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One man show

12 September 2010 1,654 views No Comment

THE stages of Barry Humphries is an utterly engrossing biography of Australia’s greatest comic genius. Anne Pender’s prose style is often one-dimensional and rather bland yet, curiously, it offers a highly effective counterpoint to the astonishing material that comprises Humphries’s life and work.

John Barry Humphries was born in suburban Melbourne on February 17, 1934, to Eric and Louisa Humphries. The young Humphries was brought up in an upmarket housing estate that his father was instrumental in constructing. Deeply middle-class Camberwell was a “dry” suburb in which, by law, there were no hotels.

A clever boy, Humphries was taken out of Camberwell Grammar School and sent to the highly regarded Melbourne Grammar School, which he loathed because of its pretensions and emphasis on sport. His constricted childhood and adolescence fuelled his rage, which, at least initially, formed the basis for his savage satire.

For someone so talented and contrary, Melbourne was too small, too safe, too nice and far too philistine. Yet soon his acute eye and his ear for dialogue, especially that of his parents’ friends and his many “aunts”, morphed into Humphries’s first theatrical success, A Nice Night’s Entertainment, which opened on a gusty winter evening in Melbourne on July 30, 1962. The star was Mrs Edna Everage (i.e., average) from Moonee Ponds. Edna strode onto the stage “in a green pillbox hat with net a la Jacqueline Kennedy, a crimson coat, gloves, pearls and butterfly-style glasses with diamante details”. That night neither Humphries nor his audience could tell that Edna was to be transformed into Dame Edna Everage superstar, then megastar.

Despite critical acclaim, by the mid-1960s Humphries’s galloping addiction to alcohol was beginning to threaten his health, wellbeing and relationships, if not yet his work. Pender understands completely that stopping drinking at the age of 36 was the foundation on which Humphries’s life and subsequent success is based.

In the book’s key chapter, Sobriety, Pender relates how, after being brutally bashed in a pub in Richmond in 1970 and spending several weeks in the psychiatric wing of St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, Humphries was persuaded by a recovering alcoholic, Tony Bourke, to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Sandringham. Shortly after he arrived, an old-timer, nicknamed “Antique Harry”, started speaking. Humphries couldn’t contain himself and shouted, “Tell us something we don’t know already.” Pender puts it thus: “Quick as a flash Harry replied, ‘I’ll tell you something; you’re pissed and we’re all sober.’ Barry hated to be outwitted. Antique Harry had humiliated him.”

Shortly after this, Humphries was admitted to the Delmont Private Hospital in Glen Iris and placed under the care of a specialist in alcoholism and addiction, Dr John Moon. Humphries slowly came to realise that he was suffering from a life-threatening illness, and not a lack of willpower or a moral weakness. Moon insisted that, if Humphries was to survive, let alone live productively, it was critically important not to pick up that first drink of alcohol, to take life one day at a time and to regularly attend AA meetings.

Fortunately, Humphries took notice and understood that he needed to be abstinent for the rest of his life. This he has now achieved – for 40 years. Pender rightly argues that it was Humphries’s release from alcoholic addiction that marked the beginning of a new life – “a life of hard work, single-minded dedication to his career and the development of an increasingly sophisticated range of masks, both public and private”.

As Pender writes, I knew Humphries during that period, both as drinkers and recovering alcoholics. In 1972, soon after he stopped drinking, Humphries made The Adventures of Barry McKenzie – the first Australian film to earn more than $1 million at the box office – in which he starred with Barry Crocker and Spike Milligan. (He also gave me a cameo appearance.)

Two years later, in 1974, he created his great vaudeville character, the dribbling dipsomaniac Les Patterson, who first made his appearance at the St George Leagues Club in Sydney, delivering a drunken soliloquy on the theme “Time waits for no man”. Now that he was permanently and safely sober, Humphries grew more and more outrageous as Les and, over time, was able to transform and channel what Pender terms “the alcoholic demons of his past” into the anarchic excesses of his comic alter ego, Sir Leslie Colin Patterson.

As a long-time admirer of Humphries and his work, I found some surprises in this intriguing book. For example, despite being labelled right-wing by a number of critics, Humphries was an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It also reveals that, as a result of his high level of anxiety, perfectionism and attraction to risk, Humphries was sometimes physically sick before a performance.

The book documents the careful work and research involved in script-ing and preparing for what often seem like impromptu soliloquies and off-the-cuff remarks. This especially applies to Dame Edna and her interactions with theatrical and TV audiences in Australia, Britain and the US. America was where Humphries had to strive hardest to bring critics, especially in New York, onside with his often over-the-edge, surreal performances.

While One Man Show stresses the centrality of Dame Edna in Humphries’s pantheon of characters, it acknowledges the tender vulnerability of Sandy Stone. Sandy’s halting sibilance and remembrance of a now lost, yet seemingly banal, Anglo-Saxon Melbourne suburbia is a reminder of Humphries’s long-dead but now much-loved father Eric. Pender highlights some key lines of Humphries’s, including Edna saying of her crow’s feet, “But what are they but the dried-up beds of old smiles?” Yet, sad to say, she does not include my favourite Humphries line. Holding a hot-water bottle close to his chest, Sandy says wistfully, “The Harpic cleanses while I sleep.”

Pender succeeds admirably in exploring Humphries’s work and art. However, she is less successful in illuminating his personal relationships with his four wives and four children, his siblings and his few intimate friends. Perhaps this is because he is a man of so many masks, which means that the “real” Barry Humphries is extremely hard to find.

Review of “Man of Many Funny Masks” by Anne Pender, ABC Books, 453pp, $35
Review by Ross Fitzgerald, Sydney Morning Herald, September 11, 2010

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