Dame Edna is hanging up her tiara. From now on the ‘failed comedian’, as Edna calls her alter ego Barry Humphries, will have to make do without her. Her current tour includes a run at the London Palladium but after she’s graced the provinces, it’s adios, possums. Her last ever live show is currently bringing (I paraphrase her website) a spooky old resilience to people’s lives through laughter, prayer and a life-enhancing enzyme called Vitamin E — that’s E for Edna.
The truth is, Barry can’t face touring any more. He is 79 and sick to the back teeth of trendy hotels with their moody lighting and minimalist nonsense. The last straw came when he was unable to turn off the bedside phone’s flashing message light and was obliged to drape his pants over the blinking thing. The current farewell show (directed by Simon Phillips, an Aussie big shot) is, by his standards, mega-budget, he tells me in a boutique Soho hotel suite of precisely the sort that has driven him to retire. We sit over tea and talk about his swansong, which he describes in his trademark tones of droll mockery.
‘The show’s set is suburban back garden where it all began. Generic is the word. I’ve got a good group of dancers, the Ednaettes and a Balinese pianist who operates what are now called “keyboards”. It’s in two acts and it comes down in time for you to get the car, get home and pay the babysitter. I used, like a lot of musical hall comics, to go on and on, but I have stopped doing that because I have found people are happier if the curtain comes down at 10.30. When I saw Ken Dodd [whose shows are up to five hours long], the entire elderly audience must have been wearing Depends.’
Depends are the incontinence pants of choice among Australian senior citizens. Indeed the show is really a farewell to the damp gussets of the Melbourne suburb of Moonee Ponds where Humphries grew up (it now has an Everage Street) and where many of his stage creations have their roots. The good news is that Edna, global icon and gigastar, will be appearing on the same bill as her despised social inferior, Sir Les Patterson, the hilarious, truly disgusting Australian cultural attaché with a camel’s thirst for chardonnay and a roving eye for a sheila’s bum. Sex, says the reeking Sir Les, is the most beautiful thing that can happen between a happily married man and his secretary.
‘Les I enjoy performing more than ever. In the show he has become a celebrity chef who cooks on stage. Les has very bad gastroenteritis and has to rush off a few times in a great hurry, leaving audience members on stage helping with the cooking of his gourmet rissoles. As a result of delving into mincemeat every night, I have actually become vegetarian. It’s true! Edna disapproves of Les and assures the audience he is only in the show at the insistence of the nonentity producer Barry Humphries. The audience, you see, always accepts Edna at her own estimation of herself.’
The overlooked point about Edna is that for all her TV fame, Humphries is completely a creature of the live stage. When he arrived in London in the late 1950s, he zealously attended surviving music halls such as the Met on the Edgware Road, and was entranced. ‘I remember aerial views of the stage from the gods and I felt I was in a painting by Walter Sickert — that’s how arty I am! I saw a lot of old performers like Hetty King, the celebrated male impersonator. It was the last whiff of the old London, the London that drew me with other Australians — Germaine Greer, Clive James, Bruce Beresford, Bob Hughes — like salmon to the spawning ground.’
For fans of his oeuvre, the current show dubiously resurrects boring old Sandy Stone, based on a character who lived near his parents’ house. After leaving university without a degree, Barry got a job at a record company and had the ‘Dada-istic’ task of smashing 78s with a hammer. (‘Sibelius, Brahms, Bing Crosby, Delius — all shards of shellac!’) ‘The point is, I had to go to work on the train with our neighbour Mr Whittle whose monologues about his life, delivered in a sibilant voice thanks to an ill-fitting denture, were so excruciatingly boring they had a poetic quality that transcended the tedium. I tried writing for a character based on him. I recorded it on a 45 rpm and it had great success in London. They fell about. It was very popular amongst expatriate Australians who played it and realised they had done the right thing in leaving.’
If you can face the boredom of Sandy, Edna comes on as the reward. But her time, too, is now nearly up. Will he miss the pleasure of performing the mauve-rinsed monster? ‘At the risk of sounding pretentious, Edna performs herself,’ says Barry pensively. ‘I recently had to do something on the telly, The One Show, which is live, and I was very tired. I thought, “I think I’ll leave it to Edna,” and she took over very comfortably while I stayed in the dressing room, as it were. I find these days that very often she says things I wish I had said.’
Remarkable and rare a solo artiste as Humphries undeniably is, we have much to thank the late Mrs Humphries for in his askance look at the world of celebrity. Decades ago she would take her boy to the theatre in Australia to watch sad, past-it British stars on tour and her damning interval verdict was invariably, ‘It’s pathetic at his age!’ A refrain that gave Barry the title for a book and a reminder that now is the time to quit before he becomes senile as well as pathetic. ‘Yes, it’ll be a bitter-sweet moment when I throw the last gladdy,’ muses Edna’s other half, crossing his elegantly shod feet as he slumps deeper into the sofa. ‘To me, that flower symbolises the thrusting, vulgar optimism of my mother’s generation. She was always going off to social functions she called “hats and glads”.’
Does he ever find himself resenting the gorgon who has given him such a strange living? ‘No resentment, but I suspect the bereavement won’t be too severe. I pride myself a little that my work has always been for my own amusement. As soon as I cease to be amused by it, you will too. I want to go out with guns blazing and glads flying.’
Barry Humphries’s Eat Pray Laugh begins in Milton Keynes on 23 October and ends in Manchester in March 2014. For details of tour: http://www.dameednafarewell.com