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(Filed: 28/10/2002)

Behind the outrageous Dame Edna Everage lurks the tortured genius of Barry Humphries. Now 68, he talks to Sarah Sands

The undergraduates at Yale, slouching and bright eyed, are gathering at the Master's house. Outside, in the pretty street, a black limo pulls up. Barry Humphries, aged 68, steps out gingerly, draws himself up to his full, impressive height, flicks back his forelock of hair and sniffs the pristine October air.

Humphries: 'I would not say I was mad. I was a genius and out of luck'

He is wearing a navy blazer, yellow corduroy trousers and brogues, an outfit later completed with the purchase of a rakishly worn felt hat. His manner is that of an actor manager, mildly out of sorts. Earlier, he had protested vigorously about the vulgarity of the limo within earshot of the driver, who retaliated with extravagant praise of his last passenger, a celebrity and a gentleman.

"What was it, do you suppose, that made him a gentleman?" said Humphries, half to himself. "Perhaps he didn't interrupt the driver's boring monologue."

Apart from the car, there was the problem of the slightly dingy, high-rise hotel. Humphries sent a bunch of gladioli and a note to my room, carried with great pride by a young porter.

The note read: "Dear Sarah, Welcome to luxurious New Haven. I hope your stay in history-rich New Haven will be comfortable and enlightening. If you have any problems, please hesitate to contact the management. Yours truly, Barry Humphries, Public Relations Officer."

I begin to fear for the students. What if one of them enthuses about Hollywood at the expense of the hard graft of theatre? Imagine if a class extrovert crassly demands a few lines from Dame Edna? Barry Humphries is very clever and he is easily bored. He does not suffer fools; he extinguishes them.

But, for now, he is prepared to be nice. His wide, mobile mouth - which, with his large pale eyes, form the basis of Edna's comic disgust - is moving into a grin. He has brushed his teeth before his visit (the care of his teeth being a running concern).

"This is like Oxford, but with money," he nods, sweeping through the low, wood-panelled rooms. After tea - he holds his cup and saucer theatrically - we file down to the expensively restored, maple wood college theatre, about which the students are deferential.

Humphries settles himself donnishly in an armchair on the stage, and surveys the audience of eager, privileged faces. "Well, thank you for inviting me to your squash court."

Humphries has spent a lifetime mastering audiences. His shows stand or fall on his improvised relationship with them. His autobiography, about which I have come to interview him, is a series of sketches, rather than an organised whole. He is on constant lookout for any member of the audience furtively glancing down at his or her watch.

With this audience, Humphries tries theatrical reminiscence of Noel Coward plays and, when he is met with polite lack of interest, he finds their terms of reference. "Then I was asked to appear on Ally McBeal. Edna appeared in the whole series. And she brought it to a close."

He is professorial, charming and dangerous. He taunts them with observations about America. "Isn't the great thing about democracy that you can have a slave class - with a conscience? In Los Angeles, you can employ illegal immigrants to blow leaves."

Dame Edna: only just unleashed on Americans

Humphries is at his best confronting uncomfortable truths, and age has not mellowed him much. But it has put him in, as he calls it, "recollective mode". His new book is a second volume of memoirs. Strangely, these cover the same years as the first. "I remembered all the bits I left out," he shrugs.

Humphries' intelligence lends itself to short bursts of brilliance, rather than schematic thought. Three wives are dismissed in a matter of paragraphs, although this may be painful discretion rather than flippancy, as his most mordant jokes are about divorce lawyers. He is sharply observant of particulars and vague about the general.

There is a curious detachment to his autobiography - none of the anguish and self-justification we have come to expect from celebrity memoirs and none of the revelation about sexual partners that would have secured a fat serialisation deal. The anachronistic lack of self-pity persists, even through the blighted years of alcoholism in the late Sixties. Humphries says that he dislikes the self-congratulatory convention of ex-drunks and refuses to preach.

"I look back on my drinking period with some nostalgia. I was working through some of it. I do understand why people find drink so enjoyable; it can be a delightful adjunct to life. It takes the edge off things; gives you a bit of a blur. It is nice to lose the edge."

The compensation for existing in hard focus is that he is alive. He remembers "merry" friends in the Sixties, such as Dudley Moore and Jeffrey Bernard. "I feel like a survivor," he says. This is not actorly exaggeration. His alcoholism was so severe that it led to two spells in a psychiatric hospital. During the second stay, a doctor was about to administer "massive doses of LSD" as a kind of lobotomy.

"There was no alternative at the time. No one was speaking to me. Illness is like the end of a marriage."

But was he mad? Humphries looks reproachful.

"I thought it was a private nursing home - for sensitive people. No, I would not say I was mad. I was a genius out of luck. And remember, these were Edwardian houses, with extensions! And I was administered to by overworked doctors trying to save up for a second Mercedes."

Humphries reserves bitterness for those who have made money out of him: accountants, agents and, most particularly, divorce lawyers. However, there was one doctor about whom he is wholly generous.

"Dr Moon. He recommended the horrific prospect of abstinence. He introduced hope. You get to a point where you think that you just cannot go on. You have to reach rock bottom.

"In the late Sixties, I was in physical danger. And you have to live with the tremendous guilt. I had a young family. The only way you can get rid of this guilt is with the anaesthetic of drink. Every morning you think: 'Never again', and then, by the evening, you have a cocktail and you wonder what the fuss was about.

"Alcoholics do not drink like other people. They drink in order to change the world. It is a different kind of reality. A counterfeit spiritual experience. You think you can recapture youthful rapture, but you can't."

Youthful rapture is Humphries' ideal state. Despite the chilly end to his latest autobiography - "Death strides whistling towards me" - he refuses to contemplate old age. "It is not going to occur," he says.

In the book, he writes of his first marriage, to a ballet dancer called Brenda: "We had both been unfairly catapulted from a carefree adolescence into an irksome adulthood, with all its alarming responsibilities and daunting moral obligations. I chafed against this."

Acting, he concedes, is a childish activity. Among his late mother's many sayings that have been source material for Dame Edna is an exasperated cry: "Do you have to draw attention to yourself like that, Barry?"

Humphries' filial response may look like a lifelong act of revenge, but a fondness for his parents creeps into his second book. His childhood was unfashionably happy. He begins his book in a state of Eden: "On the beach at Frankston, on that sparkling January morning, five years into the Great Depression, I am adored."

He searches for ways of making his mother happy, consideration and empathy being an unexpected part of his complex character, and he is awarded the nickname "Sunny Sam". His later delinquency, artistically framed as Dadaism, is not caused by maternal neglect. Comic genius is born, not made. Humphries remembers his parents discussing, in hushed voices, where his character could possibly have come from.

"I don't know what happened to Barry," said his mother, sadly. "He used to be such a nice boy."

When Humphries met and married Lizzie Spender in 1990, the daughter of Sir Stephen Spender, and 16 years his junior, he apparently discovered the family he should have had. He is spellbound by the Spenders' intellectual liberalism and reverence for books. His mother had given away all his books to the Salvation Army because they were in the way; her one viciously ignorant maternal act. But had Humphries been raised in Hampstead rather than Melbourne, there would have been no comic tension. And now, in this phase of reflection and reconciliation, Humphries has become Melbourne's prodigal son.

"Australia doesn't exasperate me so much," he says, wistfully. "As a youth, I was interested only in European countries. I invented my stage characters to ridicule Australia as a boring, shrill, bigoted place. When I listened to music, it was English pastoral. Now, that music reminds me of Australia, English trees - Elm trees, English values."

I ask Humphries where he feels his home is. He blinks anxiously, as if he is being questioned by a child psychologist. His home would seem to be Hampstead, except that the house there really belongs to Lizzie, and he has spent far more time in America over the past few years. He has a "holiday attic" in Gstaad, he has been renting an apartment in New York, he lived in Los Angeles to be near his sons and their mother - his third wife, the artist Diane Millstead - and he has property in Melbourne.

"I don't live anywhere," he says, despairingly. "But when you are trying to sleep and you search for a comfort zone, then it is Australia that comes to me. I would like to end up in Melbourne."

Humphries is increasingly preoccupied with his past. Lizzie, with ironic echoes of his mother, has been begging him to clear out his books.

"I have tried," he whispers. "I make a pile of books, look through them, find a bus ticket that I can't throw away. Every invoice is a document of one's youth." He has a collector's realisation that he cannot cram in any more without discarding what he has already, which he acknowledges is a metaphor for his life.

His memory is remarkable - he flexes it in his shows with his recall of members of the audience - but there is another reason for collecting reminiscences. The book is dedicated to his children, Tessa and Emily (by his second wife, Rosalind, a dancer) and Oscar and Rupert. "In the hope that somewhere in these pages they might recognise their father."

There is no self-justification in the book, neither is there apology. Humphries has attempted something difficult for a character actor, which is self-revelation. After a heart-wrenching episode, recounted in his earlier autobiography, in which his daughter Emily is poisoned by some medicine and Humphries hears the alert go out on a cab's radio, he rebukes himself: "I must remember I have a family, I must remember I have a family."

The former delinquent child now frets, like any other parent, about the dangers of drugs and drink that threaten his sons, and about being rejected by his children. "When you are a parent, of course, you begin to understand what it was like for your parents."

There is no sign, at least, of cultural rebellion. Oscar is intent on becoming an actor, while Rupert wants to be a theatre director. Humphries' daughters act and paint.

Humphries himself replaced the "pharmaceutical miracle of drink" with the romantic miracle of Lizzie Spender. He spotted her in a restaurant and fell resolutely in love with her. Their marriage has survived absence, a sorrowful inability to have children together, and the Daily Mail's attempt to pair Lizzie with the young husband of Joan Collins after they were seated together at the Vanity Fair Oscar party this year. Humphries, who had been cropped out of the accusing photograph, was fiercely amused by it.

He is rapt whenever Lizzie's name is mentioned. The qualities that he cites are antithetical to his own: "Lizzie is a grown-up person. She doesn't need constant attention. She doesn't need me around. I am not a Svengali figure to her." She recently joined his American tour in Boston and is now caring for her sick mother and helping with a biography of her father.

Humphries turned to America when he found his popularity waning in Britain. Two years ago, he won a Tony award and he is now conducting a full-blown love affair with the American people, conquering them state by state, insult by insult.

"Every night, I feel I'm really connecting with the American people. But then I watch their TV and I think they are all Martians."

He enjoys the company of rich Americans, but remains an observer rather than a player. He composed a solemn ditty for Edna to mark former New Yorker editor Tina Brown's fall from power at Talk magazine: "I just gave Tina, my old Pashmina."

Humphries is also one of the few to have visited Jeffrey Archer in jail, because Archer once bank-rolled one of his shows. "And there he was, cheerful, phoenix from the ashes, you know."

Humphries is titillated by society, but entirely uninterested in politics. "Oh, I think of politics as a manly pursuit, like sport," he shudders.

Naturally, Humphries is being provocative. He is in New Haven, President Clinton's alma mater, playground for jocks. Furthermore, it is the cradle of American Puritanism, an area dotted with wooden churches and, as Humphries drawls, "political correctness".

Humphries does not currently appear on American television (though a Dame Edna talk show is planned), so the audience at the New Haven Shubert Theater does not know how the show works. They file naively into the front rows - academic couples, kindly, cake-baking women, refined gays. Some are not aware of Edna's persona. A couple behind me argue politely during the interval. "Is it a man?" "No, sweetie, she's just big, she can't help it."

Yet the audience offer up their shoes into a gigantic fishing net and file on to the stage where they are dressed, in cross gender, as members of the Royal Family. A small, elderly woman, who has been relentlessly questioned about her condo, stands blinking and defenceless in Prince Charles ears and a suit that trails the ground. Her husband collapses with laughter in the audience.

How deeply is Edna prepared to offend New Haven's delicate sensibilities? She gaily attacks the "paupers" in the cheap seats. "Cling on paupers, cling on! We don't want a downpour of the disenfranchised, a Niagara of nonentities." She throws out her gladiolis and sings with maternal innocence about her dear son, Kenny, a former air steward who now shares a room with Clifford, collects antiques (she rolls her eyes) and has friends in Connecticut.

When her audience are roaring and cheering, she takes her risks. She throws out her gladiolis and orders a mass thrusting and trembling. A beautifully dressed black man in the front row is singled out because his broken stalk is foreshortened. Surely, Edna wouldn't?

"Well, that's shattered a widely held myth," she croaks.

Then, finally, a group of local male theatrical stalwarts in open-necked shirts crowd on to the stage to present the performer with bouquets on behalf of the community. Edna throws up her hands: "Friends of Kenny's!" she bellows.

As I climb blamelessly into my hotel bed that night, the telephone rings. It is Barry Humphries. "What are you doing? Won't you come out with us?" It is a voice brimming with youthful rapture.

A good audience is the best antidote to encroaching old age. Humphries may have scraped rock bottom in his life, but he has a vaudeville faith in happy endings. His motto is: "All will be well."

-- Anonymous, October 28, 2002


Such a character! LOL

Good motto, too.

-- Anonymous, October 28, 2002

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