27 April, 1978, National Press Club, Canberra, Australia
I think it surprises members of the public to learn that stage performers, stage artistes and vaudeville personages like myself do suffer from stage-fright. But I always do. Quite often in fact I'm physically ill before any public appearance. There's usually a plastic bucket in the wings when I do my stage shows. But I thought a few years ago that my trade is not really that of a one-man performer, because the expectant countenances of my audience are very often illuminated into the dress circle. And so really I perform with a very large cast. And it crossed my mind some time ago to invite members of the audience to participate in the show. This sometimes leads to problems as it did in New York not long ago, when a woman sitting in the second row said that she was unable to hear Dame Edna because of the laughter of two 'pansies', as she described them, sitting next to her. So I rashly asked her if she thought she could hear better if she came up on stage. To my alarm she did. (Laughter.) This is five minutes into the show and she was there till the end. She also brought her knitting. I need hardly tell you that this altered the entire course of the occasion. I asked her her name and she said it was Lucy so we called it the Lucy Show after that.
At the moment I'm engaged in writing a new starring vehicle for myself and friends and I open in Sydney next month. And it's usually my practice, being a professional procrastinator amongst other things, to commence writing the show as soon as the first ticket has been bought. It entertains me to think that there's some poor character actually paying for something that doesn't exist. In Melbourne I used to like sitting in a little Greek restaurant called the Cafe Florentino. At about ten past eight in the evening. And seeing old Melbourne Grammar boys, contemporaries perhaps of our Prime Minister, hurrying with their wives down the stairs in order to attend one of my performances which I had absolutely no intention of starting for another three-quarters of an hour.
The advantage of course of being a solo entertainer is that they can never start without you. And I think that that is probably one of the few advantages. Except of course that it keeps me off the streets and fills my evenings entertainingly. As I hope it will yours. Difficult, looking at those scrawled envelopes, those comparatively blank sheets of foolscap paper and wondering if the thought that crossed one's mind on a tram is likely to divert an assembly of people. But I've always found that people generally come to the theatre as they do to an occasion like this with an immense store of goodwill, which it's very hard to exhaust. And after all it cost them a lot more to come to the show than just the ticket. They have to get babysitters. They have to take out extra fire insurance on their houses.
I always find too that an audience laughs much louder if they're extremely anxious. And therefore I think at the beginning of my new show I'll remind them of all the terrible things that could be happening at home. Was the kitchen window really firmly locked? What kind of cigarettes was the babysitter smoking? How many friends is she at present entertaining? All of these things, I think, should put them in a very good mood. . . a very receptive mood. I'm going to have a lot of bleepers concealed under the seats so that doctors will be leaving regularly throughout the evening. Hurrying off to save imaginary lives.
I have had people die during my shows, unfortunately. I was informed that a man had fallen gravely ill during my last performance some four years ago in Sydney. And as I left the theatre I noticed some screens had been erected in the foyer. Until the ambulance arrived. But the usherettes were shaking their heads and alas—the customer had caught the ferry as they say. But it pleased me to see a seraphic smile upon his ashen lips, and in his pale grasp was still clenched a wilting gladioli.
A lot of Australians attempt, when abroad, to evoke agreeable memories of their homeland. Some burn gumleaves. I thought I'd perhaps call the first volume of my autobiography, Some Burn Gumleaves. My first thoughts were to call it . . . well I like titles like Silverfish in the Bath or Snails in the Letterbox. If you come from Melbourne you know about snails in the letterbox. And I'm essentially, you see, a Melbourne artiste. It was kind of you to say, not in so many words of course, Mr President, that I belong to the universe, was it, or the galaxy? I can't remember your exact words. But I would insist that I'm basically a regional monologist. Just as I suppose Dorset belongs to Thomas Hardy, Dublin to James Joyce, Hull to Philip Larkin, Canberra to Manning Clark.. . I suppose the Mornington Peninsula belongs to me. Moonee Ponds wherever she may wander still belongs, I think, to Dame Edna Everidge. And so I still look at the world rather through those dusty venetians, through those crossover terylene drapes. Still peer at those things which peculiarly amuse me through the thin end of an asparagus roll. A uniquely Australian invention I would point out. The asparagus roll is not to be found anywhere else in the world. It's not a problem to open a tin of asparagus, it's not a problem to cut brown bread thin enough or butter one side of it thinly. The problem is to stick it up. The punk asparagus roll will soon be with us, no doubt, secured with a suitably sterilised safety pin.
The other great Australian inventions of course are the terylene golfing hat, the lamington and the Hill's hoist. I can't think of any more. Perhaps the vanilla slice. I remember once asking the
Australian painter, Sir Sidney Nolan, what he missed most about Australia when he was away—and he said it was the way the icing on a vanilla slice stuck to his thumb. I suppose the second volume then of my autobiography will be called The Way It Sticks to Your Thumb though that may well evoke memories of Ms Shere Hite. Or I might call it something rather
grandiose, like The Restless Years.
But some Australians burn gumleaves. Others like to remember the old advertisements on
commercial radio. The old wireless programmes like The Koolmint Theatre of the Air. The old days when one perhaps listened to the ABC for entertainment. (Laughter.) We evoke nostalgia in many different ways. Inducing such maladies as Persephone's Neck. I introduced that for the scholars in our midst, and I'm relieved to find there are none. Or the Lot's Wife syndrome. When glancing back at Australia you turn into a pillar of bauxite.
I always like of course to write the reviews first. In New York I provided typewriters in the foyer for this purpose. To save them rushing to their newspaper offices they could always type the notices then and there, and come back and enjoy the show in a relaxed frame of mind. I also had a very large map which a lot of people took quite seriously. Like most of us I was a little indignant when some apparently sophisticated person thought that Fiji was the capital of Australia. And I had a very large map in the foyer of Australia showing the entire Americas fitting into Gippsland. And there was a big caption which said something like, 'For Your Information, Actual Scale Map, America in Relation to the Australias'. Quite a few people were very impressed by that. Rightly so. It took a lot of painting.
But the object is rather a callow one I suppose, to preempt adverse criticism since who isn't a little susceptible to it. I've always liked to give my shows rather self-deprecating titles so that perhaps a journalist who would have been thinking of starting his review with 'It's rather pathetic at his age' would have to think again and say, 'Well if I said that I'd be agreeing with him really wouldn't I if my previous show was called At Least You Can Say You've Seen It. And most of these show titles were all invented by my aunt. Who is still with us I'm happy to say. Whenever she went to a Williamson show—and it wasn't David in those days, it was JC—she used to come home and say. . .You know, we only went to the theatre in those days on wedding anniversaries. Now we go on Mother's Day as well as wedding anniversaries. But she used to always say something like... 'What did you think of it?' I'd say and she'd say, 'Well, Barry, at least I can say I've seen it.' She'd say, 'Oh it was just a show.' But more often than not she used to say, 'Isn't it pathetic at his age?', 'You know, he used to be wonderful in The Desert Song' 'Why do they still do it?' I mean, that my aunt can say to me, 'Why do they still do it?' as I'm simultaneously borrowing five dollars from her, I don't know.
But when I came back to Australia, as I always do, again I saw those banners outside newsagents which I like to collect. I'm the person who goes around late at night stealing banners from outside newsagents. If you don't know what a banner is it's one of those things printed in very bold type which are put in little cages which look at us through little wire grilles outside milk bars and newsagents all over Australia. The first one I saw I was tempted to steal in broad daylight. It's the first time I've ever done it. I'm going to hold it up just to show you. It says, 'Killer Spiders, What To Do'. Well we all know what to do. Scream and die painfully.
Without any further ado therefore I feel I should throw the meeting open to questions. I, as I say, will not flinch from the most intimate. I am in the land of total disclosure. Nothing is a secret. It's a country where the venetian blinds lock in the open position. Did not a former Prime Minister, a former speaker at this very table, speak of his wife, his lofty spouse as being good for bed and board? To the astonishment of the more prudish and more decorous amongst us. More recently, I understand, when the Honourable Mr Whitlam was asked to what he and his wife attributed their sexual compatibility he replied, 'Not Masters and Johnson, sheer Hite.' I was saving that one for the show but this is a preview. It must go no further.
Tony Thomas, The Age: Now that you're back here, Barry, I can see why the Government has just reintroduced export incentives. I've long been an admirer of your work and the question I've got to ask is slightly personal. Are you heterosexual like us, homosexual, transsexual, bisexual, trisexual or multisexual, pro-sexual, anti-sexual or married?
Mr Humphries: I think I'm infra-sexual.
Bruce Juddery: Is it true, sir, that you were approached while you were in Melbourne by Mr
Bjelke-Petersen to work for him and several other Tory politicians, counterparts to Mr Whitlam?
And if you weren't, were you disappointed?
Mr Humphries: No, I'm glad that you said that because I think people were enjoying themselves a little too much. (Laughter.) It was either you or a fault in the sprinkler system. If I may obliquely reply to your question, there have alas been all too few official approaches made to me. I had hoped that I might get the Paris job. Dame Edna wanted to seize it but she couldn't get past the antique furniture in the doorway. I don't see any reason why artistes or sort of oddities shouldn't have diplomatic posts at any rate. There are many precedents. Lord Byron, Shirley Temple. . . I once said to Gough Whitlam that I'd rather like the Lisbon job since there wouldn't be a great deal to do except to see that the sardines got all put in the right way around. When I was last in. the Portuguese capital I'd forgotten my driver's licence . . . an interesting, heavily endorsed document that it is. (Laughter.) And the Portuguese Avis girl . . . sounds rather Portuguese, 'Avis', doesn't it? The Portuguese Avis girl refused to give me a car. I felt a tap on the shoulder and I turned round and there was 'our man' in Lisbon. He said, 'Anything we can do for you, Brian?' I was pleased to hear that he wasn't going to address me in Portuguese. I said I was having a bit of trouble and I was secretly very flattered indeed that news of my arrival had been telexed straight through to the embassy and there was indeed a man with a finely crafted white vinyl belt, ensign tie and platform shoes waiting for me. I said, 'Well. I have this slight problem. But first I must say that it's very, very nice of you,' and he said, 'Oh just a minute, Barry, just a minute. Oh morning, Mr Halfpenny, we thought you might have been on the next plane.' So it seemed it wasn't I that they were coming to meet after all, but some leather-jacketed troubleshooter from the trade union movement. I'd very much like to be our man in Lisbon. Whether I could handle Brisbane or not I'm not quite sure. Though I am a great admirer of the Brisbane leader. In a political scene so devoid of personalities it's rather nice to find one.
One of the things that interests me by the way is that you are soon to have a revolving restaurant. As you know I have an eye for these things. People say, 'Oh, you know, you're quick, you've only been here half an hour and you know we're going to have a revolving restaurant.' Well it has to be. It isn't a great town unless you have somewhere where you have to go up a long way to get a red Kleenex to wipe the garlic prawns off your tie. Meat served on a piece of wood with a flag in it saying, 'Medium rare'. And waiters staggering dizzily out of the central service core. . . laden with food to tables which didn't order it. . . where something goes wrong with the speed, where sometimes the motor goes berserk and hurls the diners miles into the surrounding landscape.
Australian cities are always doing ludicrous things to themselves in order to make themselves
internationally interesting. Melbourne as you know wrecked itself in the 1950s preparing itself for Olympic visitors. All the cast-iron verandahs were torn down because it was felt that Latvian shotputters might think it was a country town. How they kept copies of The Sun News-Pictorial from them goodness only knows. Of course when Nicholas Pevsner, the eminent architect, visited Melbourne and the architects were racing him off in their cars to see their little boxes that they had constructed in the suburbs, all Pevsner was interested in were the few remaining cast iron verandahs in Carlton and Fitzroy. It was thought vaguely that some of these places which had been given too cheaply to the Greeks might still have some architectural value. As we know now they're inhabited almost solely by architects, advertising people and raving poofters ... of impeccable taste. But still the despoliation continues. The entire Yarra Valley has been ruined. There's a sort of committee now for historical buildings. Once they've decided to pull something down, they've always rebuilt it and they're already collecting the rent on the new building but they have a little tribunal just to show
that they're quite prepared to listen to arguments for something or other. Melbourne Comedy
Theatre which I'm going to be performing in in a couple of months is up for auction. I hope that it's still there when I'm there and I won't have to do my performance from the top of a car. But, you know, it is to me a decadent community in which a theatre needs to be defended. That one should actually have to stand up and say, 'Well, you know, I would submit that a theatre is quite important.' There seems to be something a bit wrong there. In Sydney however a revolving restaurant is being built and people can revolve up there.
Melbourne alas hasn't any such thing. But we have a city square and I'm afraid I have led you into a small trap. I hope that you'll forgive me. On the pretext of course of addressing you in a learned fashion I really wish to make a press statement. Many of you know that I'm soon to retire from the theatre. Driven by public opinion. Most of you know of course that my ambition in life is to become a society photographer. In Australia I should have no work whatsoever. When my children asked me recently what was the definition of a contradiction in terms I said, 'A Sydney socialite.' But town planning is my major interest. I've been secretly going to Monash University doing a little course in town planning with all the housewives. And I've always felt, you know, that I'd rather be in a good building or.. . really I would rather be in a building designed by a bad architect and a good accountant. Too many buildings seem to be
designed by accountants.
I've been working on a scheme for the Melbourne city square. I've gone to a bit of trouble over this. Now you'll all appreciate it, it's nice to know that your speaker has gone to a bit of trouble. There was a block in Melbourne on the corner of Collins and Swanston Streets which had some quite nice old buildings on it. So nice indeed they had to come down because someone thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we had a civic square.' I think probably they were thinking, 'Wouldn't it be nice if I had a knighthood and you had a civic square.' (Laughter and applause.) Mind you, do you notice that I've got this Silver Jubilee tie for my services to the Queen? This is the Silver Jubilee polyester, woven at the Palace. No gong yet though I know there are plenty of people working hard for them. I'm not going to name names. I could be referring to any Tom or Dick or even Harry. The thing is. . . ladies and gentlemen, I have a scheme for this plot of ground, which is much ploughed up. No one knows quite what to do with it. They're thinking of putting a vast television screen there so the latest footie results can be shown there. Of great interest I'm sure to the people of Melbourne in the middle of summer. But it seems to me that the thing that is going to put Melbourne on the map is not a tower, not a revolving restaurant, no pinnacle—but a pit.
Think of it for a moment. A gigantic excavation is what I recommend for my home town. In short, an abyss. Then Melbourne can be truthfully called the abysmal city. Think for a moment of the famous holes which attract tourists. The Black Hole of Calcutta attracted a few. The Grand Canyon is nothing else but a hole. It brings in enormous revenue to those who, I presume, have the box office. However, my plans for the abyss are well and truly under way and I can now unveil them for the first time in Australia at this meeting. I have copies which will be handed around . . . the original artwork, for the paper courageous enough to run it on the front page tomorrow. I've got a few of them here. This is an architect's drawing made by my friend, Mr Charles Billitch, my partner in Humphries, Billitch and. . . Associates. The spire is St Paul's Cathedral. The distant Byzantine building is the surviving Flinders Street Railway Station. The small area on the corner of Collins and Swanston Streets marked Number Ten is the protestors' precinct. The wall of the salvaged Regent Theatre has been rusticated. That is, it has been covered with a fibre-glass surface so it resembles a cliff face over which coloured water pours. Fifteen . . . yes, that is the Regent Falls. Six, rock climbing is possible up that wall. Number One is the abyss. Now this is a hole of incalculable depth. It ought to be about three centimetres deeper than the World Trade Centre is tall—making it the deepest abyss in any city centre, undoubtedly. Now the road can be diverted into the abyss to accommodate the next Moomba procession. There is a cave at the foot of the falls in which, appropriately enough, is a caveteria. Rock groups can perform on the top of the rockery. And there is a lift taking people down to the revolving restaurant in the bottom of the abyss. Now from the windows of the revolving restaurant of course, cheerful diners will be able to discern little else but glow worms and slime. We have as yet to devise a method of bringing them up again. The garlic prawns should see to that. On the side of the Abyss is the Abyss Mall. Perhaps there is a radio station called the Abyssee. Now it's the Town Hole as seen from the Town Hall.
I only have a few copies—it's an exclusive, it's classified and if it isn't run in any of the papers I've wasted my time haven't I? But one of the most important aspects of this abyss is that it offers an opportunity for people to destroy themselves. As you know Melbourne has many incentives for suicide but few opportunities. It's difficult to get to the tops of a lot of the tall buildings. I know I'm speaking in a city where the suicide rate is the highest in Australia. How do you do it? Go out and stab yourself with a gum tree? Ecological suicide. However there is a special jump for suicides here which would be floodlit at night and televised by the ABC who have, as you know, very little else to do. So I leave this with you, ladies and gentlemen. It actually is rather funny, don't you think?