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Barry Humphries: the man and the mask

The multi-faceted performer behind the greatest comic creation of the age is about to give her one final outing

On 23 April, at the City Recital Hall in Sydney, Barry Humphries will begin a new Australian tour.

Punters who come expecting familiar ditties and patter about gladioli, barbies and prostate troubles from the shock-frocked and batwing-bespectacled Dame Edna Everage may, however, leave baffled. A staggering 57 years after her birth in December 1955 at Melbourne University’s Union Theatre, the “Housewife Gigastar”, whose Valkyrie-like features now adorn post-ironic statues and postage stamps, polished off her farewell tour at home last month. For the sake of those benighted Poms, the “Eat, Pray, Laugh” show will arrive here for a swansong in October – but that is it.

For his next trick, the 79-year-old actor, writer, satirist, Dadaist performer, connoisseur of modern art – and, for good measure, creator of the 20th century’s most long-lived and successful variety act – returns to his creative roots. He may, as he says, be feeling “a bit senior” for the Dame Edna circus now. As a rejuvenating encore, the “Weimar Cabaret” evening he compères next month – with Humphries as a less ashen-faced version of Joel Grey’s MC – will put one of his first loves centre stage. With the help of cabaret star Meow Meow and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the programme will showcase (via songs and suites from Weill, Eisler, Krenek and Humphries’ beloved Mischa Spoliansky) the bittersweet delights of Berlin music and satire before the Nazi deluge.

In those late-Weimar years, the smoky basement clubs attracted crowds of international visitors drawn by the artistic, social and – not least – sexual freedoms of interwar Germany. Famously, their expat habitués included the writers WH Auden, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood (whose Berlin stories in due course became the play and film Cabaret). In 1990, Humphries’ connection to this vanished but influential milieu became extremely personal. Via his fourth wife Lizzie, he is the late Sir Stephen Spender’s son-in-law.

This fresh departure, just as Dame Edna hangs up her specs and the “Australian cultural attaché” Sir Les Patterson finally sends that obscenely stained tie off to the dry cleaner’s, will prompt Humphries fans to ponder the relationship between the avant-garde intellectual and the prime-time, stadium-filling comedy giant. It is a commonplace among Humphries hangers-on to note that Dame Edna, in costume, will have conversations and even make phone calls that Barry Humphries in civvies would never contemplate and can hardly even recall. Has any erudite aesthete ever lived shackled, for so long, to such a monstrous and all-consuming alter ego? “A mask tells us more than a face,” runs the line from Oscar Wilde’s essay on the artist-poisoner Thomas Wainewright that Humphries used in the latest spin-off book about his world-conquering avatar.

But the mask and the man – cultivated, sophisticated Dr Jekyll and his own Mrs Hyde from Moonee Ponds in Melbourne suburbia – could never have co-existed since the mid-1950s without some profound affinity. Humphries will know that Gustave Flaubert remarked about his most enduring creation (another woman whose thralldom to the fashions and platitudes of petty-bourgeois life exposed their hollowness): “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Could he perhaps say the same? Certainly, to see Dame Edna live in her pomp was to witness an envenomed revenge on middle-class mores disguised as a ribald, raucous travesty show. I still recall the cringe-making audience-participation section of one triumphant solo gig in a London theatre. For a few minutes, Dame Edna chatted blandly to the nice couple hauled up on stage about how they had splashed out on garden furniture. Then she looked them up and down. A pause. “My, but you’ve saved on clothes!” At the finale, a crane hoisted her up so that she could – as usual – chuck gladdies at us “paupers” in the gods.

“We don’t know where Barry came from,” his emotionally distant mother used to say. (He has three siblings, all of whom stayed around Melbourne.) Well, geographically if not spiritually, he grew up in Kew, Melbourne, as the son of Louisa and Eric Humphries – a successful contractor who actually built Dame Edna’s sacred suburbs. The early life of “Sunny Sam” darkened when parental philistinism led to scornful dismissal of his artistic tastes – and even forced sales of his books. From an early age, he used dressing up as an escape – and maybe as vengeance too. The black-caped “Dr Aaron Azimuth”, dandified surrealist, became the first of many alternative selves.

At the University of Melbourne, he treated bemused audiences to a rare antipodean dose of Dadaism. Humphries’ stunts included a custard-filled pair of wellingtons (“Pus in Boots”) and the “sick bag” gag which involved – surely a precursor of Sir Les – tins of fruit salad and in-flight motion-sickness aids. Student silliness, yes, but also a conscious homage to the interwar European provocateurs whose bug he had happily caught for life. In a time and place where well-scrubbed “niceness” stifled free thought, excess, nausea and disgust became the satirist’s weapons of choice.

As a young actor, Humphries began impersonating the sort of hostess who would greet his theatre troupe’s touring production of Twelfth Night. In December 1955, Mrs Norm Everage first took to the stage – and a fixed star was born. Yet, alongside her mutations, from a distorted mirror of suffocating suburbia to a cackling satire bomb planted in the jet-setting heart of celebrity culture, Humphries has managed an astonishing variety of other roles. In 1957, he played Estragon in the first Australian production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. After moving to London in 1959, he created the part of undertaker Sowerberry in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (and played Fagin in a revival). With cartoonist Nicholas Garland, he wrote the vulgar, boozy, priapic – and much-loved – Barry McKenzie strip for Private Eye (later filmed). After a drink-induced crisis in the early 1970s, which led to divorce from his second wife and a suspension of contact with his children (he has four), the still-recovering alcoholic firmly put a lid on his own Bazza McKenzie days. His protean career on stage and screen continued right up to a comically gruesome turn as the carbuncular Goblin King in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.

Dame Edna began to star in his one-person shows in 1962, with mixed fortunes for the first few years. In time, she bred a tribe of famous offspring. Her gladiolus-shaped genes flow through Alan Partridge, Mrs Merton, Ali G – any comic act in which the mockery of provincial prejudice morphs into a spoofing take on showbiz rituals. She pioneered the reflexive – if you like, postmodern – turn in satire towards the habits of the monstrous media themselves.

As for Barry Humphries’ own intellectual family, he ranks as a (senior) member of that stellar squad of Australian expat outsider-insiders who have helped to recalibrate our culture. Clive James, Germaine Greer, poet Peter Porter, art critic and historian Robert Hughes (who died last August): the roll call, however routine, bears repetition. As for their strategy of entryism and takeover, James wrote in an essay on Porter: “Unplaceable by class, the Australians had no inhibiting expectations that they would be stopped at the door. The native assumptions of accreditation by background did not apply to them. They did not believe that they needed a double-barrelled surname to walk at large in Europe.”

Humphries has walked as tall as any, and through many different doors. More than most, he embodies that generation’s bracing blend of mass-market gifts with high-culture commitments. A nice irony: when, in the 1990s, he trod the boards as the boorish “cultural attaché” Les Patterson, that post was held in London by the smart and stylish Australian gallerist Rebecca Hossack.

Mrs Humphries’ perplexed inquiry about young Barry’s heritage deserves one more answer. Mainstream Australia often presents itself as bluff, candid, free of deception and pretence. In reality, no other country has stumbled over a more bizarre collection of counterfeits, masquerades and travesties. Novel-writing children of Holocaust survivors who turn out not to be; genius Aboriginal artists who are not quite all they seem: this open-faced land – but one prey to anxieties about its cultural status – has become the heartland of the hoax. And no Australian scam left deeper traces than the Ern Malley affair.

In the 1940s, the poet and scholar Harold Stewart – a “conservative anarchist” – and James McAuley passed off their own, deliberately fatuous, Modernist poems as the work of a tragically short-lived genius, Ern Malley. The stunt depended for its plausibility on Stewart’s fabrication of letters from Ern’s grieving sister, the deeply un-artistic suburban housewife, Ethel Malley. Read Ethel’s correspondence, and the line of inheritance looks as plain as the proboscis on a platypus. Wherever Barry Humphries came from, Dame Edna Everage is the daughter of Mrs Ethel Malley.

A life in brief

Born: 17 February 1934, Camberwell, Melbourne, Australia.

Family: Married to Lizzie Spender, the latest of four wives, since 1990. Two daughters, Tess and Emily, and two sons, Oscar and Rupert, from previous marriages.

Education: Melbourne Grammar School. Dropped out of Melbourne University after two years.

Career: Moved to London in 1959, and starred in 1960 stage production of Oliver! Made his film debut in 1967’s Bedazzled with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Created comic alter egos Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson in stage revues in the 1960s. More recently appeared in Finding Nemo and The Hobbit.

He says: “I still seem to shock people even though I look terribly respectable now in my old age.”

They say: “The most significant comedian to emerge since Charlie Chaplin.” Ann Pender, biographer