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University of Melbourne Magazine
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  • A mega star is born

  • Barry Humphries

    Memories of Melbourne: Barry Humphries. Picture: Nic Walker

    BY MICHAEL SHMITH

    It is hard to believe that Edna Everage, who did not study at the University of Melbourne, actually made her stage debut there. On the night of December 13, 1955, a demure Melbourne housewife from Humoresque Street, Moonee Ponds, was an unexpected performer in a show called Return Fare, the annual revue of the fledgling Union Theatre Repertory Company. Mrs Norman Everage appeared opposite the late actor Noel Ferrier in a two-hander, Olympic Hostess. It is even harder to believe that Edna’s almost-as-famous artistic assistant, Barry Humphries AO CBE, who did study at the University of Melbourne (“I did law, then I did British history for a bit, then English and philosophy, and finally fine arts”), was not keen at all at putting Edna on the boards. But then Edna and Barry have seldom seen eye to eye. 

    This is a story that needs to be told, and Humphries is just the person to tell it. Before that, however, it is important to place matters in perspective. 

    In 1955, the University was a smaller and vastly different place than what it is today. “Even then, it had a collection of some of the ugliest buildings in Melbourne,” Humphries says. “But it did have the Gothic-Revival Law School. The Wilson Hall had just been burned down, but there were bits of lawn that hadn’t been built over yet, and students could be seen sitting under the trees, reading.” 

    Humphries was a member of the Union Theatre, the forerunner of the Melbourne Theatre Company. “It was housed in the Union Building. On the left, as you went into the Union, was a bas-relief, a marble thing, of an oriental scene, ‘The Wheel of Life’. It was frequently disfigured with what only later came to be known as graffiti. 

    “I was very bad at learning my lines, and getting smaller and smaller roles. I knew I was being phased out when I finally got a job in a play, Of Mice and Men. I had to be a dog, barking offstage. I was very good at it. I managed to bark correctly, with textual fidelity. But I knew it was the end. My only salvation was going to be the annual revue.” 

    The revue’s content, written by all the company members, was determined at a series of meetings held in a little office next to the Wheel of Life. Humphries recalls: “The director of the company was Ray Lawler, who on the quiet had written something called Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which sounded like a Tennessee Williams pastiche. No one expected much of it. Anyway, he asked me, ‘Would you write something? Why don’t you do something like that woman you do on the bus?’” 

    The woman on the bus was invented by Humphries during one of the Union Theatre’s excursions into country Victoria. “We were touring Twelfth Night, and everyone sang and did things to cover the boredom. At every town we played, local ladies would give a little supper. Then one of the ladies made a speech, thanking Mr Lawler and his company for bringing culture to, say, Benalla. She would say how lovely it all was. When I did my little monologue at the back of the bus, I impersonated some such lady – the dentist’s wife, or whoever she was – and what speech she might make. It got more elaborate and absurd. 

    “I employed a falsetto, which I discovered I had. The company heard just the voice of this lady. I called her Edna, after a sort of nanny who looked after us. I liked her very much.” 

    Edna Everage

    Australian treasure: Dame Edna Everage.

    Back to the revue, and this pithy interchange between Lawler and Humphries. 

    “Why don’t you do her?” 

    “No, it’s just a voice. I don’t want to dress up.” 

    “It’s a revue. You know, you could do it like a pantomime dame.” 

    “I’ll write something, but get Zoe Caldwell to do it.” 

    “Look, she’s got three songs in Act I and two in Act II and so far you’ve got nothing.” 

    So Humphries, with some reluctance, but spurred on by simple practicalities – “I wasn’t considered either very funny or very good” – wrote a sketch featuring the hitherto invisible Edna. Subject: the approaching 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. “There were big ads in The Herald asking housewives to put up athletes or tourists. Because we’d been in a mad scramble to appear international, we had demolished all the hotels. There’s only the Windsor left. So they asked housewives to give up their spare bedrooms for visitors. You had to go into the Melbourne Town Hall and describe your house to some official. They’d come and look at it and they would billet someone there when the games came. 

    “The Edna sketch was a dialogue between me and an Olympic official, who was played by Noel Ferrier. It was all really Edna describing her house in great detail to this man. In minute detail. It ended with Edna saying she was very happy to put up an athlete, but she drew the line at foreigners.” 

    Sixty years on, it is almost impossible to equate the luridly and globally omnipresent Dame Edna we all know and fear with the mousey Mrs E who traipsed on to the tiny Union Theatre stage. For a start, she looked so un-Edna-like. 

    “I had to get something to wear,” Humphries says. “My mother had a twin-set with a big fur. It was blue and she’d bought it at George’s. So I wore that, with a very large dress. Flat shoes, no tights. I had unshaven legs. The hat was pointed yellow. I combed my own rather dank brown locks down the middle and wore just a little bit of red lipstick. It was really no attempt. Edna didn’t even have the glasses, which were introduced in the early 60s.” 

    Olympic Hostess was very successful. So much so, Humphries believes it might have restored his reputation, even if he still thought he wasn’t meant to be an actor after all. This was more or less consolidated when, not much later, he was asked to join the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney, a company specialising in revues. 

    “I suddenly realised that’s what I meant to do: get out of Melbourne. So I went to Sydney, very apprehensive. No nice cream brick homes there.” 

    Up to then, Edna’s appearances had been sporadic. There were a few more sketches and, indeed, an appearance on a live Christmas variety show on ABC Television. But Humphries says the prevailing mood of the time was that Edna was a limited talent. “They did warn me in Melbourne, don’t take her to Sydney, she’s too Melbourne, they won’t get it. And when I finally left Sydney, they said don’t take Edna anywhere else; she’s too Australian.” 

    Humphries was himself still uncertain. “I never thought I’d keep this character in my repertoire,” he says. So he put her away in a box for a few years, until the early 1960s. “By the time Edna was brought out and dusted off for another show, she had undergone a transformation. She had slightly wavy hair, although it wasn’t yet tinted mauve. But she did wear butterfly glasses and tights, so she had smooth legs. And small heels on her shoes. She was a little more knowing, a bit more confident, and not that shrill, shy irritating figure of the 50s. She’d become a little more authoritative, a little more [pause] insistent.” 

    The myth of Dame Edna (the damehood was “conferred” upon her in the early 1970s by the then Australian prime minister, Gough Whitlam) has, over the years, reached astounding proportions. She has performed in London’s West End, on Broadway, on radio, television and in film. Edna, although recently and officially retired, keeps making surprising comebacks – most recently in June, at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, directed by Humphries. 

    He looks back with mixed feelings at his time at the University, which awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Law in 2003. He is now a patron of Believe – the Campaign for the University of Melbourne

    “I didn’t do that much there, really,” he says. “I went with great promise, with scholarships and exhibitions. I did very well at school. But by the time I got to university, all the desire to study left me. I had that priggish feeling that I knew more than they did. 

    “My literate tastes had been formed, my artistic interests were established. I used the time by holding Dada exhibitions — I was very interested in cultural anarchy. You know, Melbourne was a very smug little town, a very self-satisfied town. I found that rather frustrating and naively thought I might be able to change that.” 

    In a way, it could be said, Humphries did change things by holding a mirror up to society. In the process, he also changed himself. 

    “I think that’s another purpose of university, don’t you think? It got me going. And thank goodness for that. I would not have been invited to join the Union Theatre if I hadn’t been in some student shows. I was allowed to stage a revue I wrote, Call Me Madman. It was only one lunchtime show and it caused great offence. 

    “I’m pleased to say that even today, as rather a staid figure, I still manage to offend some people. Good, isn’t it?”