‘I’m an amateur,’ Barry Humphries tells me. The Australian polymath uses the word in its older sense of ‘enthusiast’ rather than ‘bungler’ and he feels no need to point out the distinction. He’s in London to perform a three-week residency at the Barbican — Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret — with his fellow Australian Melissa Madden Gray, who uses the stage name Meow Meow. The show was inspired by Humphries’ fascination with Germany’s culture during the interwar years. ‘It was the last song before the nation slid into moral squalor. And I have a long-standing interest — I won’t say “passion” because one gets “passionate” about deodorants — but I have a long-standing interest in all pre-cataclysmic art. The art of the period just before a major catastrophe takes on an urgency. There are premonitory indications in the music.’
Are we living through a pre-cataclysmic era now? ‘We might be,’ he says, equivocally, perhaps unwilling to impart a tincture of political panic to our interview. He tells me that the Nazis labelled cabaret ‘degenerate’ but he finds it ‘vital’, refreshing and liberating. ‘It’s regenerative,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of joy and laughter in the music and in the audience as well. What I’m saying to people, is, “Here is something I’ve always liked and you might like it too.”’ This is the basis of his claim to be an ‘amateur’. ‘I only do things I enjoy, and if it pleases me it generally pleases the audience.’
On stage he dispenses with his world-famous characters Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson and appears as himself. He solemnly tells me that this is a tremendous professional challenge. ‘It’s a difficult impersonation. Playing oneself is the ultimate test of the character actor.’ Does he concur with performers who find the Barbican stage over-large and lacking in intimacy? ‘It’s biggish but not unmanageable.’ But he cordially loathes the ‘brutalist carbuncle’ in which it’s housed. ‘I’m always pleased to see the brutalist buildings of London decaying. I was delighted when I heard that cement can rot.’ He invented the phrase ‘senile cementia’ for the incipient dereliction of these 20th-century landmarks.
Because he travels constantly, he regards himself as essentially rootless. ‘I give my address as “Business Class Lounge, Terminal 5, Praying for an upgrade”.’ He recently toured Australia with a solo show, The Man Behind the Mask, which gave him an opportunity to ‘practise being me’ rather than playing his alter egos. He dislikes older comedians who perform shows ‘in which they review their brilliant careers’, and he’s especially dismissive of those who use alimony as a source of humour. ‘The mothers of one’s children deserve all you can give them.’ That sounds like a dig at John Cleese who in 2011 launched an Alimony Tour to cover a hefty divorce bill. But Humphries declines to scold individuals and sticks to generalities. ‘You can’t expect an audience to sympathise with well-off actors complaining about that. Not a crowd-pleaser.’
I ask if his biggest crowd-pleaser, Dame Edna Everage, has attracted the attention of trans activists, who are swift to take offence at anything they perceive as transphobic. I take him through their case in detail. They say that more than 40 per cent of trans men and women have attempted or considered suicide and from this they argue that because transphobia is capable of catalysing an act of self-harm it ought to be treated in law as a form of assault. ‘Terrible rat-baggery,’ he says. He calls transgenderism ‘a fashion — how many different kinds of lavatory can you have? And it’s pretty evil when it’s preached to children by crazy teachers’. He recalls provoking a torrent of outrage when he used the word ‘mutilation’ to describe gender-reassignment surgery. ‘They had their genitalia chopped off and tucked in and whatever they had to do. And that aroused a lot of indignation — probably among the people who’d spent a lot of money having it done. But I don’t think I’m right to pontificate. I’m really an actor.’ He proceeds to analyse the psychological frailties of his profession. ‘We’re an uncomfortable mixture of vanity and insecurity. Those two don’t fit comfortably together. But then,’ he says, switching tack, ‘we’re a pretty nice and generous lot too.’
His views on Brexit are similarly changeable. ‘I was for it, then against it, then for it, then against it. And then I realised I didn’t know anything about it. I felt prejudiced against Brussels. I had a little bit of an anti-Belgium feeling. Being bossed around by the Walloons was not to my taste. The lovely people in Tuscany, who for centuries have been cultivating olives, have been told to cut them down and grow grapes instead. What business is it of the Walloons what the people in Tuscany grow?’
I ask about his favourite character, the sybaritic diplomat Sir Les Patterson, whose boorish and sexist conduct carries a powerful echo of Donald Trump. Has the President stolen your act? ‘No, I don’t think so,’ he says. ‘I’m grateful to Trump for stirring up politics. And I won’t be joining any marches against him.’ His hope is to create a new show consisting entirely of Sir Les. ‘He has very fresh visions for England and he’s wonderful to perform because you can say whatever you like.’ Does he see an opportunity in the new climate of puritanism? ‘Yes! An opportunity to cause maximum offence.’
He talks uncomplainingly about the ‘incremental indignities’ of ageing. ‘Little things start to fail. Not much, I’m happy to say. I’m not jumping out of bed during the night, but I don’t hear very well.’ He now sports an ‘extremely sophisticated’ hearing aid. ‘But I now hear too well.’ He avoids noisy restaurants, ‘because I can hear a conversation on the other side of room’. He’s still happy to be ‘leaping about’ on stage and he feels confident that his friends will let him know if he starts to outstay his welcome. I ask about death and what happens to us next. Do we end up in heaven having that dinner party with Shakespeare, Pocahontas, Albert Camus and Charlie Chaplin? ‘Oh, I dare not even think about it,’ he shudders. ‘Whenever I do I get a bit fearful. I’m thinking of faking my own death and bribing someone at the Times to write an obit. Then I can see if the public are weeping, and how long it takes them to get over it. I have a feeling it won’t take them too long.’