Barry Humphries has made a career out of playing a woman, having first performed as his on-stage alter ego Dame Edna Everage 60 years ago.
But now the comedian has risked the wrath of the transgender community, after telling The Daily Telegraph that people who undergo gender reassignment surgery are merely "mutilated men", and labelling Caitlyn Jenner, who was formerly known as the Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, a "publicity-seeking ratbag".
The comedian's outburst came in the wake of remarks by his friend, and fellow Australian, Germaine Greer. The feminist academic was criticised last year after claiming that "trans" women like Jenner were men "who believe that they are women and have themselves castrated". She also said: "Just because you lop off your d--- and then wear a dress, doesn't make you a f------ woman. I've asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I'm going to wear a brown coat but that won't turn me into a f------ cocker spaniel."
Asked about his friend's remarks, Humphries said: "I agree with Germaine! You're a mutilated man, that's all. Self-mutilation, what's all this carry on? Caitlyn Jenner - what a publicity-seeking ratbag. It's all given the stamp - not of respectability, but authenticity or something. If you criticise anything you're racist or sexist or homophobic."
In an interview with Radio Times, also published today, Humphries made further controversial comments, this time about race. He told the magazine: "Why do you think Downton Abbey is so popular in the States? Because there are no black people in it." He added: "Imagine if the BBC tried to do Till Death Us Do Part again today, with Alf Garnett ranting against black people? It couldn't be done."
Greer, when contacted by The Daily Telegraph, backed up her fellow Antipodean. "Barry is a friend," she said. "The whole thing has got so ridiculous. I've had people shouting at me on the train, I've been threatened with a forcible sex change. All I'm saying is that I don't accept that post-operative transsexuals are women."
Humphries also complained to the Telegraph about the "new puritanism" of political correctness, which he said meant that he often had to explore controversial issues through his on-stage alter egos, such as Sir Les Patterson, his dipsomaniac Australian diplomat. "Les can say what he likes, I can say: 'I disapprove of what Edna said the other night."' He claimed that a friend, a former Nazi, had said that Adolf Hitler would have "adored" him. He said: "I had a Nazi friend - repentant, he wrote a book about his time in the SS. When he died his widow said amongst his last words were: 'Zat Barry Humphries, ze Fuhrer would have adored him."' Asked why, he replied: "I have no idea. It's hypothetical, since Hitler never actually met me, but I thought it would make a great strapline on a book." He insisted that he was not particularly Right-wing, saying: "I don't know anything about politics at all. But the far Left is so conservative, paradoxically, inflexible, doctrinaire and humourless. You can't describe the world as it is any more."
Humphries, who came to London in 1959, said that the world was a "less attractive" place today than in previous decades. His new Radio 2 show, Barry's Forgotten Musical Masterpieces, focuses on largely neglected recordings from the past, by artists such as George Formby and Fred Astaire. He said: "It's all about nostalgia for my youth and the world this music represented, the past is more reliable and dependable, though it's a myth of course, a romanticised period, a fairyland, we inhabit it in our imaginations."
Performers today, are "more materialistic, greedier", he said. Despite this, he said the was a fan of modern comedians such as Steve Coogan, Eddie Izzard and Michael McIntyre. "I love Michael McIntyre," he said. "Lots of comedians hate him, because he's more successful than they are." Questioned about his most famous creation, Dame Edna, who has had several "farewell" tours but keeps making comebacks, the comedian said: "Talk of Edna's retirement is very exaggerated. I think she's like Cher and Barbra Streisand, who else keeps saying they're retiring and doesn't? Dame Edna doesn't like living in hotels, but she's going to Chicago and Boston soon, so I guess I'll be coming with her."
Humphries said he would never retire, and that performing offered an escape from reality. "I love being on stage," he said. "I love the company of an audience and also the solitude. It can be a full house and I will be on stage and I'll think: 'Ah, alone at last!"'
The comedian also took aim at the BBC, telling Radio Times it was better in the Sixties. He said: "It was wonderful really and it was exciting and they would try anything. There was a real feeling we were making entertainment. It's not such a free place any more. There's a fear of treading on people's toes."
MPs and campaigners for transgender equality called for Humphries to apologise for his comments last night. Maria Miller, the Conservative MP who leads the women and equalities select committee, said: "Remarks like these show how far we've got to go in making sure that people take the issue of transgender equality seriously."
Humphries, 81, will present a forthcoming BBC Radio 2 series, and Ben Howlett, a Conservative MP who also sits on the select committee, called on the corporation to step in. He said: "The BBC has often been at the forefront of promoting diversity and inclusion in the media. Barry Humphries' comments stand opposed to these objectives and I hope the BBC will ask Barry Humphries to retract his comments and apologise."
Stonewall, the campaigning organisation, criticised the comedian's remarks. A spokesman said: "Views and comments like these are dangerous and hurtful, and they promote hatred. People are entitled to their views, but when those views are hurtful or dangerous, they should expect to be challenged.
"Celebrating anyone who is homophobic, biphobic or transphobic sends a very damaging message that views like this are OK. They're not. Trans people need and deserve acceptance and equality - not hatred. We would urge him to do the right thing and apologise."
A spokesman for Trans Media Watch, which campaigns for "fair, respectful and accurate" coverage of transgender issues, said: "There is a danger that when someone like this makes comments like these it increases hostility towards trans people."
A BBC spokesman said: "Barry Humphries is a freelance presenter for BBC Radio 2 and these are his personal views, which are not reflected in his radio programme."