Humphries - busy altering egos

By Julia Llewelyn Smith

Dame Edna, aka Barry Humphries. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Dame Edna, aka Barry Humphries. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Barry Humphries is looking tired. He's sitting in a shabby BBC office, at the end of a long afternoon recording his new radio show, and in a moment he'll have his photograph taken.

"Everyone will say: 'He's put on weight'," he frets. "It'll go when I get back on stage, then I burn it up."

The 81-year-old may be a little paunchy, though the shocking thing about Humphries is how softly spoken he is - after all, we are so used to the Australian's alter egos - the flamboyant Dame Edna Everage and the boorish Sir Les Patterson.

In an age of ever-increasing political correctness, he says, he needs to hide behind his creations. Not that he always does. Last year, he became involved in a very public row over the resignation of Barry Spurr, a Sydney poetry professor after private "racist" emails were published (Spurr said that they were a jokey "game" in which he and a friend tried to outdo each other in their use of outrageous language).

Humphries sometimes likes to outrage as himself and enjoys the occasional tale of provocation.

"I had a Nazi friend - repentant, he wrote a book about his time in the SS. When he died his widow said among his last words were: 'Zat Barry Humphries, ze Fuhrer would have adored him'." Why? "I have no idea," he shrugs. "It's hypothetical, since Hitler never actually met me, but I thought it would make a great strapline on a book."

Humphries is not, he insists, particularly right-wing. "I don't know anything about politics. But the far left is so conservative, paradoxically, inflexible, doctrinaire and humourless. You can't describe the world as it is any more. You get jumped on." Does he? He chortles. "I'm happy to say I do. I give offence therefore I am. Not too much offence, though."

As an expat, Humphries is always grouped with fellow Australians Germaine Greer and Clive James. "I don't mind; they're friends," he says. On the other hand, he disliked being linked to Rolf Harris. "He behaved evilly," says Humphries.

Greer attracted fury after claiming that "trans" women such as Caitlyn Jenner (formerly the Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner) are men "who believe that they are women and have themselves castrated". Students at Cardiff University described Greer as "transphobic" and someone who should make all right-minded people feel "sick to [their] stomachs".

Humphries is supportive of Greer in the controversy. "I agree with Germaine! You're a mutilated man, that's all," he says. "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."

No wonder he is now finding comfort in the past. His new Radio 2 show in Britain, Barry's Forgotten Musical Masterpieces, focuses on largely neglected recording artists from the past. "Al Bowlly, George Formby, Greta Keller," he recites fondly. "And Fred Astaire, whom I regard as one of the great artists of the 20th century."

As a boy growing up in Melbourne, their sounds, emanating from his parents' wireless, captivated him. "It's all about nostalgia for my own youth. The past is more reliable, though it's a myth, of course, a romanticised period we inhabit in our imaginations."

Humphries is not, however, living in a nostalgic bubble. He's a fan of most contemporary comedians ("though why aren't there more women? Maybe it's because they are smarter than men"), singling out Steve Coogan, Eddie Izzard, Harry Enfield and Rob Brydon.

And what of Dame Edna, who's now enjoyed several "farewell" tours but keeps making comebacks. "Talk of Edna's retirement is very exaggerated," says Humphries. "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."

Choice cuts

The genius of Barry Humphries, in quotes

• "Sex is the most beautiful thing that can take place between a happily married man and his secretary."

• "New Zealand is a country of thirty thousand million sheep, three million of whom think they are human."

• "I was born in Melbourne with a precious gift. Dame Nature stooped over my cot and gave me this gift. It was the ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others."

• "There is no more terrible fate for a comedian than to be taken seriously."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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