Bay Citee Molars
Ben Van Der Velde
Boy With Tape On His Face
Brian Damage & Krysstal
Born in the Melbourne suburb of Kew, Humphries was educated at Melbourne Grammar School and Melbourne University, where he read law, philosophy and fine arts. There he staged anarchic Dadaist pranks and exhibitions, with exhibits such Pus In Boots – a pair of Wellingtons filled with custard.
He began his stage career in 1952, writing and performing songs and sketches in university revues. At the start, Humphries had ambitions for straight theatre and toured in Shakespeare plays and joined the newly formed Melbourne Theatre Company.
But the major turning point occurred in 1955, when he created Mrs Norm Everage, a suburban Melbourne housewife who has over the years evolved into the glamorous gladioli-wielding 'gigastar' Dame Edna that has made his fortune.
In Sydney, in the late Fifties, Humphries joined the Philip Street Revue Theatre, Australia's first home for intimate revue and satirical comedy which allowed him to develop a cast of character such as grandfatherly Sandy Stone, sleazy trade union official Lance Boyle and socialist academic Neil Singleton.
In 1959 he moved to London and became part of the so-called Satire Boom, working alongside the likes of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook – performing at Cook's club The Establishment and starring in their film Bedazzled as Envy. He also worked with Joan Littlewood's groundbreaking Stratford East theatre company, and played Long John Silver at the Mermaid Theatre.
While in the UK he developed the cartoon strip about rugged Outback adventurer Barry (Bazza) McKenzie, who predated Crocodile Dundee and real-life Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. The character started life in Private Eye, but his exploits were also made into a film.
Humphries also appeared in numerous West End stage productions including the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! and Spike Milligan's The Bed Sitting Room.
Since this first foray into London, he has split his time between England, Australia and sometimes the USA – which he only really cracked with his 2000 Broadway show, one of innumerable solo shows he's performed around the world, usually as Dame Edna with other characters in a supporting role.
But his first London show, in 1962, was slated by the critics, and it took him seven years to return to the West End stage - eventually cracking it with his 1976 production Housewife, Superstar! The only other actor ever to appear on stage with Humphries in his stage shows has been Emily Perry, who played Edna's put-upon sidekick Madge.
Dame Edna has also made numerous TV appearance, including her own LWT chat show The Dame Edna Experience and a recurring guest role in Ally McBeal.
Humprhies' most famous creation after Dame Edna is slobbish Australian cultural attache Sir Les Paterson, who made his debut in 1974. The character was a hopeless drunk, and in reality Humphries too has battled a drink problem. In the early Seventies he was found unconscious in a gutter after a binge, and his parents checked him into a drying-out clinic. Since then, he has abstained.
He was awarded a CBE in the 2007 Birthday Honours, and among his other accolades are an Order of Australia in 1982, an honorary Doctorate of Law at Melbourne University in 2003, a Montreaux Golden Rose for his 1991 show A Night On Mount Edna, and a Tony award in 2000. His autobiography More Please won the J.R. Ackerley prize for biography in 1993
Humphries has been married four times; his fourth wife Lizzie Spender is the daughter of British poet Sir Stephen Spender. He has two daughters and two sons.
At the end of 2007, he underwent appendix surgery in Sydney, but developed complications that forced him to quit work for six months.
Last Night Of The Poms
Dame Edna hasn’t performed Last Night Of The Poms for 28 years. It may be churlish to say so, but maybe there’s a good reason for that.
For dress it up how you may, at the core of this show is a 40 minutes of a man with a sparkly frock and terrible singing voice screeching his way through some simplistic, not-especially-funny lyrics in tribute to his native Australia. That might make a funny 30 seconds on Britain’s Got Talent, but, strewth, is it soul sapping in the flesh.
And dress it up, Barry Humphries certainly has. This is a phenomenal production, with the full might of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by the piece’s co-creator Carl Davis, and backed with a choir that must feature 120 voices.
It’s an awesome display of musical talent, wasted on this cod cantata which follows an entirely predictable trot though Australian history, from convicts via goldrush to an unembellished list of Aussie celebrities from Hugh Jackman to Peter Andre. The lyrical highlights go no further than the couplet ‘It’s my idea of heaven/and the Prime Miniser’s called Kevin’ and racially dubious ‘[Cpt Cook] perished poor chap, in an Abo attack’.
The whole endeavour smacks of a vanity project that’s spiralled way out of control, when money or scale have ceased to be an obstacle. But then no one does vanity with quite the same style as the housewife gigastar (inflation seems to be in force with the prefix that quantifies her fame). When she’s posturing away trying to fake sympathy for the paupers in the upper-circle cheap seats, or boasting of her glamorous life with friends like Elton John and the Duchess of Cornwall forever on the phone, she’s on glitteringly bitchy form, with banter as slick, and as gloriously condescending, as it ever was – even though Humphries is 75 years old.
But such pointed badinage is strictly limited to make way for the musical centrepiece, which singularly fails to raise the same rousing spirits of its Proms near-namesake, despite one patriotic punter bringing an Australian flag into the auditorium. Indeed a small, but noticeable, number of punters start drifting away from their £65 seats before the show’s end. Maybe it’s to catch trains to suburban homes, as the night is long, but maybe because the show is getting just too self-indulgent and under-funny.
In support, Humphries’s cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson suffers the same problems. His musical piece is Peter And The Shark, an Australianised version of the Prokofiev piece, with various instruments illustrating various characters drawn from antipodean fauna in a tedious gag-light story, slowed to a wearying pace by the soloists’ interludes.
Yet again, when he’s left to his own devices, Patterson’s a delight. Sure, a lot of the comedy comes from Strine slang such as ‘budgie smugglers’ for Speedos or other cheap innuendo, but he does it excellently, with all the exaggerated flair of a pantomime grotesque.
But mostly, he’s funny for no more sophisticated reason that the arching waterfalls of phlegm that spew from his mouth and over the audience every time he hits a plosive ‘p’ sound, which seems to occur with undue frequency. If the front row had dipped into the Royal Albert Hall merely to avoid the downpour outside, they would have found themselves more drenched inside the building than out.
They would not be the only people disappointed with a show that seemed to trade too much on Humphries’s weaknesses and not enough on his strengths. Had he decided to save himself £40,000 or so and dispense with the massed musicians, and relied solely on his considerable wit to entertain the audience, we would all have been happier. For as it is, this revival is very much like Australia itself – with huge expanses of tedious nothingness between isolated centres of no-nonsense fun.
|Date of live review: Wednesday 16th Sep, '09|
Review by Steve Bennett
I've always found him clever, rather than funny, as contrasted with Peter Cook who was clever AND funny. Humphries cake-and-eat-it relationship with NewsCorp and Murdoch have always left a funny taste - but I'm a 'Star Wars' fan so I can't criticise an act signed to NewsCorp or Sky, really.
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Les Patterson Saves The World