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28 March 2022

From the NS archive: Australia’s fairy gladmother

23 August 1974: Dame Edna and the other bizarre creations of Barry Humphries have been transmogrified by a nation of affluent suburbanites no longer happy with the outback.

By David McGill

Gladioli and silly songs were in abundance at a Dame Edna Everage performance in Sydney, Australia, as observed by the New Statesman writer David McGill. Barry Humphries’ bewigged, bespectacled character had that year made headlines when she publicly kissed the Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam. Humphries, like many Australian performers, had sought fame abroad – largely in London. He must be “amused, and perhaps bemused”, McGill wrote, “to see his caricatures moving past him to be adopted as truly national characters back home”. As well as Dame Edna, his characters included “a few impotent old chauvinists”, the audiences for whom used to be only composed of students. Now middle-aged, middle-class Australians filled the theatres in which Humphries starred, paying for the privilege of crude laughter at their expense. McGill watched Humphries, as Edna, “teeter on the threshold of some psychotic outburst of love and hate for the audience, certainly more hysteria than catharsis”. The crowd, he wrote, “are willing victims and believers”.

From three rows back a man responded to the shrill “Cooee” of Edna Everage. A fat man in a three-piece suit, he was waving one of the gladioli fronds that Edna had been hurling at the audience moments before. Henna-haired wife and tall daughter prised the man out of his seat, whence he waddled up to meet Australia’s most famous (drag) housewife.

Dame Edna, bouffant-bewigged, butterfly-bespectacled, all pink, green, blue and gold and high-heeled, glad-handed the fat man on to the stage and forced him down with a bright red kiss on his bald pate, to the cheers of several thousand like-minded and like-aged gladioli wavers. “I’m your fairy gladmother!” Edna shrieked as she shoved the sweating, owl-grinning fat man off the stage, tossing after him the remark that such a little glad as his was a tragedy. He waved the glad above his head, joining in the crude laughter at his expense.

And that was the, uh, climax of the evening. It was an evening last month with Barry Humphries at the kitsch old Elizabethan Theatre (actually Victorian) in the inner-Sydney suburb of Newtown. Barry had augmented the red-plush and plaster-heron decor with a grotesquerie of garden gnomes grouped stage left. As the show ended the eyes of the gnomes lit up. Edna marched back on stage blowing kisses and leading one more chorus, giving ageing platinum blonde pianist Iris the nod, of Rattle your Jaffas in the aisles, and smile, smile, smile, the audience waving their gladioli overhead in time. The curtain came down on Edna’s uncontrollable cackle and the audience filed out to their Rollses and Holdens and Rovers.

For 12 years Humphries has been scalding Australian audiences with such bizarre local caricatures as the raucous, Queen-loving, racist Edna Everage. The measure of the success of this Antipodean cross between Alf Garnett and Mary Whitehouse is that now she is referred to as Dame Edna, and she won national headlines when she publicly kissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

That moment has been recorded on film in the forthcoming Chunderama epic, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, a second attempt to feature Barry “Bazza” McKenzie, that other Humphries creation to disgust the popular imagination. For years Private Eye indulged this Foster-chundering oaf’s vain and vacuous attempts to seduce some unfortunate Pommie sheila, or any sheila, for that matter. Despite singular lack of success in that direction, Barry has had success in films, taking Edna with him.

Having spent so many years as a fringe attraction, and that largely in London, Humphries must be amused and perhaps bemused to see his caricatures moving past him to be adopted as truly national characters back home. Young Australians buy the Bazza paperbacks to learn their lingo. They jet over to Europe to swagger and lurch around inner London and the Continent mouthing McKenzieisms. They menacingly advise Pommies and Krauts not to come the raw prawn, they alternately declare themselves dry as a kookaburra’s khyber or anxious to unbutton the mutton. Humphries has given them a ready-made image, like a suit off the peg, and even provided the dirty underwear of a double-entendre phrasebook. The image for real can be seen in all its limp boorishness in an Australian film now screening in Sydney, Alvin Purple. This South Pacific stag-rut version of a Swedish frolic is Australia’s biggest grosser in recent times, already pulling in £1m.

Such adolescent-abroad nonsense may be fair enough. Curiouser is the way Humphries, so long viewed as a deviate in his own right back home, his scatological compilation Bizarre still an unacceptable book, finds his middle-aged and middle-class satirical monsters welcomed with open arms. The awful Edna and a few impotent old chauvinists join the brash Bazza as a national identity kit. Students filled those first Humphries revues. At this, his fifth revue, students must find £2 for a seat in the gods, while circle and stalls accommodate people paying over twice as much. The name of this revue, At Least You Can Say You’ve Seen It, seems to include a dig at the respectable folk prepared to pay so much to join in sending themselves up something rotten.

[see also: As a child, Barry Humphries heard England through its music]

They are willing victims and believers. The bizarre creations of Humphries have been transmogrified for their own purposes by a nation of affluent suburbanites no longer happy with the outback, Chips Rafferty, tall-streak-of-weasel-piss image. In groping for a contemporary concept of themselves and grabbing Edna and Bazza and Co, they may well have offered the first example in history of one man fostering a language and image for an entire nation. And that is, surely, contrary to his intentions of mercilessly satirising his countrymen’s crassness.

To have mentioned first the climax of his latest revue seems only proper to a country that wants it now, that will not wait 1,000 years to accrete a mature culture. Like the Americans before them, the Australians embarrass others with their possession of vast endowed natural wealth but few of the things money can’t buy. Their discussions of the Sydney Opera House, surely the most exciting construction in a demi-millennium, revolve around how much it cost.

Humphries summed up his attitude to Australia in the ditty, “To stay with you, oh land of mutton, I would not give a single button.” Like Joan Sutherland and Clive James and Sidney Nolan and so many dentists, he does his creating abroad. Unlike them, he brings it back home to such evenings as this one, where a packed audience gave a tumultuous welcome to Dame Edna Everage. She opened up with a strange kind of audience participation, handing out boxes of choccies (chocolates) to members of the audience who gave their names. Merely by repeating such names as Gary and Marie, Marleen and Jayleen, Dame Edna had her audience laughing fit to bust.

The sketch which drew the most knowing hoots of laughter involved a hideous harridan on stilts, Humphries as the PM’s tall wife Margaret. She sang “My Day” to the tune of Sinatra’s “My Way”, the reference being to her daily diary in a woman’s magazine. Edna then roared back on with a vengeance, carrying packets of Jaffas – orange-coated chocolate balls that the audience once rolled down youthful cinema aisles. Throwing packets at the audience, with Iris on piano, she began the singalong, Rattle your Jaffas in the aisles, and smile, smile, smile. From the wings a giant polystyrene Jaffa, at least 10 feet high, was rolled: Edna bounced it over the audience, encouraging pat-ball, spiralling shrieks that inspired the audience to join in, like the Laughing Policeman.

At last, the gladioli show. Edna began flicking glads at the audience, stem first, red bloom as tail, like giant darts. “Hit the nearest Protestant,” she exhorted. “It’s the bit on the end,” she cackled, “It’s the bit on the end that counts.” She hurled more glads with manic abandon, commanding the audience to get those glads above your heads and join the singalong, We’ve got a lovely bunch of glads. As Edna wound up the act, the prissy persona give way to sexy innuendo, a glad lewdly between her legs, informing the audience that “a glad can’t let you down”. The audience rocked and rolled with laughter and sang lustily about their lovely bunches of glads.

It was an astonishing sight, worse than a Billy Graham rally, an entire audience of middle-aged suburbanites obeying this crazy guy in drag, on their feet with glads elevated and swaying to this absurd singalong. Not even Spike Milligan could imagine such a sight. And thus Edna proceeded to the climax.

It did look as if Humphries had not only possessed his audience but also himself, his Edna whirling faster and faster to the gladioli beat, a scrawny dervish of sibilant sound and fury. She seemed to teeter on the threshold of some psychotic outburst of love and hate for the audience, certainly more hysteria than catharsis. Perhaps schizophrenia is inevitable when you see your caricatures adopted by their targets. With Middle Australia on your side, there is danger of following the high-heel marks of your creation to an award from the Queen.

The two Australian friends I went to the revue with said Humphries was passé. The new guy to see was Aunty Jack, another drag performer, much more political. More drag. Well, the most popular strippers in the Cross are drag artists, which may or may not square with the popular dislike of unpopular authors such as Patrick White. But what could better conform with White’s bleak view of his countrymen than that a bigoted drag housewife and an impotent and piggish young boor have moved out of avant-garde fantasy into dinkum bourgeois reality, that suburban Australians have found themselves in self-parody?

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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