Interviewing the same person twice as two different people with an interval of several months between was not one of my better ideas.
Actually, I didn’t come up with it and, in fact, I can remember several helpful sorts telling me it was a mistake, but I ignored them. My logic was simple: I’ve read enough interviews with, and profiles of, Barry Humphries to know that trying to discover the real man behind the personae that have been the bedrock of his comedy for more than half a century – Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson, Sandy Stone – is about as easy as imagining Dame Edna lobbing carnations instead of gladioli. Impossible. So why not double my chances by speaking to both him and her?
As it turns out, there are fewer differences than I think either would care to admit.
“A mask tells us more than a face,” is the Oscar Wilde quote that Humphries used to open Handling Edna, the mock-memoir about his life as Dame Edna’s long-suffering ‘manager’. At one time, Humphries’ letterhead stated: “Barry Humphries is a Division of the Barry Humphries Group.” While he was a student at the University of Melbourne, he became a leading exponent of Dadaism (he mounted infamous absurdist pranks including one called Pus in Boots, consisting of a pair of wellington boots filled with custard) and a streak of the surreal still runs through Humphries’ approach to his art, so there’s no point in asking the real Mr Humphries to stand up, just as there’s no point in thinking that you can steer a conversation, whether it’s with him or his sequin-bedecked, possum-pulverising alter ego.
Humphries’ farewell tour, Eat, Pray Laugh! which started in Australia a little over a year ago and reaches Edinburgh next week, “my home in the north” as the purple-haired harridan calls it, is the reason for our chat. Humphries says that the experience of saying goodbye with a two-hour show is “bittersweet” as well as physically draining – hardly surprising, given that he’s 79 and the show is an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. The Dame, on the other hand, contends that one of her least appealing habits is shyness and reckons that, “I could really share more of myself with the world.”
It was in 1955, with a fledgling acting career occupying not quite enough of his time, that Humphries dreamed up Mrs Norm Everage, a suburban housewife hailing from Moonee Ponds, Melbourne. She wasn’t an immediate success. But by the 1970s, Dame Edna had emerged from the chrysalis of that first dowdy incarnation, revealing herself as a glorious, hilarious monster who concealed her acerbic wit, rampant ego and dubious political outlook beneath a surface of apparent warmth. In the decades that followed Dame Edna worked her way towards “global domination”, transforming herself from a “megastar” into a “gigastar” and along the way reinvigorating the chat show format (subverting the genre’s practiced sycophancy by feigning interest in her guests and hogging the limelight), touring the world and tossing gladis from stages in the West End and Broadway. Humphries is a bibliophile, an accomplished landscape painter and writer, but the star in the ascendancy was that of the Dame. As she puts it, “I am a lucky woman, because I was born with a priceless gift – the ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others.”
“It didn’t occur to me,” she says with mock modesty when I ask whether she expected her career to span more than 50 years. “And do you know what the secret is? I never had an ambition. I didn’t fight my way into the global position I now occupy. Claire, are you a married woman?”
I cannot tell you the panic when the Dame suddenly asks you a question. Perhaps it’s my warning – gentle but as clear as a blaring klaxon – that questions can be met with questions as well as answers. It’s my signal that at any moment I may be co-opted into the gag, I might become part of the joke, I know which part too – the butt, plainly.
“No,” I say sheepishly.
“Have you been?”
“When you go to a cocktail party or a press function, is there a little part of you that’s on the look-out? You can trust me, this is girl talk. So, is there?”
Laughing saves me from having to answer.
“Well, let me tell you that’s not how it happens. It happens when you’re looking in the opposite direction, when it hasn’t crossed your pretty little mind. That’s when it happens. That’s when it happened to me in terms of my wonderful career. It crept up on me, Claire.”
In a way, she’s telling the truth. Humphries grew up in suburban Melbourne. His father was a building contractor, specialising in suburban homes. He had two brothers and a sister, all younger. His mother was an emotionally remote figure. She used to say, smiling, “We don’t know where Barry came from,” something which terrified her son, making him believe that he must have been adopted. Humphries was the quintessential outsider – different within his family and at odds with the genteel society in which they lived. Always fascinated by art and literature, he rebelled by becoming a dandy, wearing a velvet cloak and growing his hair (a tribute to his hero, Wilde), eventually leaving Australia for London in 1959, throwing himself into the excitement of Notting Hill in the 1960s. There he made friends with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Spike Milligan and contributed to Private Eye. He appeared in numerous West End shows including the original production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!
As well as revelling in London’s Swinging Sixties, Humphries completed his rejection of his suburban beginnings by creating Edna, the embodiment of small-minded hypocrisy. Her success, he contends, is because she says what we’d all like to say. He’s right, I think.
“Am I bit premature in getting excited about my shows in Edinburgh?” she asks, not the slightest bit interested in an answer. When the Dame doesn’t enjoy, or doesn’t hear, my questions, she simply asks her own. “I don’t think so. I can’t help it. It’s a very, very long time since I was last there. The last time it was a Royal Command Performance and I was on the bill with Pavarotti, he was a fat singer, have you heard of him? He threatened not to come that night so there was a terrible panic. Eventually he came and begrudgingly sang one song. But the worst thing about that night was when we had to be presented to the Queen. We all stood on the stage waiting for her to arrive. I stood next to old Pav and he started to feel a bit faint and he lent against me, it was a weight I could barely tolerate. When the Queen arrived he was at an angle, like the leaning tower of Pisa.”
When I finally speak to Humphries, he tells me this same story but instead of ‘Pav’ being the one leaning, it’s Edna instead.
Rumours of Dame Edna’s retirement have been floating around for years. In one episode of The Dame Edna Experience, a spoof talk show with real guests, Edna asked Sir John Mills, then 79 (the same age that Humphries is now) when he intended to retire. Mills explained that he had no intention of doing so and inquired whether she had any plans for it herself. “I don’t even believe in dying!” she quipped. But even a decade before, in 1978, Humphries performed a show in London called Isn’t it Pathetic at his Age. The title was something he’d heard his mother say about an ageing English actor who appeared on stage in Melbourne, as his star waned. So did he worry about bringing Edna back one last time?
“It’s the most successful show I’ve ever done,” he says. “I’m not unduly modest, but I think it’s also the best show I’ve ever done. I knew it had to be. If you’re going to advertise a farewell tour it’s got to be good.” Besides, he feels that Edna still has things to say. “She’s got views on everything. Between you and me, she’s totally ignorant but she has an opinion on everything.” He laughs. “And by the way, the world is still pretty funny.”
As for the effort of putting on the show he says he’s taking “the vitamin pills” and some exercise.
“I’ve even walked to Waitrose a couple of times. What’s funny is if you’re a bit well known through the telly – and luckily for many years I could shelter behind the persona of Edna. But in recent years people have wanted to talk to me for some reason, well I am quite interesting, I find myself fascinating, and my face is known. So if I’m pushing my trolley in the supermarket people say, ‘oh I didn’t think you’d be doing your own shopping.’ And when you get into a taxi they say ‘I thought you’d drive a Rolls-Royce, Barry?’”
I can’t tell if he really minds these assumptions about his wealth – Humphries’ tone drips with irony – but I do wonder if he dislikes being recognised?
“It sort of goes with it doesn’t it? I don’t understand these actors and actresses who are all sniffy about being asked for autographs. It’s a compliment. I consider it a compliment. There are some people who ask for an autograph and then ask who you are.” He laughs, tickled by the absurdity.
For my part, I can’t help but think how truly unanswerable that question is in regard to Humphries. Sometimes he’s Dame Edna, sometimes Sir Les “the acceptable face of Australian politics” Patterson and then, of course, there’s Sandy Stone, the elderly gent from Melbourne created by Humphries because he wanted to write a monologue with no jokes in it. “I wanted to see how boring it could be and how audiences would respond to something that was very, very boring, which is how I snobbishly viewed Melbourne life.”
His alter egos have allowed Humphries to revel in his outsider status. They’ve allowed him to say the unsayable and, to have a good laugh while doing so. As he says, “If I didn’t enjoy it, you wouldn’t enjoy it.” So how will the mild-mannered man behind these comic caricatures cope without them?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’ll just have to be tolerant and think of the money.”
• Barry Humphries’ Farewell Tour: Eat, Pray, Laugh! is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, from Tuesday until Sunday, tel: 0131-529 6000,