Barry Humphries, the creator of Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson, is about to play Fagin in Oliver!. In the first of a new series about public figures, John Hind talks to people who have been close to him and asks: what is he really like?
Barry Humphries once appeared on the Clive James TV show in another extraordinary guise - as himself. Travelling to the studio with him, fellow- guest Peter Cook had been surprised at how "panicky" Humphries had been at appearing out of character. The programme did little to reveal the "real" Humphries, however. As Cook noted later, "he doesn't have to do the real one".

Humphries, now 63, came to England in 1959 and has since become "Australia's greatest export", perhaps the finest living exponent of music hall, while remaining remarkably camouflaged. Layering the enigma as much as stripping it, his autobiography, More Please, at least offered photographic evidence of the sophisticated company he has enjoyed - including the Queen, Sacheverell Sitwell and four wives, the current one being the daughter of poet Stephen Spender.

His novel, Women In The Background, offered the story of Derek, an art collector and drag artist whose life is essentially lonely. Humphries, himself an avid painter and collector of art, who has spent the greater part of his career in a dress, describes this and the other characters as chimeras "with no existence beyond these pages".

His latest role, in the West End, takes him full circle. On 12 May, he returns after 30 years to Oliver! Fagin was the part he understudied in the very first production, in the years when alcoholism almost destroyed him, just as his Private Eye cartoon character, Barry McKenzie, began to make his name.

Lionel Bart, composer of Oliver!

"Barry was in the original production in 1960. I wrote a song for him, as the undertaker, called `That's Your Funeral'. He looked more like a grave snatcher. Then in 1965 I saw him walking along the Earls Court Road with this big hat, long, old raincoat and hair down his back, and I said `come and listen to this song'. I had a tragic ballad to open and close Maggie May for a one-man band, with a harmonica, big bass drum, cymbals on his knees and big hat. He did it every night, but the problem was, they didn't give him anything else to do, so he'd go next door to the pub, and sometimes he wouldn't reappear in full costume, and other times he'd turn up at other theatres on other peoples' curtain- calls. He'd forget what theatre he was in. He was finally banned by nearly every stage doorman in the West End. Front-of-house commissionaires were warned not to let Barry in or he'd sing this song on their curtain-call. Whether he was doing it deliberately or he was confused, who'd know?"

Ian Davidson, script collaborator

"Once, we left Ronnie Scott's - me and him and the wives - and tried to find a cab. One came around the corner, we climbed in, and then after a while the driver leant back and said, `Is that Mr 'Umphries? I'd like to say how much I admire your art, Mr 'Umphries'. Note the word `art'. Then the cabbie said, `As a matter of fact, I'd like to have a drink with you', and he produced a bottle of champagne and four glasses on a tray from the front of the cab. It turned out Barry had set all this up. I was staggered at the speed at which he must have moved while we were getting our coats.

He knows I'll start work on anything, with no money, no agreement, just for the joy of writing with him. But I've spent an incredible amount of time waiting for him to get off the phone. In fact, I have a fine collection of photos of him on phones.

The real Barry is the one I write with, thank God - when he finally bloody gets off the phone with auctioneers in Switzerland. Then it's joyful. Recently, we were trying to find a particular shit-word, and I picked up Roget and read Barry out the complete list of words for filth. What a terrible schoolboy thing to admit, but we were absolutely pissing ourselves."

Rosalind Hollinrake, gallery owner and second wife

"I've been trying to do a book on Barry for about nine years. It's at the editing stage now - collected essays and character sketches by people who've known him for a long time. It's quite a difficult project. Giving an impression of Barry as a man is a very difficult one. Ha-ha-haaaa-ha! It's really an attempt to capture the more private Barry - well, Barry the person as opposed to Barry the phenomenon. My mother suggested it before she died. You know that wonderful Japanese film where a murder is committed and four people witness it, and each person gives a totally different account? When asked who is the real Barry, I always think of that."

Peter O'Shaughnessy, Irish-Australian historian, actor and Beckett director

"We were once the closest of friends. I was his mentor and his artistic dad. I also played Edna's mother on stage, and Sandy Stone wouldn't exist but for me. And he has never forgiven me for my largesse, my bigness of heart.

In the late Fifties, the most critical things in his career all happened while working under my aegis. He was a very tender-hearted and sometimes extraordinarily cruel young man, who looked to me as a parent. There's a photo of him as Estragon and me as Vladimir in Waiting For Godot (in Sydney, 1958) - it represents our relationship: me with my arm around him, fostering his lost soul. He could so easily have snapped. It culminated the following year when I got him to do this character in my revue and I wrote his Edna sketch.

He writes about that time in his infuriating autobiography as if in passing, but these characters would not have continued to have an existence but for me. It's a grievous thing that Barry has sat on it. Although, in a letter to me a few months ago, he referred to our `extremely fruitful friendship' - that's the nearest he's ever come to admitting this extremely great creative burst that we had together."

Spike Milligan, humorist

"I know his inside leg measurement. It's 32. He had a tailor round once when I was visiting. I also went to one or two memorable dinners where he started to insult people and I left rather quickly - he was threatening people. He's married to a poet's daughter [Lizzie Spender] now - I thought he'd do something like that. He's delicious discussing art, literature, wine - and taking someone in the business and tearing them to shreds. But he's always in my thoughts as a friend. When he sees people in Canada and America, and he says: `Give Spike my regards', I think, fucking hell, he just lives up the road from me - he only has to knock on the fucking door and say `I'm giving you my regards'.

He's not very fond of foreigners. I think he only really likes people of single blood - Australians, New Zealanders, British, Irish - all the rest are wogs. He'd make a marvellous Hitler in a play.

It's wonderful that he's in Oliver! again - a complete circle. He was a sad scene in those [early] days. How he managed to gather himself together to play a part on any stage is beyond my comprehension - it was a miraculous transformation, from absolute drunkenness to wonderful, consummate professionalism. I don't understand it. It's a psychological phenomenon as strange and appalling as knowing that Van Gogh was a manic depressive and couldn't stop painting masterpieces. It's the finger of God on somebody. He could ad-lib his way out of a burning building." Philip Adams, Australian broadcaster and writer

"I went on tour with him to promote a Barry McKenzie film (based on Humphries's cartoon strip), and at the opening night in Adelaide, Australian audiences were for the first time seeing themselves on the screen, particularly drunken yobbos. And they formed an archway of honour into the cinema, like crossed swords at a military wedding, but holding up tinnies of beer. These were the people he loathes, because to him Barry McKenzie was an exorcism, not a celebration. Yet they were celebrating him. He was absolutely trembling. He went and hid, and dry- retched for about 20 minutes.

Barry wasn't in Who's Who in Australia for decades - he was overlooked - and it made him very angry, so he started giving his characters knighthoods and damehoods. I imagine it is immensely important to him now when royalty pop backstage at his shows. He uses the term arriviste about others with withering contempt, but that's pretty much what Barry has been. I also think there are eerie parallels between your shopkeeper's daughter and Mrs Everage. In fact, I think Barry would have declared war on the Falklands personally if given the chance.

I've heard him say venomous things on many occasions about aborigines - which he will then say are jokes. It's the most sensitive issue in Australia, yet he has always seemed haughtily disparaging of aboriginal culture - which he sees as an oxymoron. I can remember once having a row with him when he described someone as having `lubra' lips. And I've winced at his anti-Semitic remarks. He always says they are pieces of satire."

Rabbi John Levi of Melbourne

"He's shy and very kind to his kids and extended family and friends - very, very kind and thoughtful. And he has a great regard for my mother, whose first grandchild called her `Gaga' years ago. So `ga-ga' turns up in Dame Edna's shows with amazing regularity - in one of his recent LA TV shows, he had a frail, elderly character called Gaga falling down the stairs. Another time, before one of his theatre shows, I opened the programme and discovered, listed as the individual acts, for no logical reason, the names of my children and my sisters: `Act One - Sandra' etc.

Our friendship goes back to when we were mortified together by an Australian version of an English public school. A group of us rebels refused to regard sport as the ultimate goal of human life. Barry was particularly good at disliking football. In a final act of desperation, when we were forced to attend the hallowed Melbourne ground, Barry produced very large knitting needles, turned his back to the game, sat down behind the goalposts and knitted a cardie. The school had given up on him and his purple fountain pen by then.

Whereas we knew one day he'd be famous, Barry thought he would be dead. He saw a short, fiery life and premature death from decadence.

We talk about the past with amusement and horror. He called his autobiography `Alzheimer Remembers', but the most amazing thing about him is his memory - he remembers everything. He forgets not a word, not a name, not a face he encounters. It's incredible - and a terrible curse - to remember everything."

Ken Thompson, best man at Humphries's last but one wedding, to whom Dame Edna's Coffee Table Book is dedicated

"There are very few people to whom women's company means so much as Barry. I'm not talking about sex, I'm not saying he screws around - the fact that he's had four or five wives is neither here nor there - but the essential woman, the eternal feminine Goethe wrote about, is something that he really needs. When people say Edna and Les are anti-feminist they're talking bullshit.

On tour in Australia, I went with Barry to a housewives' live TV programme called A Touch of Elegance, presented by a woman who became Australia's ambassador to Thailand. We thought that it would be funnier if Les Patterson fronted. And, at 9.30am, A Touch of Elegance was pulled off the air - because it was so Les. It was absolutely wonderful.

Another wonderful thing was seeing Barry sitting in various radio stations, with his own hat on and his lovely, pin-striped suit - I think it was the one modelled on Hitler's - and him doing just Edna's voice for phone- ins. He was speaking to women who... well, one had just had a hysterectomy. And Edna said, `Oh, don't worry, darling, the men folk will still love you.' And this woman lapped it up. It is quite amazing the way people buy the character."

Craig McGregor, author of Class In Australia and associate professor of visual communications at the University of Technology in Sydney

"Barry's anthology of curiosa, Bizarre [published in 1965], brought me up short. I disliked the way he seemed to take such prurient delight in deformities, almost the worst of what humankind is capable of. So I wrote a critical review of it, called it `a masturbator's handbook', and I don't think Humphries has ever forgiven me.

The reason I've felt so critical over the years is that he's so bloody conservative - ultra-conservative. He's on the wrong side on almost any political or social or intellectual issue you'd care to name. There's a weird tonality to his work, and I think it springs from a profound anti- humanism. The stances, biases, extremism and unfairness in his characters, I feel, reveal a ruthlessness against ordinary people and the social and cultural habits and mores that give meaning to a great number of Australians' lives - footie, pop culture, barbecues. He thinks they're fair game for his arrogant and aristocratic satire. He was a huge influence and inspiration in Australia, in the forefront of the whole wave of satire and self-awareness. But we don't trust you, Barry, we don't trust your bitter perceptions."

Peter Coleman, magazine editor, former leader of the Opposition in Australia, and author of The Real Barry Humphries

"His own autobiography was a much humbler Barry than I was prepared for. Now whether it's true, I can't confirm - you never know with Barry. I've known him for 40 years, and he adopts roles. Today he may play the bohemian artist, tomorrow the cavalier gentleman, the next day be warm and hospitable. I don't want to give the impression that the man is never not insincere, but I don't think I've ever seen him relaxed - unless he's playing the role of a relaxed person.

Some of the disappointments he's had in America have been very painful to him, very distressing. But I think the grace with which he handles success and catastrophic failure is almost equally impressive. He copes so well with both - at least in public. He takes his roles very seriously, to the extent that if someone points out that he's made a mistake in character, he gets very upset."

Wendy Brown, make-up artist

"I've never spoken about Barry before. Once, I was asked to talk about him as Edna and he told me to say things like: `She has wonderful skin and hardly wears any make-up.' I thought that was a bit stupid, so I didn't do it. He always wants to keep the two separate. Once Edna's glasses are on, or Les's teeth are in, he refuses to answer to the name Barry and will only ever talk about `my manager Barry Humphries'.

The 45 minutes before the show, when I'm doing him and he's adding extra jokes with Ian Davidson, he wants to see my reaction to each joke. I think the best show is between us three. God, we have such a laugh in that little room. He keeps saying: `Oh, I can't remember any of this. I shan't remember a thing', and I say, `Oh, you will, Barry, of course you will'. He needs that continual reassurance that he's going to be OK.

I suppose I'm the right kind of person to be there because I can't stop laughing. I think it helps him relax. Well, not relax exactly, because he's never relaxed. If there's a lull, he says: `Right, give me the phone!' and he'll start talking to people across the world about some book or painting or deal when he's just about to do a show. He'll be on three or four different levels. His mind has to be stretched at all times in all directions."

Geoffrey Dutton, Adelaide novelist and poet

"He arrives on your doorstep - haa - with a lot of gear: all his equipment for painting, his oils and the portable easel which he takes everywhere he goes. He'll sprint to the back of the garden and set up. He absolutely loves it. It can be as hot as hell and he'll be there for hours. I've been worried about him getting sunburnt, I have really. It's his absolute passion, a relaxation, but concentrating on it absolutely completely.

We've got some paintings of his that he's given us after he stayed with us in the country, in New South Wales. They're hung prominently, no worries. He loves painting landscapes and housescapes; that's his thing. He's good at portraiture, too - he once painted himself as Napoleon. He said to me, `the thing I really love about painting is that it's something in which I don't have to excel'.

I don't think he's under any illusions that he's going to turn into Renoir or Rembrandt, although he's compared himself to Hitler, the frustrated artist. There's nothing intellectual or complex in his paintings - they're absolutely straightforward. Nothing could be more different from the paintings he collects and adores and hangs on his walls - kinky, decadent paintings from the 1890s and 1920s. His own are absolutely fresh and unkinky. Conventional, if you like, but joyful."

Brian Sewell, art critic

"There was a frightful art exhibition at the Hayward some years ago, which led me to unload my prejudice against Australians and Australian art in a review. And Humphries got rather cross, I presume, because he sent me a letter in his persona of Les Dawson... I mean, Patterson. It was on letterheaded paper marked From the Office of Sir Les Patterson, Australian Cultural Attache - which is a crime against nature and language. And this was the most obscene and abusive letter I have ever received. It ended up by saying that the next time he saw me he would clean my teeth by shoving his toothbrush high up my arse.

Then last Christmas, I was invited on Dame Edna's Aural Experience, on BBC Radio, and he had me in frayed denim shorts serving kumquat cocktails and said that everything I touch is well-hung and that my accent was bought at Harrods, in a sale. He was just amazingly quick and to the point, competent and impressive. So impressive that after a few minutes I'd forgotten what a monstrous image it is he presents - you've simply forgotten this dress and awful glasses and high-pitched voice, the Dame bit that seems so appalling on TV.

Once you get past the dress and the make-up, he strikes me as highly intelligent - witty and sharp, but with a fundamental seriousness which is impressive. Had he been a politician, he would have been a wow in parliament - and a great deal more honest than anyone else there.

But this utterly obscene letter - I treasure it, I absolutely treasure it"