After 50 years in show business, MO Fan Barry Humphries’ alter ego Dame Edna Everage is still filling theatres but, as he tells MO, performing is not his only passion
An accomplished writer, performer and painter, Barry Humphries is one of Australia’s best-loved comic exports. The man behind characters such as the politically incorrect diplomat Sir Les Patterson is best known for ‘Housewife, Superstar’ Dame Edna Everage, whose flamboyant costumes, quick wit and glitzy eyewear have kept audiences entertained for years. Born in Melbourne, Humphries has lived and worked around the world, winning public adoration and critical acclaim, not to mention countless awards for his comic creations. Based in London, but frequently on the move (he travels to Australia at least three times a year), he is currently writing, painting and performing, with a new tour planned for later in 2011.
When you first created the character Dame Edna Everage, did you ever imagine that she’d still be going strong so many years later?
Edna was created for a show that ran for a week on the campus of Melbourne University in 1955. Now that’s quite a while ago now, and would you have told me that Edna would be alive and kicking so many years later, I would have slashed my wrists, but there it is. When I put her in a box at the end of a performance and close the lid, I have no idea what’s going to pop out next time, but it’s always something different. Edna is always changing and reinventing herself. She was compassionate before anyone else was compassionate. She was cutting edge before the term had been invented. She was politically incorrect when the phrase had not been fabricated by journalism, so she is a surprise to me and rather a pleasure.
When did she come into her element?
She really came into her own in Hong Kong. I have a long association with Mandarin Oriental. In 1973, Peter Stafford, a brilliant Australian hotelier, invited me, Dame Edna and Les Patterson to visit the hotel and do cabaret in the Harbour Room. We were very successful and I had a lot of fun. It was my first experience of cabaret and of staying in a great first-class hotel. There are still a couple of people working at Mandarin Oriental who remember me from those old years.
How important are the costumes for getting into character?
Les Patterson just wears a stained powder-blue suit made for him by Sam, a famous tailor in Hong Kong. Edna’s dresses, however, are another matter. There are over 100 of these very elaborate dresses and they are all designed by Stephen Adnitt in London, and are covered with beautiful jewels and beading. Some are housed in the Performing Arts Museum in Melbourne, where they’ve been donated for various reasons – principally because I’ve got too fat to fit into them, or, I should say, Dame Edna has put on a little weight. They are also there because they were designed for special occasions, like the Olympic Games, so they are no longer relevant.
Do you have an input into the design?
Yes, I sometimes think of an idea. I’ll talk to Stephen and he’ll create a series of drawings, and we look at them and have long conferences. Originally, when Edna was just plain Mrs Everage, she was rather dowdy and wasn’t at all the figure that you see today. But then I got the idea, when looking at the audience, that it would be fun to be even better dressed than the best-dressed woman there, so Edna’s fashions improved. She changed with the times, so that in the Sixties she had a little psychedelic period and even wore a miniskirt. Later on in the Seventies she wore hot pants, and in the early Eighties she had a denim phase. She also had a significant Thai silk phase and lately she’s been wearing a great deal of chiffon and silk. The dresses are more expensive every time and sometimes they’re hand-painted. Edna even had a ‘Scream’ dress, based on the painting by Edvard Munch. It was moulded in a lightweight rubber material and looked like the painting; Edna just touched a button and the dress ‘screamed’.
Have you ever been tempted to kill off Dame Edna?
I do such a lot of things that I don’t ever think about this person much, unless I am actually on stage with her. I paint, I like writing books about other subjects, and I enjoy doing things on stage other than Dame Edna, so it’s not all my life; it’s just a little department of my life.
Do you have a favourite city or country in which to perform?
I like performing in America, England and Australia, and I divide my time between the three. I am married to an English girl so I live in England, but I am always travelling and rarely home.
Where does your love of performing come from?
I really don’t know, as there are no theatrical people in our family. I used to do little shows for my relations on Sunday afternoons, and they would all sit down and I would entertain them in some way. I was rather nervous and shy about it, so I would do a lot of my performances from behind a curtain, and when I was reluctant to perform, my mother would say, ‘Well, Barry, in that case pretend to be the wireless’ – pretending to be the wireless meant performing behind a curtain. But I never thought that I would be a professional actor, because there was no role model for me.
Dame Edna was cutting edge before the term had been invented
So, how did you find your way into the arts?
I drifted into the life as a university student when I studied law, philosophy and fine art, but mostly I was working in student productions. I was invited to join a new theatre company, which became the Melbourne Theatre Company, and once there I gravitated to humorous roles and then started writing monologues. I did a monologue satirising Melbourne life, playing the role of an old man in a dressing gown called Sandy. The audience laughed at Sandy and I found that I was doing something that hadn’t been done before in Australian theatre; that is to say writing a show about the Australia that everyone knew. Prior to that, people wrote about the Outback and comic but unreal characters derived from British farces. I was doing something different, closer to home. Some people thought I was being unpatriotic, that I was showing Australia to be a ridiculous place – but I felt that I was celebrating a neglected aspect of Australian life: the suburbs in which most Australians lived.
Why did you make the decision to go to London?
We all went to London. Every Australian one knew left as soon as they had enough money and went, usually, to England. I acted in plays, generally musicals by Lionel Bart, and then I got to know a group of people including Alan Bennett, Spike Milligan, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. I also started writing a comic strip for Private Eye called Barry McKenzie. It was about a rather dim-witted Australian living in London and having terrible trouble getting on with the English, and that proved to be a successful cult comic strip.
Dame Edna Everage
Was Sixties London as exciting as it sounds?
I think the legend of the Sixties in London has been somewhat over-coloured. Flower power was confined to a rather limited area, as the climate didn’t really suit that kind of San Francisco culture. But we did our best and I spent an amusing time with artists and writers, and I was always working in the theatre. We all had a lot of fun, but it had to come to an end and I went back to Australia where I decided I would live for about a year before coming back to London to launch one of my Australian shows in the West End, which is what I did.
Do you ever get stage fright?
Sometimes I’m so nervous I don’t feel I can actually do the show. However, I find that I’m nervous until the first laugh, and when I say something and the audience laughs, my nerves disappear and I can relax. And you know, I’m always someone else. I’m never myself on the stage, so I can conceal myself in this role with whoever it may be – it’s like the curtain from all those years ago, like pretending to be the wireless.
Creatively, when do you think you were most inspired?
Truthfully, I’d have to say that my early work is my best – I was inventing things and it was fresh. It gets harder because it’s very easy to fall back on old techniques. Sometimes I think to myself, ‘Thank God this is a new audience, I can try some of those old jokes.’ However, inspiration often comes on the spot and I’m good at improvising, and although I write a show as if it were a play, I rarely stick to the text. Most of the best things happen accidentally on stage because I always involve the audience, and Dame Edna, in particular, loves chatting to people.
If you had to choose one thing, what would you primarily describe yourself as?
A painter I think, because I love painting and I’m actually rather good, so I get a lot of pleasure from my own work.
I’m never myself on the stage, so I can conceal myself in this role with whoever it may be
What do you love about painting?
If you are painting, just sitting there looking at a landscape, looking out over the park, you can’t really worry about anything. You can’t think about tomorrow, you can’t think about yesterday – so you are living in the moment, and living in the moment, as the mystics would tell us, is the best way to live. The past is gone and tomorrow is yet to come. If you’re painting, you’re just living for that instant, so it’s a form of meditation for me. I always travel with paints and I’ve had exhibitions; I’m very lucky. I think people might want an autograph, which is why they buy, but some paintings I’m sorry to see the last of because they are like a diary. They record where I’ve been, so I try to keep one from every place that I go to.
Is it true that you own more than 25,000 books?
Oh yes, I’m a major book collector. They’re not hugely valuable, but they are in areas of special interest. I have a big collection of ghost stories and also 19th-century poetry, and then some books of the Twenties and Oscar Wilde. I’ve got a large collection of his stuff, often signed, manuscripts and things like that.
Do you enjoy travelling?
I do like travelling. I complain about it, but nothing gives me more of a lift than having a boarding card in my top pocket. I feel a sense of liberty. It’s an illusion of liberty, of course, because one has to go through increasing trials at the airport. However, it absolutely ruined me, that visit to Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong in those early days. As a travelling actor, I was used to motel accommodation where the hotels had linoleum on the floor and we ate curried sausages for breakfast. Mandarin was a little different!
Do you have a favourite Mandarin Oriental hotel?
Bangkok is very good and I love Mandarin Oriental, New York. I have spent months there. The location, in Columbus Circle, is wonderful and the service is good. But Hong Kong is my favourite because of nostalgia. I still wear a watch which I bought in the little Cartier shop in the hotel in the early Seventies with the profits from that cabaret.