Barry Humphries: Dame for a laugh

Who is the real Barry Humphries? We know that his mother called him Sunny Sam. And that he's a scholar, an aesthete and a reformed alcoholic. But from where in his psyche came the vulgar Dame Edna and grotesque Sir Les? Andrew Barrow pays a rare visit to the star's London home and attempts to uncover the truth...

'I'm not really here," whispers Barry Humphries, welcoming me into his Hampstead home. "I don't... really... exist..." He seems real enough to me: buoyant, bright-eyed, slightly stooping - he turned 70 earlier this year - and dazzlingly dressed in a black-and-white zigzag-patterned jacket. What he means, I suppose, is that this is a flying visit. He's just come back from the US and is off to Australia the next day, then two days in Denmark - an exhibition of Dame Edna's frocks is on show there - then off to San Francisco and in November back on Broadway. Even his London schedule is hectic - he's already had "afternoon tea" with Vivienne Westwood and been spotted at the dentist's - but this morning he seems only too anxious to please, to accommodate, to help me with this article. Or is it all an act? Another piece of theatre laid on to confuse me? After being grilled by Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show, Humphries remarked to a friend, "Didn't give much away, did I?"

'I'm not really here," whispers Barry Humphries, welcoming me into his Hampstead home. "I don't... really... exist..." He seems real enough to me: buoyant, bright-eyed, slightly stooping - he turned 70 earlier this year - and dazzlingly dressed in a black-and-white zigzag-patterned jacket. What he means, I suppose, is that this is a flying visit. He's just come back from the US and is off to Australia the next day, then two days in Denmark - an exhibition of Dame Edna's frocks is on show there - then off to San Francisco and in November back on Broadway. Even his London schedule is hectic - he's already had "afternoon tea" with Vivienne Westwood and been spotted at the dentist's - but this morning he seems only too anxious to please, to accommodate, to help me with this article. Or is it all an act? Another piece of theatre laid on to confuse me? After being grilled by Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show, Humphries remarked to a friend, "Didn't give much away, did I?"

And he has hilariously deepened the game by playing off his inventions and their inventor against each other. In his novel Women in the Background (1996) Dame Edna is dismissed as "a shrill and unsubtle drag act" and Humphries as "a queer fella" and "a snob". On stage, Humphries's alter ego Sir Les Patterson has confided, "Barry isn't a pooftah but he gives a pretty good impression of one." "In many ways he is a sad figure," says Dame Edna of her so-called manager and on stage she has tottered about retching at the rumour that Humphries sometimes dresses as a woman. "It's lucky," Humphries stonewalled one hack, "but I happen to be exactly the same size as Edna." He is certainly a master of disguises - after lunching with him in 1996, Sir Alec Guinness wrote in his diary, "Nowhere in his nature do I detect Dame Edna" - and has even argued that the whole point of an interview is "to throw obscurity where light shone before, to cast picturesque shadows where formerly all was irradiated".

There is no shortage of light and shade in Humphries's life. The tabloids have described him as "wacky" and "off-the-wall". Others have noted his "fin-de-siècle melancholy", "subversive mischievousness", "bouts of uncontrolled anger", "compulsive worrying", "deep and abiding hatred of the human race", "enormous generosity" and "real concern for people".

Or sunk into psychobabble. John Lahr, author of the definitive book about being backstage with Dame Edna, sees her as "a totem of Humphries's displacement both from his milieu and his parents" and mysteriously compares Sir Les Patterson with Huysmans's self-indulgent hero Des Esseintes. An Australian academic, Dr Ian Brittain, begins his 63-page essay on Humphries by claiming that Dame Edna might have stepped out of William Davenant's 17th-century court masque Salmacida Spolia. Edna is a witch, he explains, and the audience her coven...

Oh dear, oh dear. Can't we just agree that Humphries is a very great artist, one of the greatest stand-ups of all time, or of the turn of the century, or at the very least that he is - as Brian Sewell puts it - "an Institution"? And that he also happens to be a scholar, aesthete, dandy, reformed alcoholic and international socialite who leaves a tantalising trail of clues as to his off-stage movements? In Women in the Background, apparently completed at the Chalet Claire-fontaine in Gstaad, the hero shops at Smythsons and Missoni and rubs shoulders with Sir Harold Pinter - no slip of the pen - at The Ivy.

In the past, this name-dropping may have been a joke but today Humphries really is a global superstar. For one thing, he has, at long last, cracked America. In September 1999, after an unexpected success in San Francisco, he opened in Dame Edna: The Royal Tour at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. The show ran for 10 months and he will be back on Broadway at the 1,200-seat Music Box this winter. In the meantime, he has wooed provincial America, playing to packed former vaudeville houses in places like Minneapolis, Phoenix, Detroit, Houston, Denver, Seattle, Louisville and Columbus. Almost everyone has loved him and when a couple tried to leave early in Palm Beach he stopped them with a spotlight and accused them of "gross discourtesy".

And this winter in New York, he will go further. On Monday nights, when the Music Box is closed, he will use a small off-Broadway theatre to present, for the first time in America, Sir Les Patterson, whom the critic John Gross recently called "a great timeless comic creation" and - here we go again - "latterday Silenus".

Barry Humphries was born in a Melbourne suburb on 17 February 1934. He has described his childhood in two overlapping autobiographies, More Please (1992) and My Life as Me (2002). In these books - replete with fancy words like hispid, pinguid, grumous and knurl - a haunting picture emerges of the comedian as a young boy. His mother called him Sunny Sam, allowed him to lick the beaters of her Sunbeam Mixmaster - Humphries has an extraordinary awareness of brand names - and put him in swimming togs that incorporated a short skirt "to disguise impolite sexual contours". At school, he mixed with boys with "verminous hair and ears erupting with bright pumpkin wax".

Looking back, Humphries sees many signs of the future showman in his childhood self. He hankered, he tells us, to be a magician. He also says, "I was naturally, instinctively ridiculous." Abandoned in his father's Oldsmobile, he performed a mime for a crowd of amused pedestrians. Later, his parents encouraged him by saying, "Pretend to be on the wireless" and he formed a sneaking admiration for Hitler's exhibitionist foreign minister von Ribbentrop, an "odious buffoon" with "operetta-like" uniforms. Today he acknowledges he caused his parents - his father was a successful builder of suburban homes and his mother put on "a distressingly genteel voice" in front of visitors - "permanent anxiety". He also got a mixed reception from his fellow teenagers. He hated sports, got nicknamed Grannie and was rebuked by his housemaster: "I hope you're not turning pansy." Other contemporaries, such as Germaine Greer, remember him as "a Liszt lookalike", "a thrilling intellectual presence" and perpetuator of Dada-ist happenings, such as being seen to eat his own vomit. Humphries also remembers "sobbing with rage and fatigue".

Many readers will already know how, in the summer of 1955, Humphries began doing his Edna monologue on a bus as he and a troupe of young actors toured the Australian outback. Mrs Everage was not inspired by his mother but by the sort of housewife who gave a glutinous speech of welcome when the tired thespians arrived at her home town. Within months, this refeened, dowdy, timid figure was tentatively describing the amenities of her Moonee Ponds villa to delighted audiences at the New Theatre in Melbourne.

In spite of this early success - Mrs Everage had little in common with the monstrously bespectacled Dame Edna of today - Humphries's life would remain remarkably unsteady. Something of a local star when he left Australia in 1959, he and his then-wife arrived in London with only tuppence between them and rented a basement flat in Pembridge Gardens, Notting Hill. At night Humphries worked in the raspberry ripple section of the Wall's ice-cream factory in Acton and during the day did auditions.

In the winter of 1959, aged 25, he made his London stage debut in a musical version of Sweeney Todd at the Lyric Hammersmith. The show's programme states that Humphries was "born in Van Dieman's Land at the turn of the century, with Van Diemen himself helping with the delivery." A few months later, in June 1960, he was hired to play Mr Sowerberry, the undertaker, in the first production of Lionel Bart's Oliver! with the song, "That's Your Funeral" being specially written for him. In the Daily Mail, Bernard Levin noted Humphries's "witty and grizzly" performance.

He soon became a cult figure, but even the backing of John Betjeman and Peter Cook did not ease his passage. At Cook's Establishment Club in 1962, Mrs Everage was met by what the proprietor called "the stoniest of stony silences" and pronounced by Bamber Gascoigne in The Spectator, "distinctly soporific". His first one-man enterprise Just a Show, staged at the Fortune Theatre in 1969, was greeted by "shades of disapproval ranging from terse bemusement to open hostility". Irving Wardle in The Times dismissed Humphries as "a limited performer who works his favourite effects to excess". The show closed after six weeks.

All this while, Humphries lived as precariously and outrageously as Barry Mackenzie, the cartoon character he had invented who graced the pages of Private Eye in the 1960s and 1970s. At one point he and his wife and two daughters lived in a flat in Maida Vale. Later he was alone in a small private hotel in Westbourne Terrace. According to the late, great John Wells, Humphries was "like a mad child" in those days and "certain to make a scene in every restaurant". Was it at this stage or later that he dropped his trousers in Chez Moi in Holland Park Avenue in front of Lord Snowdon?

And, of course, he was a drunk, a terrible early-morning drinker whose off-stage life was plagued by homesickness, a sense of alienation and rage. He was, he tells us, a dissolute, guilt-ridden, self-pitying boozer. Looking back, he cheerfully presents himself as "a genius out of luck", but he in fact came close to death and had several spells in psychiatric hospitals in London and Australia where he felt "really isolated from the human race".

But he finally emerged sober. In My Life as Me, he names 31 December 1971 as the day he finally discovered that "life was more stimulating without stimulants". The determination with which he then abandoned drink and moved from "absolute drunkenness" to "consummate professionalism" is one of the most inspiring stories of modern times, especially for keen drinkers and failed geniuses like myself.

His big break came in March 1976 when Housewife-Superstar! opened at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, introducing Les Patterson to London audiences and launching Dame Edna Everage as the megastar we know today. The Sunday Times's Sir Harold Hobson, who had hitherto ignored Humphries's works, was now moved to write of him: "He is a wonder, a glory and a terror. Do not miss him." During the next four months nearly half-a-million people heeded the veteran critic's words.

In this show, the "triumphalist" Dame Edna, had her first airing. And though the act has developed over the years - Humphries has a genius for keeping in touch with modern manners, tastes and colloquialisms - Dame Edna is essentially the same relentlessly patronising, gratifyingly subversive Housewife from Hell of the 1970s. Her stage business still includes the bow-legged gait, the freeze, the mouth twitching in mock anxiety, the heaving suppressed laughter and, of course, the final gladdy-throwing routine and merciless accompanying patter: "Do I hear the reassuring tinkle of a contact lens?"

Some of the things the Dame said in Housewife-Superstar! are still in her repertoire, such as, "I was born with a priceless gift. The ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others." When the audience laugh at some innuendo, she still screeches, "Don't twist everything I say. Please! Please! For heaven's sake! Stop looking for hidden agendas!", and at a key moment she may slip in confidentially, "I'm an Australian, by the way". Her dialogue with the audience still follows the same lines. "Supposing I chose for argument's sake... you! In the third row... As I almost certainly shall." And when the latest victim is up on stage, Edna may still tell her, "The rest of your life is going to be an anticlimax," and reprimand the shrieking audience, "Don't be so rude!"

Has Dame Edna ever caused offence? Does Betty from Bromley resent the suggestion that she has saved a fortune on clothes? Or Wendy from the Upper East Side mind being told she's not so young anymore? Studying Dame Edna's performance, one notes the charm with which these venomous observations are delivered and all the flattering things she says as she drags her new friends about the stage. "You're gorgeous, Anne", "I love your little face, Daisy, I do" and, "You lovely little woman, you're adorable." My own guess is that the vast majority of the people who have been exposed to such a public humiliation have been eerily liberated by their ordeal.

And much the same can surely be said of Sir Les and his political incorrectness, his disgraceful personal appearance and habits. In his ill-fitting suit, purple socks, white-and-brown vaudevillian's shoes and heavily stained frilly shirt-front he is a sight for sore eyes, but as he stumbles, prances, burps and bops about the boards - even attempts to tap-dance - he eventually wins over the audience. A surprising number of television viewers have taken him for real - one Oxford don even pronounced him "a totally loathsome man" - but seeing him on stage, even his worst enemies are likely to be beguiled. "The sweetness of the character overrides the grossness," Humphries argues. At one point in his act even Sir Les announces, "I'm not so bad. There's no ill in me."

The audience do not just laugh at Dame Edna and Sir Les. They gasp, howl, shake, sob, suck in air, cry in dismay, wet their seats, pass out, even - it has been claimed - change colour. They are appalled, ravished, mesmerised, beside themselves. The playwright Peter Nichols has described the atmosphere when Humphries is on stage as "a riotous assembly" and "a blood bath". There is terror, elation, pandemonium, panic, prolonged moments of wordless hilarity and the sort of screams and roars that might accompany a wild animal act that has gone horribly wrong - except that in this case we are in safe hands. It is all "a nice night's entertainment". And we know it.

What sort of people come to see these shows? Here again, Humphries has confused us, and amused himself, by running down his fans. "If you are titillated by Edna," he says solemnly, "I think you might be in a certain amount of trouble psychologically." And he has noted the presence among Sir Les's fans of "some obviously disturbed young women". Backstage at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1989 he even asked his stage manager, "Why can't I attract nice people to my show?"

If this is not a joke, what does it tell you about me, an ardent, abject fan of Humphries and all his works from way back? I first encountered the subject of this article in the narrow entrance hall of the French Club in St James's in about 1970. By that date he was already a legend - or apparition. Even in those days, I was acutely aware of Barry Humphries as an off-stage spectacle - did he already own his zebra-hair overcoat? - and dominant figure in high bohemia. The people I liked most were friends of his. Does the fact that a few years earlier I had myself tried to be a stand-up comedian - and failed - add a certain poignancy to this tale?

In modern times, I have "stalked" Barry Humphries with some success. In 1995 I praised his self-mocking novel Women in the Background in The Spectator. I then hobnobbed with him and his utterly charming fourth wife Lizzie Spender at Sonia Sinclair's parties and elsewhere, and in 1998 I drunkenly invaded his dressing-room at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where Edna The Spectacle had been buffeted by bad reviews. Humphries and I had lunch the following week in a West End club and took a taxi afterwards - his immaculately-shod feet up on the jump seat - to Maggs in Berkeley Square, where we perused some old folios together. Since then I have received letters from him written in purple ink and in March 2000, when he was wowing them on Broadway, I had dinner with him between a matinee and evening performance. During the course of the meal at Sardi's I noticed a tiny speck of stardust on his cheek.

"It's always night in here. Or near enough", says Barry Humphries, ushering me into his library, where the blinds are kept permanently drawn. I'm the first journalist, he says, to cross his threshold since Lynn Barber, after a million telephone calls, secured a visit to another Hampstead house in 1987 and noted some of the minor flaws in his character.

The chrome and leather armchairs in which we settle could have come out of Lynn Barber's house for all I know, but the books that cram every space speak only of Humphries's immense erudition and esoteric knowledge. "I've got quite a lot of interesting books here," he says quietly, "I wish I could talk about them all." Somewhere here is Oscar Wilde's telephone book and a priceless first edition of Philip O'Connor's Memoirs of a Public Baby, with an introduction by Humphries's late father-in-law Stephen Spender. And an autographed copy of Harold Acton's Humdrum and other "smart" fiction of the 1920s. And the complete works of Wilfred Childe. And several volumes of Herbert Read's pre-war surrealist poetry, all of which Humphries knows by heart. And somewhere, in a portfolio, are those Charles Conder prints which he bought when he was a very young man. "Just as I say goodbye to all these things," sighs Humphries, "I go off to more of them in Sydney."

He has now discarded his showbiz jacket and huddles beside me like the man on a cruise ship who appears at the end of Women in the Background - or like Sandy Stone, the Humphries invention whose exhilaratingly dull posthumous thoughts have featured in many of his stage shows. Humphries claims he has spent much of his adult life convalescing from the long illness of youth - haven't we all? - but underneath the invalid's façade he is as fit as a fiddle, extremely high-spirited and quick as a lizard.

Barry Humphries speaks softly to conserve his voice - "I thought your interview with Nicky [Haslam] was very good," he begins slowly - but later chuckles at some dreadful thing he has done on stage. I remind him of how Dame Edna gagged on a chocolate at the Piccadilly Theatre and then spat the lot into the audience - "Suck out the stain!" she ordered - and he tells me how Sir Les flashed at Kylie Minogue on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. "Les couldn't resist it anymore and the phallus was unleashed. There is a temptation to go to extremes sometimes."

Our conversation is as far-ranging as Sir Les Paterson's saliva - "I can now get to the seventh row of the stalls. Across an orchestra pit. That's not bad." After discussing his breakfast - two pieces of extremely healthy toast made from bread baked by his wife Lizzie "with every kind of seed you can imagine in it" - we move on to his clothes and his hearty dislike of jackets with vents: "Not a good thing," he says with deadly gravity. He is equally grim, and profoundly funny, about the underwear he wears on and off stage. "Normally I wear silk underwear. No, not boxers. Kind of briefs. All the time. Not at night. Either cream-coloured or black. They stay on. And Edna's tights are worn over them."

We discuss my friend Michael Barrymore - "a gifted man" - and Al Murray - "very funny". Humphries has never heard of the daring, dazzling Little Britain duo whose political incorrectness overlaps his own but he remembers well the acts he saw at the Metropolitan Music Hall when he first came to London, particularly Hetty King, the male impersonator, GH Elliot, "The Chocolate-Coloured Coon", and Randolph Sutton. "And it was the atmosphere in the theatre. And the look of it. Like a painting by Sickert."

What about his own paintings, the ones he does on holiday? Are they any good? "Quite good, quite good," he replies. "There's not much subtlety but there's energy." A bit like Churchill's, I suggest. "Somewhere between Churchill and Hitler," he replies. And did I know that Lavery had helped Churchill with his paintings, finishing them off leaning over his shoulder? Then he talks about how the heavy and ailing Pavarotti had leant on Dame Edna's shoulder after last year's Royal Variety Show. "The Queen was rather startled by this... spectacle."

The conversation darkens and deepens. We talk about producers who have robbed him and about religion. "I don't believe in the afterlife. I wish I did." I ask if he keeps in touch with his three ex-wives. "No, sadly not," he says after an intake of breath, but then he talks brightly about the daughters he's very close to and his sons Rupert, reading English at Edinburgh, and Oscar, now in Australia. "Oscar's decided to be a flâneur for the time being. A penniless flâneur in Sydney. And he's doing well!"

Finally we talk about his conquest of America. In 1977, fresh from her triumph on Shaftesbury Avenue, Dame Edna appeared in a miserable off-Broadway theatre and failed abysmally, closing in three weeks. But in 1999-2000 the Dame's bell-like tones rang out in the heart of Broadway for nearly a year, playing to jubilant Americans. What had happened in the meantime? "They'd grown up a bit," says Humphries. "Become a bit more sophisticated. And I think I'm more confident. That means a lot in comedy. And they'd seen a bit of me on television. TV's a very good way of softening up an audience, getting them curious."

Later this month Humphries returns to America with a stage manager, dresser, wardrobe supervisor, pianist, lighting guy, sound guy, assistant stage manager and "a wig person". On 31 August he opens at the Curran Theatre, San Francisco, and on 5 November he moves to the Music Box on Broadway. Here - in Irving Berlin's old theatre - Edna will give New Yorkers a fresh dose of her lethal mixture, opening the second act singing "Put Your Family Last" and then doing marriage counselling. "Couples come up and I counsel them," Humphries explains. "Highly personal. I ask pretty probing questions. And we call their families. We get phone numbers. Mother-in-laws, daughters. Edna is there comforting them, weedling. I tell them their lives will never be quite the same again. The audience is sworn to secrecy. Finally I say, 'I think we've got closure' and give them a certificate."

On this note - we must just wait and see how New Yorkers take to Sir Les - the beautiful and arresting Lizzie Spender joins us and offers coffee while her husband talks nervously about telephoning Australia and packing for Denmark as well as Sydney. But he still has time to show me into the closet where many of Dame Edna's costumes - the ones not in the exhibition - hang in plastic bags. Here he becomes extraordinarily enthusiastic. "Look at this wonderful thing," he says. "It's got a bee on it. Look, it's in the form of a flower. Here's a good one. Octopus dress. Look!" When I mutter that my wife could wear some of them, he looks at me sharply and asks, "Does she want something? Does she want to come and have a bit of a look through the rack?"

Finally, as we say goodbye outside his front door, the self-styled born-again Broadway star sheds his Sandy Stone interviewee persona and re-emerges as one of the world's most debonair men - more Brigadier Parker-Bowles than Joachim von Ribbentrop. Then he says wickedly, "You haven't really got what you wanted, have you?"

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