Barry Humphries and Dame Edna’s last stand, interview
12th October 2013
Australia’s housewife gigastar is making her last appearance on British stages. Her creator Barry Humphries explains why. First published, Daily Telegraph, Oct 12, 2013.
Barry Humphries isn’t wearing a dress. He’s wearing a lot of layers, though, considering we’re indoors. Aside from jacket, shirt, natty tie and corduroy trousers, he sports a hat and scarf, making him look the part of a dandified intellectual of the old school, rather than a showbiz legend responsible for raising the roof as the most famous and funniest dame in the world.
When he speaks, shades of Edna Everage creep in, principally in the way that he brings a teasing emphasis to certain words, or twangs a phrase with unexpected suggestiveness, but his tone is cultivated and elevated. He doesn’t consider himself a comedian, he says, and certainly doesn’t regard himself as a mere drag artist. “You know, I still secretly think of myself as a Dada-ist,” he muses, and considering the scale of his subversive achievements, that seems about right.
Now 79, he has been spreading Everage’s waspish love, on and off since 1955. The character arrived, as if heaven-sent, as a spontaneous send-up of prim, proper and bigoted suburban manners while Humphries was touring his native Australia with a production of Twelfth Night in which he was struggling to shine as Orsino. The character has grown to such an extent that asking her creator what it’s like to slip into all that regalia, on the eve of his/her farewell tour, feels beside the point. Edna has become her own monstrous and magnificent creature and Humphries talks about her as someone who, even after all this time, he’s at a loss fully to understand.
“It’s as if I’m channelling some other person,” he explains, looking mystified, but with a hint of wry amusement, his gaze alert and shrewdly evaluating. “I can only express it in this irrational manner to you.” When you ask him to cast his mind back to that original act of cross-dressing transgression the idea that it might have felt or looked unnatural produces more bafflement. “It didn’t occur to anyone that there was something perverse or compromising about it,” he replies. “And I never thought that. If I was tortured, tormented or even anxious about it, it would spoil things.”
If the housewife “gigastar” has been accused of being an insult to women, the complaints haven’t stuck. Perhaps if one were able to consult Humphries’ three former wives — he’s now married to Lizzie Spender, daughter of Sir Stephen — or his four grown-up children, a less straightforward picture might emerge but at this late stage in the day, it seems more appropriate to celebrate his disconcerting transformation than to deconstruct it.
The enduring appeal of Edna is at once complex and incredibly simple: “I say things other people wish they could say,” he suggests. “I don’t pick on people, I empower them. What amuses me is that people have accepted Edna at her own estimation of herself. People want to go along with the joke but it’s more than a joke, it’s an idea — and it’s not exactly calculated because a lot of it I do unconsciously. I keep thinking I’d better put her in her box but every time I open it up, she comes out a little more real.”
The shadow of mortality looms large, his own and Edna’s looms large in our conversation. Not long ago, he ran into David Frost. “We talked about old times,” he remembers, then adds with wistful candour and a poignant pause: “We mainly talked about the fact that he and I, amongst so many, were still alive and the rest were gone.”
The one obvious absentee from Eat Pray Laugh!, which will be his first major foray into the West End for 15 years (not counting his recent excursion into panto at Wimbledon), is Edna’s long-suffering bridesmaid Madge. Emily Perry, who took the role from 1987, died five years ago, aged 100. “It was very sad when she died,” he says. “Although she said nothing she was much loved. In reality Emily was an entertaining travelling companion and I travelled with her a lot. On my last meeting with her in her nursing home, I leant forward to give her a kiss — she seemed to have become much smaller — and she said to me, ‘Oh Barry, didn’t we have wonderful times? If only I could remember what we did.’”
It is staggering that Humphries himself still has the stamina to hold the stage for two hours. Alongside Edna, other favourite characters such as Sir Les Patterson, that belching emissary of Australian values, and Sandy Stone, the ghostly figure of suburban mundanity are also in the mix, along with a new one, Gerard, Sir Les’ s paedophile Catholic priest brother. He also has the rigours of touring to the likes of Milton Keynes to contend with before he sets up shop for two winter months at the London Palladium.
Those fearing the show might prove a sorry spectacle rather than a sensational send-off, however, should know that he’s fully confident he’s got what it takes, even if time isn’t on his side: “I want to phase it out while I’m still good at it,” he says, leaning forward, decisive. “And I am still really good at it.”
Years ago, while growing up in the affluent suburbs of Melbourne, the son of a successful house-builder, he got a first-hand whiff of the derision that awaited old-timers who had carried on past their sell-by dates when he went to matinees with his mother, a woman not easily impressed by others or by him, as his memoirs lay disquietingly bare.
“These shows would be presented by an Australian company but they always had to bring out an English star or two who by then were back numbers in England. The actor would bumble around on stage and my mother would whisper to me very loudly ‘Isn’t it pathetic at his age?’
“Now whenever I’m on stage and I have a little illumination in the audience and I see a middle-aged woman with a schoolboy leaning forward and whispering something I know what’s she’s saying. Or I think I know what’s she saying. Or,” he adds triumphantly, “I hope I will not persist until she has to say it!”
He felt a pang in Perth, tossing Edna’s last gladiolus at the end of the Australian adieu, earlier this year. He will feel no less emotional as he embarks on his UK lap of honour. “I’m saying goodbye to a lot of theatres and cities I’ve been to before.” And the West End has a special place in his heart. “I really love it,” he says.
It was here he got his big break as an actor, not long after hitting London in 1959 — “the city I’d always dreamed of coming to” – cast as the creepy undertaker Mr Sowerberry in the original production of Oliver! And London embraced Edna in the mid-1970s, way before New York dared to succumb.
What is he going to do once he has bowed out for good, with a last hurrah in the Big Apple? There is talk of a TV finale for Edna and co, a suggestion of a book, and he loves to paint. But it’s going to hit him hard. “I’m going to probably really miss it. I suffer greatly from nerves. I have stage-fright badly and it gets worse but the stage is still my life.”
He pauses, looking back across all those decades of laughter. “I feel like I’ve cheated. I never knew what to do. I was never a good enough painter to earn a living and so I drifted into the theatre and I’ve had a successful life. I feel guilty that I’ve never done a day’s work in my life!”