Barry Humphries and I drank together and got sober together
Barry Humphries and I drank together and got sober together
Ross Fitzgerald and Barry Humphries at Sydney’s Catalina restaurant in 2019.
Barry Humphries and I were friends for more than 60 years.
We first met at the Notting Hill Hotel, which was the nearest pub to Melbourne’s Monash University where I was then an often drunk student.
Barry and I drank together and got sober together.
In late 1969 we were both admitted to a suburban Melbourne alcoholic and drug addiction hospital called Delmont. The wonderful lead psychiatrist there, Dr John Moon, was a strong supporter of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Delmont was the last mental hospital either Barry or I were admitted to as a patient.
The night before we were due to be discharged, we got taken to a large AA meeting at the Malvern Town Hall. After the meeting I came up in tears to an inspirational AA member, Antique Harry, and said: “Do you ever think I’ll get this thing, Harry?”
Instead of saying, “No hope unless you get off the tablets,” which is true, but not particularly helpful, Harry said to me, with great gentleness, “If you stay close to this movement, son, you’ll be all right.”
Those words, which Barry overheard, changed our lives. With the assistance of Antique Harry, Broken Hill Jack and other long-time members of AA, we both become free of alcohol and other drugs in 1970, and stayed that way.
As it happens, our respective fathers were quite close to each other. When Barry and I were still on the booze, Eric Humphries, a builder from Camberwell, said to my dad, Bill Fitzgerald, who in the early 1930s had captained Collingwood Football Club seconds: “I was so worried about Barry, I couldn’t play golf on Tuesday.”
These poignant words remind me so much of one of Barry’s most endearing characters, Sandy Stone, who like Eric Humphries always spoke with a sibilant.
Unlike me – I have fervently followed Aussie Rules and supported the Collingwood Magpies all my life – Barry hated sport and was a long-time member of the Anti-Football League.
Ross Fitzgerald (red arrow) looks on during his 90-second cameo as Barry Humphries in character as Dame Edna Everage hands Barry Crocker a flight bag in a scene from The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.
When we were both only two years sober, I played a small role in the raucous Australian comedy, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, which was released in 1972. In this path-breaking Australian film (or “fillum” as my father used to say), Barry not only played Edna Everage but a number of other characters as well, including the mad psychiatrist, Dr Humphrey de Lamphrey.
In 1973, I was with Barry at his very first appearance as Les Patterson. When I was living in an upstairs flat in Crown St, in Sydney’s Surry Hills, Barry asked would I come with him to the Rooty Hill RSL club in the outer suburbs.
Shortly after we sat down in the auditorium, Barry got up and said: “I’ll be back soon.” A little while later, a nondescript bloke in a crumpled suit stumbled on stage and said: “Gidday. Name’s Les Patterson. Manager, Rooty Hill.” He then delivered a meandering monologue on the theme “Time waits for no man”. It took me couple of minutes to realise it was Barry! This was a while before Barry converted Les into Australia’s dribbling dipsomaniacal Minister for the Yarts, with his super-huge penis.
It was Barry Humphries who on Guy Fawkes Day, 1974, introduced me to my future wife and friend of 45 years, the model and actor Lyndal Moor, who was then living with one of Australia’s richest men, Clyde Packer. At the time he was also Barry’s manager.
This occurred at a very strong AA meeting at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst, near Sydney’s Kings Cross – after which Lyndal never drank alcohol again. She died on January 22, 2020.
Ross Fitzgerald with wife Lyndal Moor and their friend, Barry Humphries, at their wedding in 1976.
My first words to Lyndal on November 5, 1974 were: “If you only knew what could happen to you if you stay close to Alcoholics Anonymous.” Little did she know that, a year to the day, we would become lovers, and that on Guy Fawkes Day 1976 we would be married in the courtyard and garden of Lyndal’s little terrace house at 2 Leinster St, Paddington.
When she ditched Clyde Packer (who fled to America never to return) to team up with me, Barry had quipped: “Lyndal went from diamonds to boiled lollies!”
Barry attended the ceremony. His wedding present was the Complete Oxford Dictionary, compressed into two large volumes, and accompanied by a magnifying glass to enable us to read the small print. In the front, Barry wrote: “For darling Lyndal and Ross. In case you ever have ‘words’.”
A year before, Barry and I had created one of his most dreadful characters – the radical, fervently anti-capitalist schoolteacher, Craig Steppenwolf, who Barry played for a number of years throughout Australia.
In November 1975, Quadrant Magazine featured a front-page photograph of Barry as Craig. Inside that issue was our script, which began:
Barry Humphries and Ross Fitzgerald
A monologue for the music-hall
This is the text of one of the new characters in Barry Humphries’ new show, At Least You Can Say You’ve Seen It, now in Melbourne.
Scene: An Australian suburban classroom. A large blackboard has been defaced with crude and ill-spelt slogans. “HANS OFF AMIN”, ‘FUG TEECHER’ etc. On a table rests a plastic bucket full of human excrement.
Attired in quasi-military gear. CRAIG STEPPENWOLF enters.
Music: “Schooldays. Schooldays, Dear old golden rule days.”
Craig sits, and “class” commences.
“As you were. Good morning class. My name is Craig Steppenwolf. B.A., DIP. ED, under the old bullshit elitist system.
Now since we grooved together last term. I myself, and thousands of other committed ex-schoolteachers like me have spent two weeks up at the government’s new intensive re-training centre at Puckapunyal. I’m here to tell you that from now on the Education Department’s new across-the-board grassroots de-educational strategy will be fully operational throughout the state. Do you read me?
Most of you will have noticed a few radical changes in what used to be called “the classroom”, or as the State now suggests we designate it: The DE-LEARNING LABORATORY.
First up, inhibiting desks and chairs have been abolished in favour of these new BLACK POLYESTER MATTRESSES, and I want all of you kids, or rather “participators” to feel entirely free to do whatever you want with whoever you want, whenever you want, and however you want to do it. Do you read me?
It seems to me that the character of “Craig Steppenwolf, radical schoolteacher” is as timely today, as he was in the 1970s.
It was Barry’s enthusiastic review of my first Grafton Everest novel, Pushed From The Wings: An Entertainment, that enabled my sexual-political satires to take off in Australia and overseas.
In June 1968 Humphries wrote in Quadrant: “Grafton Everest is a wonderful creation whom I would place without question in the ranks of Philip Roth’s Portnoy and Kinsgley Amis’s Lucky Jim.”
This unambiguous endorsement certainly helped Pushed From The Wings and my next Grafton Everest book, All About Anthrax, to both be published in London in 1989 by Corgi-Bantam in their prestigious Black Swan series. As it eventuated, these Grafton Everest fictions sold well in the UK and South Africa.
I have long regarded Barry Humphries as a comic genius and one of our greatest ever performers. For decades, Barry and I attended AA meetings, in Australia and throughout the world. In his memoirs, he made it clear how important Alcoholic Anonymous was to the longevity of his life and his career.
I am particularly pleased by the fact that, when I still taught at Griffith University in Brisbane, I was instrumental in enabling Barry to be awarded an honorary doctorate there, for his many services to the arts in Australia.
As with the death of darling Lyndal Moor, I shall miss Barry Humphries enormously.
Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald AM, who lives in Redfern, Sydney, is the author or co-author of 44 books. His most recent publications include a memoir, Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey, and the co-authored Grafton Everest political satires, The Dizzying Heights, and The Lowest Depths, all published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
The Australian April 23/24, 2023
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