A common theme in interviews with Barry Humphries is the inability of the interviewer to remove the masks Humphries supposedly hides behind. “Oh is it? I don’t know what they mean by that,” the creator of Dame Edna Everage says. His air of bemusement is convincing – until you open his latest book Handling Edna, to find an Oscar Wilde quote: “A mask tells us more than a face.”
Handling Edna, published last year, is a mock-memoir about his life as Dame Edna’s “manager”. As impersonated by a dragged-up Humphries, she made her debut on a Melbourne stage in 1955. The following year, the first day of programmes on Australian television included an interview with her. Back then, she was a housewife from Moonee Ponds, Mrs Edna Everage.
In the half-century since, she has conquered the West End and Broadway, presented spoof chat shows, published books, acquired a damehood and risen to the highest strata of comic celebrity. Behind Edna stretches a trail of gladioli, outlandish Australian-themed outfits, satellite characters including late husband Norm and bridesmaid-factotum Madge, florid exclamations (“Hello possums!”) and, ringing out above all, the sound of laughter.
Dame Edna is the reason I am sitting with Humphries in the café of the Jerwood Space, a contemporary art gallery in south London not far from Tate Modern. It is whitewashed, airy and full of the clamour of other people lunching. Our table is by a glass wall, looking out towards a red-brick building where Humphries is rehearsing Edna’s new stage show.
He, or perhaps I should say she, is appearing in Dick Whittington at the New Wimbledon Theatre. It is the Dame’s first excursion into pantomime, a fitting vehicle for Humphries’ ribald, improvisatory brand of comedy.
Today my guest looks like what he is, a 77-year-old actor on a lunch break from rehearsals. His hair is dyed dark and combed in a slightly unkempt manner over one side of his head. Grey stubble covers his cheeks. He wears a blue-checked flannel shirt over a red vest. But the effulgent spirit of Edna isn’t far away. Even in mufti, without the Ednavian props of mauve wig, glossy lipstick and diamante glasses, he bears an uncanny resemblance to her.
On the table sits his script. There is also, squatting between us on a plate, a slice of Brazilian carrot cake, bolo de cenoura, which he spotted at the café counter as we ordered our food. (Humphries must be a regular here – later, when I check the prices for our lunch, I find I was given the 20 per cent discount for actors working in the centre’s rehearsal space.)
The Brazilian cake is a toxic shade of orange unlike that of any carrot. Topped with a brown slick of chocolate, it looks repulsive. I am reminded of a prank Humphries played as a youthful provocateur: on flights he would surreptitiously decant Russian salad into a paper bag, pretend to vomit into it and then appal fellow passengers by eating the contents of the bag.
“Scorn and disgust were my favourite occupations. If you could have been in Melbourne in the 1950s, you would have understood,” he says. His voice is theatrical and deliberate, swooping on certain words as if to hold them up for inspection with tongs. “It was a very nice place. You see, ‘nice’ is the epithet. Everyone aspired to be nice.”
His rebellion against niceness took several forms. One was to craft for himself the image of an erudite Wildean dandy, an exotic efflorescence amid duller blooms. Another was to leave for London, where he has lived since 1959. The third was the invention of Edna, whose surface warmth ill-conceals a roiling core of egotism, greed, racism and snobbery. At her shows, people sitting in the cheap seats are addressed as “paupers”. People of different skin colour are her “little tinted friends”. She is a glorious monster of suburban hypocrisy.
When I tell him that I don’t intend to rummage around for the “real” Barry Humphries but will instead treat him and Edna as separate people, his face brightens. So who is rehearsing the pantomime? Surely the Dame is too grand to bother with something as petty as rehearsals? “She’s a little bit like – ” here Humphries says the name of a famous Hollywood comedian, hereafter known as FHC because what follows is probably libellous. “He doesn’t rehearse, I’m told. He just sends on his double who rehearses all his scenes and then FHC just steps in and does them. I don’t know how that works but I seem to be doing something similar. Since I’m not in costume I have to try to impersonate Edna’s voice, which, mysteriously, isn’t very easy to achieve when Edna isn’t there.”
Panto often has a reputation as a place where ex-soap opera stars and reality show no-hopers are put out to grass. Isn’t a bit of a step down for the mighty Edna? “Is it?” says Humphries. “I wish you’d told me that before. I really thought it was a bit of a step up.”
His tone is genial but hard to read. Like his hero Wilde, Humphries has a habit of skating elegantly over the surface of things. There are whimsical digressions and many layers of irony. At one point he suddenly asks whether I am, like him, a grandparent. Caught out by this unexpected line of inquiry, I fluster something about it being biologically possible, but no, at 39 I don’t have any grandchildren. His lips twitch into a Sphinx-like smile.
As our food arrives, he returns to our panto discussion. “Well, you’ve depressed me a bit by saying people will think it’s a come down,” he announces glumly. I feel a stab of remorse. Is he being ironic? Or in addressing the Edna mask have I clumsily wounded Humphries himself?
His face brightens again. “Look at those chips!” he remarks, looking at my plate. The young woman who brought our dishes over offers to fetch him some. Humphries’ manner towards her is both avuncular and flirtatious. “And tomato sauce!” he calls out to her as she leaves.
He pronounces the salmon “good”. An abiding memory of the genteel Melbourne of his childhood is the dismal food. “Very grey. The grey lamb chop.” A stray dab of tomato sauce materialises on his cheek. My eyes are magnetically drawn to it as I wrestle with the dilemma of whether to point it out – until Humphries wipes it off with his napkin. “I’m glad you’ve got a bit of ketchup here and there too,” he says. I look down to see that my burger has squirted sauce over my shirt cuff.
He talks about an interview he did many years ago with a newspaper at the Savoy Hotel. “I could order whatever I wanted. So I ordered Oysters Tsarina. Oysters that you dip in sour cream, chopped onions and caviar. You slurp those down. And the chef came out, quite an elderly man, and he said, “I just wanted to say you’re the first person to have ordered Oysters Tsarina since von Ribbentrop.” He beams at this outrageous association with the Nazi foreign minister. Humphries is a connoisseur of provocation.
“I’ve always felt that I was a bit central European,” he goes on to say, fork fishing for more salmon. As a student in Melbourne he went to Greek and Czechoslovakian restaurants, full of Balkan smoke and refugees. “Lots of Jews in Melbourne. We had a very big quota in Australia, odious though the thought of ‘quotas’ is, of people fleeting Nazis. I knew a lot of those people. And I felt a bit like a refugee myself. A refugee from middle-class Melbourne,” his voice softens, bathing his self-portrait in a warm sepia glow, “A priggish sort of figure, scared underneath of course. I retain most of the interests of my early youth.”
His father was a building contractor, specialising in suburban homes. His mother was remote and unloving; many an amateur Freudian has speculated that Edna is based on her. She used to say, with a smile, “We don’t know where Barry came from.”
“That was a scary thing for my mother to say,” Humphries says when I mention it. “It convinced me that I was adopted. I was sure I was adopted.” He wasn’t an only child; he has siblings. “Yes,” he says, looking slightly taken aback at the mention of them, “I do, to my own surprise.” There are three of them, two brothers and a sister, all in Melbourne still, all younger than Humphries. Did they share his feelings of estrangement?
“No. That’s the word, too. It seems they didn’t. I’m not sure what feelings they had. They’re very nice people. They’re just not like me. And they were inconvenient in those days. Demanding my parents’ attention, which was generally given to me. My parents were quite unsuited to parenthood, as most parents are. You only learn to do what your parents did, which is usually wrong. I see myself making the same mistakes.” Since 1990 he has been married to his fourth wife Lizzie Spender, the daughter of the poet Sir Stephen Spender. He has four children by his various marriages, two sons in London and two daughters in Melbourne. He visits his home city frequently. “I go there so often I don’t feel like I’ve ever been away,” he says.
He recently spoke at an old boys’ reunion at his school. “I suddenly looked at the audience and everyone was younger than me. It takes you by surprise.” By “it” he means old age. “It’s a depressing topic. An awareness that there’s still so much to do. I used to make lists, you see, of things I wanted to do, books I wanted to read, places I wanted to visit. Now I’m having to cross some of those places off. I know that I will never read the complete works of George Meredith. I know that I will never go on a walking tour of Patagonia. I’ll never picnic in Mongolia. There are even parts of England I won’t visit. Of course I’ve crossed China completely off my list.”
His shrinking horizons are somewhat exaggerated: this year he has been in New Zealand filming Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit, in which he plays the king of the goblins. Next year he will launch a new solo show in Australia. Yet when he talks about getting older his voice loses its habitual ironic veil.
Our plates are taken away. Humphries’ salmon is half-finished, like his bowl of chips. “I want to try this extraordinary thing,” he says, swooping on the Brazilian carrot cake. He spoons some into his mouth. A look of distaste crosses his features. “This is sticking in my throat. A bit glutinous,” he says. I try some of the tropical treat: it has the bizarre texture of semolina with chocolate.
I go off to the café counter to get tea and coffee for us to wash away the taste. On my return we discuss Australia. Humphries has a stable of other characters, notably Sir Les Patterson, the leering Australian cultural attaché who holds court on stage with a glass of wine (fake: Humphries gave up drink 40 years ago), a dubiously stained shirt and an alarming bulge in his trousers. Sir Les is a merciless satire on Australian culture. “A lot of comedy is a sort of effrontery, you have to have nerves of steel,” Humphries says. But he feels a deep attachment to the country of his birth. “Of course I’m quite patriotic in my own way,” he says, sipping tea.
What does Edna make of her rival as Australia’s most influential woman, prime minister Julia Gillard? “She thinks Julia Gillard is a little bit common,” he says. It’s the legacy of the Welsh-born Gillard’s upbringing in an Adelaide suburb “which has the worst Australian accent in the whole of Australia – and she acquired it.”
Edna’s parallel life doesn’t overlap with his. “I don’t actually think about Edna when I’m, as it were, ventriloquising her,” he says, finishing his tea. “She doesn’t come into my mind. She’s not a haunting presence. It’d be very scary if she did. If I’m preparing a show, I have to think, ‘What might Edna’s preoccupations be now?’”
His lunch break is over. “I wonder if the chef is going to come out and say, the last person to order that Brazilian slice was Martin Bormann,” he says as we stand up. The joke triggers a remarkable anecdote. “I had a friend in Salzburg who was in the German embassy in the late 1930s working with von Ribbentrop, whom he despised, as everyone did,” Humphries says. “He was an old SS man, he died last year. I called his widow and expressed my sympathy and she said [he adopts a German accent]: ‘It’s so funny you should have called, Barry, because Reinhardt and I vere talking about you just before he died.’ And I said, ‘Oh what did he say?’ And she said, ‘“It’s extraordinary,” he said, “you know zat Barry Humphries, ze Führer would have adored him.”’”
Humphries laughs. “‘The Führer would have adored him.’ And I thought, that’s something to be put in a little strap along the next book isn’t it? The fact that it’s a sort of fictitious accolade.”
And so with this inscrutable, provocative tale, questions dangling in the air, Humphries is off clutching his script; off back to rehearsal to double-up for his lifelong companion, Dame Edna Everage.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic
‘Dick Whittington’ runs at the New Wimbledon Theatre until January 15, www.atgtickets.com
Jerwood Space, 171 Union Street, London SE1
Spicy salmon steak with ginger and red chilli, mixed leaves, potato salad, cucumber, red onion and homemade vinaigrette £6.20
Bowl of chunky chips Free
Beefburger with seasonal leaves, pepper chutney, mustard mango and chips £6.48
Brazilian carrot cake £1.44
Sparkling water x 2 £3.20
Total (no service) £20.57
Barry Humphries’ other passions: The world of the esoteric collector
As a schoolboy, Barry Humphries came home one day to find that his mother had given his collection of books to the Salvation Army, writes Ludovic Hunter-Tilney. “But you’ve read them, Barry,” she explained brightly. Humphries has had his revenge. He has a vast library in his London house and another in Australia, specialising in certain esoteric areas that fascinate him: 19th-century Gothic, the anarchist writer Hubert Read, fin de siècle writings, Arthur Machen’s horror stories, erotica (“of a superior kind,” he explains).
In 1965, he compiled an anthology of decadent literature called Bizarre featuring extracts from the perverse imaginations of writers like the Marquis de Sade and Sacher-Masoch. Writing in The Observer, the literary critic Philip Toynbee denounced it as a “bestially vulgar compilation.”
Humphries has a more conservative side, too. His reading tastes range from the modernist game-play of his favourite novelist Vladimir Nabokov to the light verse of John Betjeman, whom Humphries befriended in 1960.
As a teenager Humphries attended a life class at the Melbourne studio of the realist painter George Bell. At university he became obsessed by Dadaism, the 1920s forerunner of surrealism, which he transplanted to 1950s Australia with shocking pranks. In later life he has reverted to the calmer mode of his old teacher Bell, painting impressionistic landscapes and portraits, which have been exhibited in Australia. He collects art, ranging from Gustav Klimt drawings and Max Beerbohm caricatures to Australian painters such as Charles Conder.
In 1933, the year before Humphries was born, the Weimar Republic collapsed in Germany and Hitler took power. The Weimar years are an obsession for Humphries, an epicentre of his interests in modernism and decadence. He is an expert on the music of the era, tracking down rare recordings from Berlin cabaret and becoming friends with one of its leading composers, Mischa Spoliansky (whose music score for “Morfina” is pictured), who fled to England in 1932 where he lived until his death in 1985.
In Dame Edna’s theatrical background, the ghosts of the English music hall comedians whom Humphries saw as a child in Melbourne theatres mingle with the nocturnal, transgressive world of Weimar culture.