Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

When people come backstage after a show, I call it the Third Act. It is often the hardest part of the evening. I suppose I’m not the only actor in history who finds that what he does on stage is more agreeable than real life. It is always very nice when friends come back afterwards to say they’ve had a good time but they come from all corners of one’s life and I sometimes find myself in a small room with old friends, professional acquaintances and the odd total stranger, all smiling and needing to be introduced to each other. It is then that I discover that my memory for names, usually exceptional, deserts me.

I used to provide a lot of booze in the dressing room for these visitors until I found that some of them would stay until the supply ran out and not seldom I would be alone with a person I had never met before telling me what was wrong with the show. Of course, the alternative is awful, when no one appears at the stage door and I wander out into the night with the sinking feeling of one who has failed to please.

In Edinburgh recently, before coming down to the Palladium (up? Down?), I was bitten by a spider in bed. It is extraordinary to think that I spent my childhood and youth in Australia, a land teeming with venomous animals, and never suffered more than a mosquito sting, but in one of the best hotels in Scotland! At first, the bite was a small red dot, which then grew into something magenta and hideous. It is only now, five weeks later, shrinking under the influence of powerful antibiotics. I have consulted an arachnologist who confirmed that this was, indeed, a spider bite, and I’ve been worried that eggs might well be hatching subcutaneously. Wasn’t this how Spiderman came into being? Might I soon be swinging between the skyscrapers or swooping down over the heads of amazed and admiring onlookers, to rescue distressed babes? Might not some enormous creature burst from my thigh, like a black, hairy Dionysus emerging from the thigh of Zeus? And how did this Caledonian creepy crawly ever get into my bed in the first place? I suspect it might have been planted there, either by the journalist whom I regrettably stood up when he came to interview me or by a disaffected Polish chambermaid, whom I rebuked for putting my hot water bottle, plump with boiled water, not in the bed for me to come home to but, mysteriously, nearby. This could be a custom in Poland but not in Melbourne and is not the best way to comfort an old, grumpy actor, staggering home from the theatre.

In the middle of the front row at last Saturday’s matinee, I observed a conspicuous couple: an old sweet-looking man and his even older wife, who sat with eyes downcast and a handkerchief clamped to her mouth. Undoubtedly they had come to enjoy Dame Edna’s shrill soliloquy and were obliged to sit through the fescennine outpourings and copious expectorations of Sir Les Patterson. Deeply hidden behind the satyr-like mask of Sir Les, I felt for them. And even Les himself, as his tirade came to an end, solicitously stopped towards them and said, somewhat out of character, “It won’t be long now.” Alas, after the intermission they were gone and I feel a real pang at their disappointment. To have purchased front row seats was such a gesture of faith and, then, not to see the bedizened Austral megastar but, instead, a kind of coprolingual Silenus.

I remember when I was quite young my parents took me to a theatre where, in my mother’s phrase, mostly “common people” went. Performing that night, on his Australian tour, was the famous English comedian Tommy Trinder, whose catchphrase was “You lucky people!”. I was aware of tremendous laughter all around me at jokes, or what I assumed to be jokes, that I didn’t understand. At one line in particular, my father exploded with laughter, which he immediately suppressed under the steely sideways glance of my mother, and I realised there was another kind of humour forbidden to nice people. I now realise that this is what I do, and from the vantage point of the stage I can still see those sideways looks for permission to laugh. The nice old man in the front row last Saturday occasionally looked thus at his profoundly dejected wife. It was a poignant moment.

Amy Tan, the wonderful American-Chinese author, has just been staying with us during her book tour to celebrate the publication of her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement. Because I stay with her in San Francisco and Amy and I are often on tour doing what we do, she has good advice about the perils of hotel rooms, though I think it was I who warned her about the hygiene hazards of the TV remote control, which is often fondled by lonely porn surfers and rarely sterilised. Amy recommends keeping the toothbrush well away from the loo and closing the lid when flushing to avoid airborne bacteria, although a paediatrician cousin told me that children should eat at least one thing off the floor every day.

On my day off last week I went to Dorset, which I’d only previously visited in the summer, and stayed in a hotel overlooking Weymouth Bay, with charming Portuguese staff. Sitting in the dining room with its expansive view of the sea, teeming, one presumed, with scrumptious marine life, I asked one of those questions to which one glumly knows the answer: “What is your fresh fish today?” There was much consultation with the chef and I was told that all the fish was fresh; it all came from landlocked Brixton. How different it is in beautiful Portugal where the fisherman practically takes it off the hook and slaps it on your plate. Once, in Darwin, the Australian city no Australian ever visits, while dining in a hotel restaurant I asked for soup and was told there was only “soup du jour”. “What is it?” I asked, and the waiter went away for a very long time. At length he returned, diffusing a faint aura of cigarette smoke, and consulted some scribbled words on a scrap of kitchen roll. “Soup of the day,” he said.


‘Barry Humphries’ Farewell Tour: Eat, Pray, Laugh!’ is at the London Palladium until January 5, then touring the UK, dameednafarewell.com/


Letters in response to this report:

Harbour won’t sustain a fish market / From Dr Valerie Wilson Trower

All the way from Brixham, surely / From Ms Norma Jackson.

Get alerts on Barry Humphries when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article