Arts Opinion

Vale Barry Humphries: Possums to gather at Opera House for chunder session

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From Dame Edna to Sir Les, Barry Humphries' legacy includes some of the most memorable characters in Australian pop culture (Images via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Lee Duffield remembers the creator and personifier of Dame Edna Everage, and judges his life and work. 

BARRY HUMPHRIES was a bit of a bastard, but a funny bastard. Where comics most often have a grievance, this one had it in spades and was unforgiving. My example is from a night out to see At Least You Can Say You’ve Seen It at Newtown in Sydney, in 1974. A friend encountered in the foyer, Reverend John Beer, grasped the two sides: “It’s brilliant, very funny and you can see how he hates Australia.”

A hater or a hob-knobber?

The hatred in that case arose from his fright and distaste for the Whitlam Labor Government elected 18 months before. As a hob-knobber, he was among the many friends the Labor Party suddenly found it had in the arts community. Yet as a middle-aged bourgeois gent from suburban Melbourne, like many others, he glared at the wave of social change happening concurrently, before noticing any reforms and social justice invoked by that government; he “blamed” Labor and lashed out.

I take as the text, that performance in 1974.

The main character as always, Edna Everage, en route to superstardom, was done with stupendous wit and nuance, deliciously funny, an updating of the frightened Moonee Ponds housewife he started with. Although, younger people today might be surprised by how robust it could get.

“Hands up all the New Australians!” “she” cried out; some doing it and letting themselves in for serious lampooning, one such volunteer in particular.

Then later, giving the chocolate box guide, a commentary on the Old Gold presentation boxes still popular in the seventies, “she” dropped a chocolate onto the floor.

“Our little New Australian friend might like to have that,” “she” said.

Still later: “Oooh he hasn’t had his chocolate yet”; and in pointed aside to some section of the audience or other: “You wonder why they come, don’t you?”

Humphries’ male characters were generally more narrowly and stereotypically crafted than this monstrous female.

The outrageous figure of Sir Les Patterson, Minister for the “Yartz”, was hugely popular for his drunken philistinism, through to ogling at shielas and sicking up on his tie. There is no doubt he was meant to be a Labor minister — the Liberals would send along somebody from the gentry with a good suit and very little money to hand out. The satirical target was government support for the arts. Humphries’ strongly preferred model was his own, the pursuit of commercial success. Government arts grants would encourage fakes and loafers, not creative geniuses, he reckoned.

So it was with the film director sketch, an obnoxious “Left-wing” character receiving an award at a film festival in Yugoslavia — the country which had been running a major promotion of itself as a cultural hub of the “non-aligned” movement. Probably got up with beard and specs, a Rolf Harris look-alike (the memory fades a bit) he kept talking about “Jugo-slarvia”, and triumphally raising his trophy, for fresh applause. Viciously amusing as this could be, as the sketch went, his fictitious film had been made under a grant, about “lesbianism in prisons for Aboriginal women”.

Then we had the trade union leader, Lance Boyle, in his sauna, done with some slapstick and sight gags. Periodically, he’d splash water onto the coals and race up to stick his armpits into the cloud of steam. Lance was engineering a major industrial stoppage to prevent his secretary and mistress, Leonie – or “Lee-own” – from flying from Sydney to Melbourne to confront “the wife”. Whether he was amusing or not, the Lance figure was abusive, stupid, corrupt and deceitful — Humphries’s idea of a union man.

All in good fun

All in good fun, of course. He could lash out and hide behind it being a great joke.

Gough Whitlam himself helped out, in his own devilish way, incidentally showing a disregard for royalist sensibilities that might have made him a marked man. Arriving in Australia with the actor Barry Crocker, after the launch of their film, Barry McKenzie Holds his Own, Edna was met by the Prime Minister, who pronounced “her” “Dame Edna”. Naturally, Humphries grabbed it and “she” was “Dame” ever after. Whether or not forewarned, with the greatest cunning “she” immediately dropped to “her” knees, head bowed, to receive the honour, in the airport terminal, on the evening news.

There was no end to such joyous nonsense.

For one promotion Edna called a media conference, disporting in a bubble bath. “Don’t film my erogenous zones,” “she” said. “She” began to receive some of what “she” gave out, from an ABC reporter, Cliff Baxter, himself a gifted satirical hand. “Where are you from?” “she” asked. “The ABC, go away, they don’t pay.” Ha-ha-ha went all the commercial reporters and newspaper characters in the room.

He had several comic devices. One critic called it Dadaist and absurdist humour: as with, a spiteful man, being a vulgar, squawking woman, in a bubble bath, entertaining journalists.

In the beginning

In the beginning, he saw, with glee, that while we were a fairly rough culture, we gloried in it and liked to laugh at ourselves getting laughed at. He was one of us in that. In a famous, and foundational student review, he was cruel to a housewife character, Edna Everage, so shy she could not at first go on stage. It was common enough for people to ridicule housewives, they might be tough in return, or at least extremely exasperating. He said she was the average Aussie.

So we had, among boys and young men especially, lovers of outrageousness, his street pranks in Melbourne, the popular song Chunder Down Under, and the comic book on Barry McKenzie in London. Bliss was it to be living in a share house when that one was passed around; you would hear a burst of laughter from the current reader’s room, probably from the part where he turned the page to see Barry suddenly vomit.

Here and there would be a sharper satirical bite, as with his take on Thredbo, or “Buller”; a soliloquy on worthless rats who played with “snow bunnies” then ducked off to “look after their old man’s business”. “Sooo, no complications,” he had them drawl.

The Humphries social attitudes often might put you on the spot, as an audience member, while clearly he could not have cared if you’d agree with him. His book, Treasury of Australian Kitsch, confronted a whole lot of endearing and annoying stupidities, whether or not you minded the snobbish premise.

Later on, like many talented Australians of his generation, he moved operations to London. He loved being a Pommie, who got to entertain the Queen and Prince Charles, and he loved ridiculing Pommies, who loved it — as they thought they were ridiculing us. At one time, he had some posh ones admiring Barry McKenzie at a cocktail party: “How ethnic!” they cried.

A new/old Barry

He was able to change, moving on somewhat from his simpler protests against society and developing the Edna character into an alter-ego, a medium for laughing at while keeping up with new themes. While he might have hated her, it became hard to disentangle the two of them, even as latterly he sought to mellow, becoming kindly and unguarded in interviews. Still funny, a newish character: the old-aged Barry Humphries.

After his death, and a private burial last April, and some to-ing and fro-ing between Melbourne and Sydney, which he could have made something out of in a show, Humphries was set to be commemorated at the Sydney Opera House on 15 December. That was a fitting enough choice. From the Opera House glasses to the glitzy dress, Dame Edna Everage and Barry Humphries loved to make fun of the way we loved the Opera House — a cultural gem too good for the people who made it.  

Anthony Albanese, successor to the other Labor Prime Minister who provided Edna with the royal entry card, says without irony that Barry – and presumably Edna also – was “a much loved Australian and a huge loss to the arts community”.   

If he was a nasty bastard underneath, he just about got away with it by being quick and funny.

Among his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Pacific Journalism Review.

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