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Diary

Barry Humphries’s diary: My war with ‘Wow!’

Plus: The posthumous wit of Oscar Wilde and the curious poignancy of Murder, She Wrote

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

I’m counting ‘Wows!’ Suddenly everyone is using this irritating expletive expressing incredulity, amazement and nothing at all. I’ve heard it from the lips of daughters in law, professors of literature, rabbis and housewives. No doubt at least one priest has said it after a particularly lurid confession. It is spreading like leprosy over ordinary discourse and will, in time, die out like ‘Zounds’ or ‘Gee whizz’. I wonder if it will turn up as an anachronism in Downton Abbey? I saw on television the other night a superb production of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls with great performances from David Thewlis, Ken Stott and Miranda Richardson. The adaptation was impeccable and no one said ‘Wow!’ but there was a jarring moment when one actor referred to ‘the bottom line’, briefly wrenching me back into the present.

Another star-studded celebration of Oscar Wilde (his birthday) at the Langham Hotel, hosted by Gyles Brandreth and Oscar’s grandson Merlin Holland. Some ignorant malapert said in the Observer the other day that Wilde never wrote anything when he came out of the slammer. What about De Profundis and the post-vinicular Ballad of Reading Gaol? And what about his voluminous discarnate witticisms, many dictated in automatic writing to Mrs Hester Travers Smith, the distinguished medium. ‘Being dead is the most boring experience in life, if, that is, one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster.’


I’ve lately fallen into the habit of chewing the right corner of my lower lip in moments of scepticism. I know why I do it. It’s an unconscious homage to that great actor Michael Kitchen, who invented this mannerism for his flawless impersonation of Christopher Foyle in my favourite TV show. I’ve watched Foyle’s War countless times and my admiration for the writer Anthony Horowitz, Mr Kitchen, glorious Honeysuckle Weeks and their satellites continues to grow. John Betjeman would certainly have worshipped Sam in her ATS uniform and lyle stockings. If Hester Travis Smith was still with us, I’m sure that Betjeman would send her Ouija board spinning at the mere whiff of Honeysuckle.

Other shows I enjoy late at night on my new TV set are Murder, She Wrote and The Professionals, the latter for its pacey, modern camerawork and its glimpses of old London in the far-off 1970s, when phones rang and characters picked up cordless handsets the size of small cars. Angela Lansbury’s wonderful series set in Cabot Cove — surely the murder capital of the world — is riveting, not just because one can never get enough of Angela Lansbury, but because all the male characters have terrible wigs and the women have hair and shoulders that fill the screen. Some of these late-night diversions have, for me, a certain poignancy as I count the few cast members who are still alive.

Last weekend I was in Nice with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley for their new Ab Fab movie. I played a small but striking role as the sleazy old boyfriend of Patsy at a pool party festooned with Russian babes. My usual theatrical work is rather solitary, so this was a heart-warming tonic. Later, gorgeous Miss Lumley and I dined in a modest bistro, but I noticed a middle-aged couple at a nearby table were staring rather hard at my companion. ‘ENT,’ I whispered across the table. It was my mother’s customary acronym when, during my early schooldays, she took me to one of her ladies’ luncheons in a Melbourne tea shop and noticed a rather conspicuously dressed couple at a nearby table: the woman rather loud and toothy, the man in mustard-coloured corduroy trousers, suede shoes and houndstooth jacket with un-Australian side vents. ‘ENT.’ English Next Table. Sure enough the star of Absolutely Fabulous had been clocked by a British tourist. ‘I’m so sorry to interrupt your privacy,’ he said, husky with reticence. He then politely expressed his admiration for several of Miss Lumley’s achievements; compliments she received with her habitual grace. Oddly enough, I went unrecognised, although on reflection the nice man from Ealing might have been too awestruck to accost me.

On the Côte d’Azur the dead have the best views; it made me think of Gstaad, where the best aspect of the valley is from a hostel for the blind. I drove over to Menton yesterday and climbed the hill to the cemetery to pay my respects at the tombs of Aubrey Beardsley and Katherine Mansfield. A night off last Saturday in the restaurant at the Negresco in Nice, a marvellous belle époque hotel which, alas, has been expensively ‘reimagined’ by a colourblind decorator and kitsch-meister and been utterly ruined. ‘Vulgarity is the rich man’s modest contribution to democracy,’ posthumously quipped Oscar Wilde to Mrs Travers Smith in 1928. Wow!

Barry Humphries is the creator of Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage.

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