RIP THE MOONEE PONDS MUSE
My journalist and author father, Desmond Zwar, was an early Barry Humphries booster. He regularly wrote about him and sometimes drank with him. Here’s an extract from Dad’s memoir, The Queen, Rupert and Me, where he captures the essence of Humphries - an artist who was charming and inventive and sometimes cruel.
BY DESMOND ZWAR
I had finished my column one afternoon and filed it when there was a call from Pat, the enthusiastic PR woman for ABC television at Ripponlea. “We are rehearsing a new show and there’s a man on it you just have to see. He’s incredible! It’s his first time on television. Can you come down at nine o’clock?” I wasn’t sure. Nine o’clock was the middle of the night! Pat, though, was a sweet, underpaid enthusiast and the ABC’s ratings were a dismal third behind the commercials; so I agreed.
The set at Ripponlea was a tangle of cables, glaring overhead lights and voices booming down from the glassed-in directors’ booth. At the far end, stood a large bed, tilted on an angle so its inhabitant could be seen and filmed. He was an elderly fellow in a night-cap and an old-fashioned full-length nightdress half-covered by a check dressing-gown. He clutched a hot-water bottle to his chest and he was writing a letter; his quivering, lisping voice reciting what he was writing to his wife, Beryl, apparently at sea on her way to England on a Woman’s Weekly packaged tour. “Dear Beryl, I’m missing you already, my dear. Things are going along here at Humouresque Street; I have been watering the gladdiessss ... and Next Door have been very good inviting me in for the odd, occasional game of Five Hundred ...” A piano in the background tinkled: ‘It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow’.
Sandy Stone, the gentleman in the bed, sounded as though he might have a problem surviving until Beryl eventually made it home to Moonee Ponds. His voice, (later described by its portrayer as ‘high and scratchy with a sibilance caused by ill-fitting teeth’) rose and fell with long pauses, often repeating words. The cameramen filming the scene with their lumbering, cumbersome equipment, were silently laughing, one had tears in his eyes as the old fellow droned on ...
“What do you think?” whispered the enthusiastic Pat.
“I think he’s a genius! Who is he?” I replied.
“Barry Humphries,” she said.
Barry emerged from the dressing-room, tall, pale-faced, with an anxious look and long hair dangling over his right eye. He thanked me for my enthusiasm and said he’d actually cut a gramophone record with Sandy Stone on it; if I’d like to meet him next day he’d give me one. He hoped I might find space to mention it in my column. The 45 rpm record, now a collector’s piece, was a frighteningly accurate and cruel send-up of vapid suburban lives, called: “Wildlife in Suburbia”. On it, Sandy described the everyday dramas in his life: the ‘strife parking the vehicle at an important football semi-final’ and coming home ‘to find The Herald all over the lawn’, excitement at fever-pitch on a Saturday morning when he thought he’d lost Beryl in the ‘Foodarama’. ‘However, fortunately, she had the good sense to go back to the vehicle.’
My enthusiasm for this then unknown genius was quickly shared by thousands as the ABC-TV ‘special’ went to air. But there were some Melburnians stung by the realisation that he was describing the reality of their own lives, and they hated it. Others, bored out of their minds by conservative old Melbourne and trying to either get out of it or make it more interesting, hailed Barry as a star. Riding high, he took off for London; later to fight what was to become a serious drink problem.
My own return to England on a ship called the Johann Van Oldenbarneveldt, almost coincided with his. And our paths crossed. When I heard Barry was to have his own show at The Establishment, a small Soho experimental theatre, I got together a group from the Australian Downunder Club so we could give him encouragement and show our enthusiasm. The “Downunder”, a basement in Fulham for homesick or just lonely Australians, had a sawdust floor, with ledges along the wall for glasses, a small dance-floor and a hectic bar that served draught beer and pints of lethal cider.
Rolf Harris, shy and eyes-down, played his accordion and sang on Thursday nights to a crowd that had lost its sobriety by nine o’clock. Mein Host was Ken Warren, an actor who had starred in ‘The Summer of the 17th Doll’. He was a nuggety, rugby-playing bruiser who stood no nonsense from his clientele. A reporter friend of mine was told by Warren he was ‘barred’ from the club until he mended his ways. “What’s the charge!” bawled the tragic-eyed Wally.
“Drunkenness,” replied Warren.
The enthusiasts from the Club now loyally packed the first two rows of The Establishment and clapped and cheered Sandy Stone and his satire on Melbourne. Behind us the Poms sat puzzled; they had obviously missed the point. The pathos of losing Beryl in the Foodarama flew over their heads. Barry’s season was cut short.
Barry and I made an appointment for a drink next day and by now he had embraced his scripts as his own style; when we met he said it was good to see me ‘after such a long period of time’. I apologised for being a few minutes late. He looked at his watch and said it was now ‘approximately in the vicinity of eleven o’clock’.
Humphries’ genius by now hid a strange sense of humour at variance with the stage archness of his alter-ego Dame Edna. He was known to go to incredible lengths to perpetrate jokes, the reaction to which in most cases, occurred long after he had departed the scene.
After the failure at The Establishment, he took one of his first steps to fame and fortune understudying Fagin in ‘Oliver’. Over a drink or three, he revealed to me that every night after rehearsal, he would stop at Boots, the all-night chemist in Piccadilly Circus, and ask to buy ‘a large bar of Lux toilet soap’. When the assistant took it down from the shelf Barry would place ninepence on the counter and then turn to walk out of the brightly-lit shop. “Sir! You have forgotten your soap!”
“Oh,” Barry would gravely reply. “I only wanted to buy it.” And he would continue on his way into Piccadilly, the baffled assistant replacing the soap on the shelf. This went on for a week.
On the final night Barry actually took the soap, having paid for it. And the assistant, who had become accustomed to the ritual, said, surprised: “Do you actually want the soap tonight, Sir?”
“Oh how silly of me,” said Barry, returning the cake of soap to the counter and walking out. He had, however, switched the real soap for a bar of lard he had enclosed in a Lux wrapper. The joke would only happen when some English person got into a shower or a bath and tried to lather themselves with a bar of Lux purchased from Boots ... He would not be there to witness the furore and could only surmise the degree of anger. Odd?
One weekend he invited me to a party at his North London home and as he was farewelling his guests his pregnant wife felt sick and vomited—all over a stack of his books placed incongruously in the middle of the hallway. He grabbed her, pushed her aside, and cried, “My books! My books!” They were first editions of some obscure author and far more urgent to save than his fainting wife.
Back again on the Daily Mail, I met him in the reporters’ room at the height of his career as the Dame, when he surely needed no more publicity. He was arranging something with the Picture Editor.
The following morning, in snooty Sloane Square, a queue waiting at the bus shelter noticed a tramp in the gutter on the opposite side of Sloane Avenue. To the horror of well-dressed Sloane Rangers and dark-suited gentlemen who were Something in the City, the tramp, wearing a torn, stained overcoat, hand-mittens and battered hat, shuffled across the road to a steel rubbish receptacle bolted to the power-pole beside the people queuing. Bankers buried their noses in The Times, pretending to be oblivious of the scene, as the odious tramp rummaged in the bin. First he dragged out a wrapped ice-bucket, which had in it a frosted bottle of Moet et Chandon champagne, and a glass, which he placed in the gutter. He reached in again and hauled up a foil-wrapped parcel which he tore open revealing a roast chicken. Happy, he sat down in the gutter, sipping the champagne and tearing off pieces of chicken while the queue shuffled forward and for them, mercifully to board a double-decker bus.
The joke was how the Sloane Rangers would later talk about what they had seen on the way to their business. The photographer recording the faces and their reactions from the other side of the road had nearly wet himself. Again, Barry could only imagine the scenes at the offices ... Odd?
Perhaps his weirdest effort was the morning he boarded the District-line tube at Wimbledon, which was beginning its journey and was sparsely filled. Wearing heavy dark glasses, as though he was blind, he clutched a pianola-roll in his hands, ‘reading it’. He had his right foot encased in a huge bandage, as if he had gout, and he placed a stack of large parcels on the empty seat next to him. As the train began its journey, it steadily filled with rush-hour passengers. By the time it got to Gloucester Road, there were many strap-hangers and others crammed by the doors. The ‘blind man’s’ parcels remained beside him, taking up the empty seat; the British, forever courteous and sympathetic, said nothing and clutched straps when they found no place to sit.
Two stations on, a ‘German’ entered the compartment, pushing his way through to where Barry sat. He had on lederhosen, hob-nailed hiking boots and a Tyrolean hat. Under his arm he carried a copy of Die Welt. Grasping the strap over the empty seat he started muttering loudly about parcels taking up room unnecessarily. The blind Barry ignored him and went on ‘reading’ his Braille, lips moving.
At last the German hiker could contain himself no more. Shouting “Donner und Blitzen!” he savagely kicked the blind man’s bandage-encased foot, then angrily pushed his way out of the tube train. There were cries of sympathy, people asking Humphries if he was all right. He held a shaky hand in the air and said: “Forgive him. He is German.” Then he went on with his ‘reading’.
By now his Dame Edna Everage had made Barry rich and famous; the fame bringing with it an increasingly serious problem with the bottle. Roy Dickens, an English freelance photographer I worked with, had become bewitched by him and became his drinking companion. It was a nerve-wracking idolatry, because the ‘happier’ Humphries became, the worse became his jokes. He carried with him an early-model, dark red Qantas in-flight plastic hold-all that every flight passenger was given years ago. When he got drunk, it was Dickens’ job to make sure it wasn’t left behind in the last pub. One afternoon as they lurched out of a taxi in Fleet Street to go to yet one more pub, Dickens, carrying Humphries’ red bag walked a little way ahead. There was a shrill cry behind him. It was Humphries. “THIEF! STOP THAT THIEF! HE HAS MY BAG!”
Even sober, which was becoming a rare occasion, Barry’s humour was sometimes embarrassing. He’d got the part of a wandering troubadour in a West End musical, ‘Maggie May’ and had given me two tickets. Dressed as a tramp in the Lionel Bart operetta, he carried a drum on his back, cymbals between his knees and a mouth-organ wired in front of his mouth. He was to open the show, and as the curtain went up there was Humphries, eyes gleaming, making a discordant racket with his one-man band. Then he spotted me and a friend in the front row. “Jeez, that’s Des sitting there! How ya goin’ Des?” The audience roared with laughter as I tried to lose myself in my seat.