumpets for tea, teapots in the form of thatched cottages, pictures of Winston Churchill on the back of the kitchen door, and we subscribed to the Church of England. As Germaine Greer has brutally expressed it, it was a very boring life. And you either submerged yourself in it or left.”
Humphries was one of a group of Australian contemporaries, including Greer, Clive James and Rupert Murdoch, who left – ironically, for the mother country, England. He remains friendly with all of them, and refers to them frequently. “It’s wonderful that Clive’s still alive,” he says of James, who announced he was close to death in 2015. “He’s blind in one eye and tiny now. I wrote this poem: Poor old Clive / Is still alive. / We know he is not dead / Because he keeps telling us / About all the books he’s read.”
He giggles. Has he shown it to James? “I should, shouldn’t I?” And he recites it once more to amuse himself.
By the time he left Melbourne in 1959, he had enjoyed some success with Edna. His comedy verged on performance art, and often seemed as much for his amusement as that of others. On plane journeys, he would sneak a can of vegetable soup onboard, drink a mouthful, then vomit it into the sick bag. He would then get out a spoon and eat the contents.
In England, he struggled. He befriended his hero Peter Cook and created the cartoon character Barry McKenzie for Private Eye (McKenzie was another debauched womaniser), but struggled as a jobbing stage actor. He started to drink heavily. The Private Eye editor, Richard Ingrams, sacked him despite the cartoon’s popularity because he kept missing deadlines. Over 15 years, he almost drank himself to death. He went through women as rapidly as booze. (Humphries has been “very happily” married to his fourth wife, Lizzie Spender, the daughter of the poet Stephen Spender, for 28 years. He has four children – two daughters with his second wife and two sons with his third.) Humphries has described himself as “a dissolute, guilt-ridden, self-pitying boozer”. He reached his nadir in 1973, when he was found beaten unconscious in a gutter. He was admitted to hospital to dry out, and he turned his life around. He has been sober for 45 years. What made him stop? “I got sick and tired of being tired and sick.” The answer might be pat, but it’s also true.
Perhaps Sir Les is a warning to himself of what he could have become. Would any part of him want to be Les? “No, I don’t want to be Les Patterson. I do rather admire him, though. He’s very genial. It would be therapeutic if Les was on TV constantly, reminding people there is another attitude to the fairer sex which doesn’t entirely displease them. I’ve noticed that people who laugh at Les’s most offensive, controversial, sexual sallies are old ladies. I have the lights up, and can see the old ladies on the front row. And they love it, as they used to love Max Miller.”
Humphries is a clever man. Within one sentence he can segue from the ironic to the heartfelt and back again. On such occasions, his conversation can be hard to unpick. At other times, he talks with a simple, if scabrous, warmth.
I mention that the Australian actor Geoffrey Rush said he thought Dame Edna should have a full celebrity breakdown. “He’s a funny man, Geoffrey Rush. He’s a great actor …” Silence. You know something is coming – and this is when I see Edna in Humphries. “He’s having a very hard time in Australia because he’s been named as a …” He stops short of saying the word. Is he surprised by the allegations of inappropriate touching? “Well, I feel for him. You know.” Does he think it’s fair? “No, I don’t think it’s fair. In some cases there are genuine cases of abuse … you know, Jimmy Savile. Horrifying. Horrifying!” As for cases where an actor is accused of touching “some Sheila on stage”, he says, “well, part of the job, isn’t it?”. Now I can see the Les in him.
Have the rules of behaviour changed? “Look, I’m a solo performer. I don’t get a chance.” He grins. “Les does it for me. He drinks for me, too.”
Humphries says he adores women. “I wouldn’t mind if there were no men in the world at all. I really do like women. Women know more. My sister’s school magazine was full of poems and romance, mine was full of sport, and I used to think how lovely to be at the Presbyterian ladies college writing these poems. Women know more about life … they bring it into the world … they are much more honest … they cook. My wife is a wonderful cook, which is why I’m so morbidly obese.” How much does he weigh? “I’m not going to tell you. Or your readers. All I can say is that in the next few weeks, it’s going to go down. When I’m on the stage, my weight disappears.”
The older Humphries gets, the more outrageous he becomes. In recent years, his comments have caused controversy. In 2014, he defended the University of Sydney professor Barry Spurr after the academic was suspended for sending allegedly racist emails. Humphries said of them: “How could anyone take such deliberate Touretting seriously?” and concluded: “The answer, I fear, is that there are a lot of Australians these days who are totally bereft of a sense of humour. The new puritanism is alive, well and powerful.”
In 2016, he told the Radio Times that Downton Abbey was popular in the US “because there are no black people in it”. It is a comment that can be read in many ways. What did he mean? “It was a throwaway comment – a joke really. And I would not wish to offend [Julian] Fellowes, who has created a wonderful thing. I think Americans like it because it describes a society so unlike American life that it is intriguing to them. It’s fascinating annd attractive … and good manners are a curiosity, aren’t they?”
Does it bother him if people say it is a racist comment? “Oh, I don’t really care. If people think it is racist, they’ll be sensitive to everything of that kind. You can’t pussyfoot around them. You just say what you think. I was being provocative.” I ask if he thinks he has become more like Sir Les over the years. “No. Sir Les Patterson has never said anything I’ve agreed with.”
Humphries splits his time between Melbourne and London, and regards both as home. “I’m a very conservative, sentimental old person. And I like the Melbourne of my memories.” He says the old-fashioned backwaters of his youth still exist and he enjoys visiting them.
How does he feel about Brexit? “I voted in favour of Brexit and I would reverse my vote now if I could.” Why? “Because I have changed my mind. There is a lot to be said for a European solidarity that includes Britain.”
He returns to the new puritanism, and the relevance of his Weimar Cabaret, which he first performed two years ago. “There was this burst of wonderful art and invention, and discovery and beauty. It only lasted a few years. And the musical side of it was suppressed almost immediately by the Nazis. A lot of the composers were Jewish. Some of them fled to Hollywood. The Nazis called it Entartete Musik, degenerate music.”
Humphries fears political correctness may lead us into a new era of censorship – or self-censorship. Indeed, he believes Edna was an early victim of political correctness. In 2003, her agony column for Vanity Fair was dropped after she was asked: “I am thinking of learning Spanish. Is this a good idea?”, and answered: “Why Spanish, who would you talk to – your maid?” Humphries was dumbfounded. “It’s so much easier to shock people these days. I find it extremely provocative and therefore inspiring to find myself in a society that is so prudish when it thinks it’s being liberal. It’s ridiculous.”
That is why, he says, he is determined to bring Sir Les back to Britain for one last hurrah. “I think Les might have adapted to new conditions.” Is he less offensive? He guffaws. “No, he’s more offensive. He’s had to ramp it up.”
Does anything frighten Humphries? Yes, he says: death. Now there is no irony or grandstanding. The thing is, he says, after the desperation of the alcohol years, he started to love life. “I picked up the gift of life 45 years ago. And now I look at the obituaries and see how old people are, and I think I’m getting to be that. And I think of all the things I’d like to be doing.” What scares him most? “Dropping dead on stage worries me. It’s happened to people I’ve admired like Tommy Cooper.”
Humphries has to leave. He is having lunch with his friend, the chef Rick Stein. As we get up, I ask where he got his dress sense from. “My father. There he was, striding across the joists of suburban villas in their construction and talking to the plumbers, always in a suit and a tie. And he always took his hat off in lifts for ladies. And I still do that. Almost as a tribute to my father. When ladies get in a lift, I take my hat off. Nobody ever does it any more.”
As we enter the lift, he tells me how lucky he has been and how much he is looking forward to the future – particularly reviving Sir Les. “I defend to the ultimate my right to give deep and profound offence.” He pauses. “So long as people laugh while they’re being offended.” And do they laugh as much nowadays? “Oh yes, of course they do.” A young woman enters the lift. Humphries discreetly raises his hat. She doesn’t notice that one of the world’s great provocateurs has just paid his respects.
Weimar Cabaret is at the Barbican, London, until 29 July, barbican.org.uk