Through Two Peepers in Tune with the Times

Dame Edna

Upstairs at Sardi's, New York's fabled theatre restaurant on 44th Street and Broadway.

Dame Edna Everage, housewife superstar, is giving a press conference to celebrate the awards she has received for her one-woman show and to announce the national tour that will take her the length and breadth of America.

"I am doing this against the advice of the man whose counsel I value above that of any other . . . my gynaecologist. He is an adorable person. He happens to be Julio Iglesias's father. Of course, he is getting on in years. His hand shakes terribly . . . not necessarily a bad thing in a gynaecologist."

Dame Edna is incorrigible, outrageous, adored. For nine months in New York she has played to capacity houses; she is the darling of the American television chat-show circuit; hardened hacks (who must know that she is, in truth, a 66-year-old man dressed up in a fright frock) applaud her as she arrives for the press conference and line up to be photographed with her as she leaves.

Dame Edna, la dame au gladioli, is an improbable creature: more than 6ft tall, with no bust to speak of, lilac hair ("I've reverted to my natural colour, possums"), double chins ("I've succumbed to plastic surgery -these chins used to be Elizabeth Taylor's love handles"), more pantomime dame than glamour puss - except for her legs. Dame Edna has incredibly slim, shapely, sexy legs. And dainty feet. I am sitting in the front row, right by them. She catches my eye. She stares at me beadily. It is quite alarming. "I know you," she rasps. "Tomorrow you're having lunch with my manager, Barry Humphries, aren't you? Take care. It grieves me to say it, but the man cannot be trusted."

SCENE 2

Twenty-four hours later, on East 54th Street, the spectacular penthouse apartment of Gillian Lynne, choreographer of Cats, Barry Humphries' New York base.

The view over the East River is breathtaking. Barry, soft-spoken, elegantly suited, a little weary but effortlessly urbane, is at the picture window pointing out the local landmarks. "Henry Kissinger lives over there. That's his bathroom. On a clear day you can see him flossing."

Has Kissinger been to see the show?

Barry narrows his eyes and purrs. "They've all been. Spielberg, Sondheim, Whoopi Goldberg. This time we're a hit. It's very nice." Last time was 1977. Edna had wowed London, but was a flop off Broadway. "An Adelaide newspaper carried a banner headline recording the disaster: 'BAZZA GOES DOWN IN NEW YORK LIKE A JAFFA DOWN THE LIFTWELL OF THE EMPIRE STATE'. For its imaginative ingenuity, and as a classic illustration of Australian Schadenfreude, I was almost proud to have inspired it."

Why does he think America has taken Edna to its heart this time around? "They're no longer so worried about cross-dressing. It used to disturb something profound in the American nature. It was almost pathological. Now I'm no longer preaching to the unconverted. They've seen Edna on TV. And I'm following the success of Benny Hill and Monty Python and Absolutely Fabulous. A lot of Americans think I'm British."

Humphries has a British wife, a London home, teenage sons at school at Stowe and Marlborough, but remains quintessentially Australian. He was born in a genteel suburb of Melbourne in February 1934. His father was a house-builder, his mother a housewife: they brought him up in the kind of respectable, aspirational milieu he has spent much of his adult life mocking. "John Betjeman understood suburbia. He said Wembley was Australia and Wimbledon was New Zealand - even though he'd never been to New Zealand."

He tells the story of taking his baby son Oscar to meet his mother for the first time, in the mid-1980s. "When we arrived she was listening to a phone-in on the radio. By a macabre coincidence, the topic was me. The ladies of Melbourne were ringing in to agree with the host of the show that 'Barry Humphries is selling Australia short overseas'. My mother looked up and said mournfully, 'You see Barry, that's what they think of you.'

"I went into another room, found the phone book and called the radio station. 'This is Dame Edna here. Put me on air.' They did, right away. 'Hello,' I said, 'I just want to say I adore your show, especially today. How I agree with all those wonderful women who are ringing you up. I know Barry Humphries better than anyone and he is dragging Australia through the mud as often as he can for base financial gain. The millions who laugh at his shows should be ashamed of themselves - and I happen to know that his mother agrees with me!'

"Trembling, I put down the phone and returned to the other room. My mother switched off the radio and shot me a dry smile. Then, as though nothing had happened, she held out her arms towards Oscar and said, 'Don't just stand there, I want to see my grandson.' She died soon after."

SCENE 3

1.30pm at Gustavino's, Terence Conran's swish, spacious, clattery Upper East Side eaterie. Barry eats lightly and drinks mineral water. He hasn't touched alcohol for many years. He drank to excess from an early age. Memorably, on his 21st birthday, a surfeit of rum and champagne caused him to crash his mother's car.

"I woke the next day with a terrible feeling of guilt, shame and impending doom. Thereafter, whenever I drank I always felt exactly the same way, although strange to say it never discouraged me. I always believed it would be different next time, that I would conquer the problem and eliminate the side-effects."

In time, Edna would become the inebriate woman, taking "fortifying nips" before the show, and Barry turned, in his own phrase, into "a dissolute, guilt-ridden, self-obsessed boozer." Not any more.

Today he strikes me as wonderfully sane, my kind of Renaissance man: he wears his learning lightly and he's ready to send himself up. He writes (a new volume of memoirs is on the way), he collects books, he paints landscapes in oils, he's an authority on surrealism. He goes to church. He shared with his friend (and alternative father figure) John Betjeman a love of the lost worlds of variety and music hall.

"As a child I listened to comics on the wireless such as Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch, Sid Field, Mr Pastry, Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge. Cyril Fletcher, with his Odd Odes, was a particular favourite. I feel part of that wonderful fellowship of the music hall." In his own way, Barry has been "working the halls" for 40 years. He likes to talk about his craft.

"The first essential, of course, is that the audience likes you. You don't have to be likeable as a person, but the audience must warm to your persona. Terry Thomas wasn't very nice, but audiences liked him. Jimmy Edwards was a difficult man, but the listeners loved him. In New York they like Edna. In Berlin they like Edna."

I interrupt: "Is that why all those Germans turned up at the press conference?"

"Yes. She's big in Germany. Her theme tune Edna uber Deutschland has an encouraging march tempo."

He skewers some onions contentedly. "Next, you've got to persuade the audience to play the game with you, enter the conspiracy, accept your character completely and without question. You do that by creating a world that, however absurd, is utterly believable. Detail is important. The audience enjoys seeing life through your eyes, being released for an hour or two from their own point of view. At all times you've got to maintain a mesmeric hold over them. If your concentration slips for a moment, they're aware that you've loosened the rein.

"You've got to be fearless. A fearful comic isn't going to be funny and the audience can smell fear instantly. At every performance you are walking a tightrope - without a safety net. Finally, whatever you do, make it memorable. Give them something they won't forget."

Supplying the unforgettable has long been a Humphries trademark. As the camomile tea is served, I ask him about the street theatre that was once his speciality. "You mean the Heinz Russian Salad routine?"

"Did you really do it?"

"Oh yes. Surreptitiously spilt and splashed in large quantities on the pavement, tinned Russian salad - consisting largely of diced potato in mayonnaise with a few peas and carrot chips thrown in - closely resembles human vomit. While disgusted pedestrians would give it a wide berth, I'd kneel down by one of the larger puddles, then produce a spoon from my top pocket and enjoy several mouthfuls."

"Why did you do it?"

"To provoke, to shock, to show off." He chuckles happily at the memory. At lunch the real surprise is to find how easy it is to talk to him about Dame Edna. Reading old cuttings, I had gained the impression that he would only talk about her as though she were a real person. Not so. She's a character, an act honed and developed over 44 years.

She evolved in the back of a bus. When Barry dropped out of university and started out as a young actor, in 1956, age 22, he played Orsino in a touring production of Twelfth Night. "It was mostly one-night stands on a variety of stages, in town halls, cinemas, assorted institutes. After the performance there was always a bun-fight provided by the local ladies, with an inevitable speech from one of them thanking us for bringing culture to the township.

As the tour progressed and we moved around Victoria from town to town, in the back of the bus, to entertain my fellow actors I offered my own fanciful parody of these good women. Later I revived the character for our end-of-season revue and decided to name her after my own nanny, who was called Edna."

"What happened to the real Edna?"

"I don't know. She was wonderful, but she was dismissed for some reason. I don't know why. I really don't. My mother never told me."

SCENE 4

4pm. Back in the apartment building, we are travelling up in the lift. Barry has his gimlet eye fixed on a fellow passenger's high heels. "You know, I could no more walk about in high heels than fly to the moon. Edna does things I could never do. Sometimes I have no idea - literally no idea - what she is going to say next."

Humphries has created a series of characters in his time: Edna; the gloriously gross cultural attache Sir Les Patterson; the wistful Sandy Stone (a Betjeman favourite). Currently he is working on a new one: a grasping Australian lawyer. "I think there's potential there, don't you?"

Would he like to do more straight theatre? "Yes, I might well go legit again. There's plenty of time. I could have a go at Malvolio, I suppose, and there are some roles in Ibsen I'd like to do. Oddly enough, I don't know many actors. I saw Derek Jacobi in a restaurant the other day [Jacobi is playing Uncle Vanya on Broadway] and we waved at one another. The company of actors can be rather tedious: that combination of vanity and insecurity."

"But isn't that you?"

He laughs. "You're right. It's a freakish formula, unattractive in others, but in me wholly engaging."

In the apartment we find Barry's fourth wife, Lizzie Spender (daughter of the poet, Stephen), sitting on the sofa going through details of the forthcoming tour. Barry has had four wives and numerous liaisons. He has lost touch with his first wife, the second two are "the mothers of my children", so he stills sees them. He seems a devoted father. "I must remember that I have a family" is one of the plaintive lines that echoes from his drinking years. His daughters are grown up and living in Australia. "Emily is an artist. Tessa was in Home and Away for a while. I'm a grandfather now. It's hard to believe."

SCENE 5

8pm. The Booth Theatre on 44th Street. Dame Edna: The Royal Tour is playing to yet another capacity house. For two and a half hours Dame Edna has the audience in the palm of her hand. She is formidable (in both the English and the French sense). She is vulgar ("I know Bill Gates. Don't ask me why, but there's something about Microsoft that reminds me of my late husband, Norm"). She is so politically incorrect you want to cheer - and you do.

The standing ovation is spontaneous and sustained. As we leave, a woman from Wisconsin turns to me and says, "Is he the funniest man on earth or what? Jack Benny, Bette Midler, Jackie Mason, I've seen the best. This guy is better."

SCENE 6

11pm. Dame Edna's dressing-room. Her frocks are hanging all around me. There's a never-ending line of shoes that would warm Imelda Marcos' heart. In the doorway stands Barry Humphries, looking 20 years younger than when I last saw him six hours ago. He is suddenly rather beautiful: debonair and decadent, it's Jack Buchanan meets Aubrey Beardsley.

"What did you think?"

"You were wonderful. You must be very happy."

"I am happier than I have ever been. Do you remember Michael Arlen's line: 'All I want is the respect of my children and the love of head waiters'? Well, all I want is the respect of my wife and children and the love of an audience."

Love,

Michael


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