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21 January 2016

As a child, Barry Humphries heard England through its music

Humphries arrived in England in 1959, just as London was exploding into life.

By Antonia Quirke

On Wednesdays (10pm, BBC Radio 2), Barry Humphries has been talking about recordings he listened to while growing up in Melbourne in the 1930s and 1940s. In unstoppably touching scripts, he recalls how, as a child, he thought all influences save the wireless were shadows. “Mumps, measles, whooping cough . . . I hoped these illnesses would never end,” because only when ill was he at liberty to flit from station to station. Dorothy Carless, Mischa Spoliansky, the tenor Joseph Schmidt – Humphries gorged on them between bulletins about the war and other “faraway European catastrophes, from the safety of the silent Australian bush”. Each disc chosen is slightly heightened.

One recording, of an 18-year-old Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (live in concert in 1940) had her hitting the word find (“that’s where you’ll find me”) with the sort of disturbing, unsentimental persistence that any fan who has ever watched the DVD extras of A Star Is Born, made 14 years later, will appreciate. You marvel at her ability to make you continuously fear she’s going to miss notes – it creates such tension – but then never does, hitting them every time and scrupulously the same way even during costume tests, no matter how depressed or shoehorned into yet another too-tight dress she might be. But it was Humphries’s “longing to get back to the Old Country” that has dominated the story so far, and in the second episode (20 January) he arrived in June 1959, just as London was exploding into new life.

Wolverhampton, Huddersfield, Newcastle – the Melbourne curriculum had placed England so firmly at the centre of the universe, the schoolboy Humphries had been able to locate them on maps when he’d struggled to pinpoint his native Adelaide.

England had called to him so deeply in certain songs that when eventually he did drop anchor in the capital, he fully expected a foggy day, but found instead an unwelcome, baking sun (unlike Clive James who, just off the boat three years later, found snow o’er Southampton, and deduced that “the small cloud in front of my face . . . was my breath”). The best Radio 2 series in this, or any month for as long as I can remember. 

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This article appears in the 20 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war