.. as Les Patterson
creation so popular with those who are often outraged by less outrageous humour. ‘lt seems to hit a spot with audiences that other comedians don’t reach,’ says her creator. ‘l’m not making some appallineg vain boast for myself; I just mean that the audiences seem to delight in these characters. When Edna throws her gladioli and the audience stand up and tremble their gladdies — something you could never do watching a crummy television screen — it’s a marvellous moment not just for them in the theatre. but it’s a constant source of amusement to me. Really, I do this for my own entertainment. Although it’s not as proﬁtable as doing television, it’s much more satisfying.’ Humphries started his comedy career at Melbourne University in the 505, where his
‘lt anyone else tries to tell me about Charles Rennie Mackintosh when I’m in Glasgow, I think I’ll go and detace one of his buildings.’
ambitions were artistic — he held neo-Dadaist exhibitions featuring such legendary works as ‘Pus in Boots’, a pair of wellies filled with custard. From the Melbourne equivalent of the Footlights he graduated to comedy theatre, and came to London in I959, where he became part of the satirical set who got their break at Peter Cook‘s Establishment Club.
it’s often forgotten that Humphries has credits to his name other than a gaudy. megalomaniac matron and Les Patterson, a slavering, drunken boor who claims to be Australia’s cultural attache. His late 605 TV series. The Barry Humphries Scandals was a precursor of Monty Python, while his Private Eye cartoon hero Barry McKenzie is a close relation of Crocodile Dundee. He has also penned a couple of novels and written and appeared in countless plays and musicals. But, as he himself admits. his forte is the extended monologue, brilliantly improvising a sequence of absurdities from the most slender of premises.
Although he talks about his characters in the third person, his immersion in the roles is complete. so much so that people are often
BARRY HUMPHRIES FEATURE
‘When my mother-ln-law came to see the show, halfway through Les she turned to my wife and said: “When is Barry coming on?”
unaware of Sir Les and Dame Edna’s true identity. ‘When my mother-in-law came to see the show,’ he recalls. ‘halfway through Les she turned to my wife and said: “When is Barry coming on?”
Doesn’t that highlight how odd it is for a witty and intelligent man to go around in drag half the time? ‘I never think of it as drag,’ Humphries objects. ‘Dressing up as another person is what an actor’s job is. and I make no distinctions at all. I think the audience accepts the characters as real people; I’m just an actor and writer.’
He now divides his time between Britain and Australia, although most of his time is taken up with touring. Recent shows in Scandinavia prove that the grotesquerie of Edna and Les translate to almost any culture. And, Humphries explains, ‘they speak English slightly better than we do.’
Like other Aussie expats who made it big in Britain. Humphries has often been accused of mocking his homeland. a charge he denies. ‘Australians feel that I’m doing them a lot of harm. because they feel that my characters are damaging stereotypes, giving people a false impression of the country. There is still that provincial cringe, because no one in their right mind would think that comedians, however ridiculous, were damaging the tourist industry. I don’t think that the arts have anything to do with public relations at all. On the other hand, I think that the shows I’ve done have, in an indirect way, reminded people that Australia is a funny country, and that Australian humour has a special quality. You don’t think of Canada as a funny country, do you‘.”
I suggest that Australian culture has developed greatly over the past two decades. while Britain appears to have become more philistine. ‘ch. but it‘s been a great struggle,’ says Humphries. ‘l think it's largely due to Les Patterson’s efforts that this revolution has taken place.’
The recent rediscovery of the talents of ‘Long Johns’ Bird and Fortune suggests that 60s satirists may be more robust than their contemporary ‘ counterparts. Humphries, however. refuses to be drawn on the question of whether there are any younger comics with the same breadth and incisiveness, recognising that his own talent is best served by interaction with . his audiences.
‘There seems to be a return to what used to be called “intimate revue", sharp short sketches of a
highly topical and critical nature. What I do is closer to music hall. it’s a bit hard to describe, partly vaudeville, partly pantomime and partly something else. i haven’t seen a great deal of recent stuff, because I’m working when they are, but comedy seems to be the most thriving theatrical enterprise. In fact,’ he adds, ‘there seems to be almost too many comedians.’ With around 25 characters in his repertoire, Barry Humphries alone makes up a larger percentage of comic talent than an entire Perrier Award short list.
As well as his insights into human nature, Humphries is a keen observer of national and civic character. ‘Les Patterson was saying last night that in Liverpool you can’t escape the Beatles, as though nothing else ever happened there. In the same way, if anyone else tries to tell me about Charles Rennie Mackintosh when I’m in Glasgow, 1 think I’ll go and deface one ofhis buildings.’ Ironically, even if Humphries were caught in the act. few would recognise this cultured, soft-spoken subversive stripped of his disguises.
Barry Humphries appears in Look At Me When I '21: Talking To You at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Monday 4 - Saturday 9 and at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Monday 11 Saturday 16
‘" December See ” review, page
and as Dame Edna Everago
The List l-l-1 Dec 199513