Barry Humphries puts his Dame face on one last time

By Russell Baillie

Dame Edna Everage is heading back to New Zealand on a farewell tour - and she can blame Barry Humphries for that. He talks to Russell Baillie.

Barry Humphries as Dame Edna. Photo / Supplied
Barry Humphries as Dame Edna. Photo / Supplied

Barry Humphries gently complains down the line that it's a bit early in Sydney. He was, after all, working the night before.

No, not labouring beneath the towering purple wig of Dame Edna, who has been his best-known alter ego for more than 50 years, but as himself and a panellist on the ABC current affairs show Q&A.

On the panel, his wry comments about everything from media ethics to Gina Rinehart's wealth and hair had the Australian twittersphere abuzz with various declarations of his genius, while many an Aussie comedian used their 140 characters to pay tribute to the old master.

As well they might, because the 78-year-old Humphries is to Australian comedy what the likes of Monty Python or the Goons were to Britain's culture of funny.

Only there was just one of him, playing many characters - Edna becoming the most prominent as she rose to global housewife megastar status in the 1980s - and he still is, just.

For Humphries/Dame Edna's Eat Pray Laugh tour of Australia and New Zealand is being billed as a farewell jaunt. Which makes you wonder: how did Madam take the news of her retirement?

"Well, I don't think she is retiring," chuckles Humphries. "I think she refuses to retire because that spells a kind of death. It's really that we have to do less touring.

"For the last 10 years we have been all over the United States, Europe, England and three Australian tours. One city after another. One strange hotel after another. Waking up at night trying to find the bathroom is more than really we can bear. So in a sense, it's a question of toning things down a bit."

Without prompting, Humphries uses a fair bit of TimeOut's 15-minute chat to remind us that his New Zealand connections extend well beyond that of Edna's dearly departed Palmerston North-born bridesmaid, Madge Allsop, who used to sit suffering in silence through her shows.

He would like to see Edna's old silent partner - who was played by a few different actresses over the years, none of them Kiwi - honoured in her hometown.

"Madge has died, sadly. After a long illness she passed away ... a sentimental visit to Palmerston North is important and I want to try to agitate for a statue of Madge. Hamilton has got Richard O'Brien in bronze. Madge is no better-looking than Richard O'Brien. But she is rather famous and a much-loved Kiwi."

Humphries regrets not having played in Auckland for 15 years, a city in which he spent a fair bit of time in the late 1950s and early 60s with second wife (of four) Rosalind Tong, who was a dancer in the New Zealand Ballet Company.

Back then, he struck up a friendship with, among others, fellow towering intellect, C.K. Stead.

The writer found inspiration in his Aussie mate - the character of his 1964 short story A Fitting Tribute was based on the outrageous Humphries. The actor had brought his take on the the absurdist ideas of Dadaism to his prank-performances in Melbourne in the 1950s before joining the Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney's Phillip Street Revue, both of which saw early incarnations of Edna.

Humphries also tested out a few of his early characters on stage in Auckland.

Off stage, as Stead has recounted, the Australian visitor was often the life of the party in those early pre-swinging 60s era.

"I met Karl and several other people, poets and writers, and I gave a short performance of some of the things I was planning to do in Australia - my first one-man show and it went off very, very well. So Auckland is of great sentimental attraction to me."

Though this wander down his Auckland memory lane comes with some spite for those who pulled down Her Majesty's Theatre and the slightly less historically significant Mon Desir pub - "an ornament of Takapuna".

But he is happy that Edna - as well as Sir Les Patterson and Sandy Stone - will be back at the Civic in August. "The Civic, of course, is one of your gems. In fact, it's such a beautiful theatre it amazes me you haven't pulled it down."

Like the theatre, Dame Edna has survived as a brilliantly gaudy institution and one that put almost everyone else Humphries created in the shade. Was there a point where he remembers Edna, well, taking over?

"She never did. I really never actually think of her. But when she's in full flight she is a handful and she developed from a very timid, rather dowdy creature into the fully fledged megastar we know today. I never thought, in those early days, that she would become a friend of the Royal Family. That she would have her own little flat at Buckingham Palace. Unconceivable. That she would be consulted by world leaders. That she would be a life coach to presidents and popes."

Humphries did write a book, one of many he's penned, about his uneasy relationship with his creation, entitled Handling Edna.

"I tried to talk about he good aspects of that and the difficult ones. Edna has always been convinced I am embezzling her ..."

You are, in a way ...

"I make a little money from her. But I do perform a loyal and difficult services - keeping her on track, arranging theatrical dates. I arranged her New Zealand visit and was a bit worried that she would get a bit weepy, thinking about Madge. But of course she was very cruel to Madge Allsop. She was not a very nice person and Edna, of course, fails to see her own faults."

The forthcoming season isn't just a farewell to Edna but also to Sir Les Patterson, the booze-addled cultural attache to the Court of St James, who, says Humphries straight-facedly, will be appearing as a celebrity chef. There will also be an appearance by Sandy Stone.

Stone, a character who has been part of Humphries' repertoire since day one, is the flip-side of the gauche Edna or Patterson. He's an elderly bloke in a dressing gown - actually he's now talking from beyond the grave - who has offered poignant, dry-humoured monologues about his good old days and his wife Beryl. He's long been been a favourite among Humphries aficionados.

"It is in the character of Sandy that Humphries' great skill with language, his ear for peculiar turns of speech and his ability to give them a half-turn further into absurdity, is clearest," Stead wrote in the London Review of Books.

Clive James described him as "a character so enduring he has proved unkillable ... he came back from the dead more talkative than ever."

"You know, I invented Sandy Stone for a record called Wild Life in Suburbia, which was made in 1958," says Humphries.

"It sold more copies in New Zealand than Australia and there may well be a few listeners who have still got that old disc. He's a ghost now but I think he will be greatly enjoyed by Kiwi audiences."

Once Humphries farewells touring, it should give him more time for his other favourite pursuits - being a grandad (he beams with pride at the classical music talents of two of his grandsons) and painting.

"I like painting out of doors, so it rather depends on weather. But it's my favourite non-profit-making occupation. I have always painted. I am rather good at it. I have even sold some paintings. So if I wasn't an actor I would be a painter, but I would be a little poorer. The theatre has been very generous to me. I didn't go into the theatre to make money. Who would, in their right mind?

"But I have been successful at what I do and it seems to fill a kind of need. There is, of course, always a need to laugh and it's a kind of vitamin which has been lacking largely from our diet.

"And when I say laugh, I don't just mean an occasional chuckle. I feel it is my duty if possible to have the audience convulsed with laughter.

"I laugh pretty much a lot myself but it is generally at my own jokes. My wife tells me that if she hears me laughing, it's something I have said or thought of.

"I laugh in a different way at myself. I take her word for that."

LOWDOWN

Who: Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and Sandy Stone
Where: The Civic, Auckland
What: The farewell Eat Pray Laugh! tour
When: Four shows from Saturday 11 August

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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