Barry Humphries offers a peek 'behind the mask'

Barry Humphries The Man Behind The Mask is at the Gielgud Theatre on May 29

Barry Humphries The Man Behind The Mask is at the Gielgud Theatre on May 29 - Credit: TEGDainty

You’re never too old to try something new. Ask veteran comedian and actor Barry Humphries.

In his new one-man show, he’s appearing as himself rather than hiding behind Dame Edna’s sequinned frocks or Sir Les Patterson’s food-spattered ties. Both his monstrous creations make brief appearances on stage in clips, but essentially the evening is the West Hampstead resident sharing anecdotes from his crowded life.

"Frankly, I thought it would be a little easier," he says. "No need to dress up. I’ve had a lot of extremely interesting, colourful, scary, joyous experiences in my life. And I’m quite good with audiences."

The show premiered in Australia over two years ago and includes a new song, Alone At Last, "which would bring a tear to a glass eye."

"In a way, it was my out-of-town try-out. Now I’m bringing it here."

Having not been on stage for nearly three years, is he nervous about venturing on tour?

"Oh no, I’ll get back in the groove very quickly. The most important thing is to get that first laugh then I'll be back in my comfort zone."

Most Read

I point out he'll be 88. "Yes, but it’s not as though I’m going to pass away mid-performance like poor Tommy Cooper."

Humphries stage career began 70 years ago when he was cast as Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night by Australia's only repertory theatre.

"Or should I say miscast? I had to wear tights and when I walked on stage, I thought I heard a titter running round the audience. Immediately, I tried to disguise the bottom half of my body. After three performances, the director said that my entrance was terrible. Why was I skulking behind the furniture? I explained that I thought my legs were ruining this serious play. He assured me his wife was of the opinion that I had very good legs. But he added: 'You must realise as an actor that you’re naturally ridiculous.'

"Some people might regard that as a bit of an insult and it could have shaken my confidence, but it made me realise that I was in the wrong department of theatre. I belonged in comedy."

At university, he began writing sketches for revues in the style of Noel Coward or Terence Rattigan.

"Later on, I tried my hand at writing about what was in front of me. No one at the time wrote about Australia in general and the suburbs in particular."

When the Olympic Games came to Melbourne in 1956, the director of the repertory company put on a revue and invited Barry to write for it.

"There weren’t enough hotel rooms so people were encouraged to let international athletes stay in their spare rooms. I wrote a sketch about a housewife called Edna who invited a muscular sportsman into her home."

Dame Edna aka Barry Humphries. Picture: PA

Dame Edna aka Barry Humphries. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima

Humphries' first review was headlined: ‘Are houses funny?’ He explains that Edna only talked about her lovely home in Moonee Ponds.

"I did it as accurately as possible and I’d clearly stumbled upon something because I was rewarded with the laughter of recognition."

That was before Edna had blossomed into a superstar.

"She was rather shy, very suburban, a little dowdy. But, in time, that changed. It was as though she started to assert herself. I’d wake up one day and she’d acquired those trademark glasses. Her confidence grew. Suddenly, there was an invalid husband, Norm, a gay son, a delinquent daughter, a silent bridesmaid, Madge.

"She took on a life of her own. I’d be on the side, observing with some admiration, Edna’s quips."

By the early '60s, Barry resolved that Edna had run out of steam.

"But no, she proved indestructible. And she’s turned out to be a very useful mouthpiece. She can say things, for instance, about political correctness that I couldn’t possibly express."

The same is true of Sir Les: "Both characters are wonderful outlets. I never swear in real life. I’m very careful about what I might say. Edna and Sir Les, on the other hand, can point to the nudity of the emperor."

His colourful career has been mirrored by a lively private life. Married four times and father to two daughters from his second marriage and two sons from his third, he has lived in West Hampstead for more than 40 years. He and fourth wife, Lizzie, got together 33 years ago and the marriage has endured because "I’m a bit smarter now".

"The truth is that I’m not a very easy person to be married to. For over 10 years I had a serious alcoholic illness. If you’re dependent on alcohol for your happiness or merely to function, it’s not only degrading but you head in one direction – and that’s downwards. I finally put the cork in the bottle when I was 38 and I haven’t touched a drop from that day to this."

These days, he tries to live in the present and says he's happier since the arrival of grandchildren.

"I’m relating to them in a way I didn’t get round to doing with my own children. That’s a major regret. I’m trying to make up for the years lost to alcoholism."

Perhaps the last word should go to wife, Lizzie: "Barry’s totally vague, an absent-minded professor. He’ll go downstairs to pick up a book and he doesn’t reappear for four hours. You go out shopping with him, turn around, turn back again and he’s gone. But life is never dull with Barry."

Barry Humphries: The Man Behind The Mask. Runs at the Gielgud Theatre May 29 May June 5 and June 12. Visit www.manbehindthemask.co.uk