BARRY Humphries is rather different from the alter ego we know and love.
He’s not wearing a dress for one.
Or an outlandish pair of specs. Or enough jewels and spangles to light up the entire theatre.
He didn’t say ‘hello possums’ once during our conversation either.
Today he’s sporting dusky pink trousers, a natty spotted cravat and a panama hat, plus his trusty handkerchief as he battles a bad cold.
When he goes on stage later, the audience have no idea he is suffering with the lurgy – Dame Edna brings the house down.
And quite an illustrious house it was, David Walliams was watching one of his heroes in action, and TV and radio presenter Gloria Hunniford and rom-com screenwriter Richard Curtis were also among the audience at the London Palladium.
But backstage, far from the outlandish and outspoken Aussie housewife with the bright purple hair, Barry is measured, well spoken and articulate with the air of sophistication of a man who has spent much of his life immersed in music, literature and the arts.
Now close to his 80th birthday, he has been transforming into the ‘gigastar’ for nearly 60 years.
But it first happened almost by accident.
“I’ve never really been very interested in acting really. I wanted to be a painter. I still paint enthusiastically and have had exhibitions, but never commercially. I’m not terribly good.
“Back when I was at university, I got involved in the theatre Christmas show, which was a review of sketches and songs. I wrote a sketch about a Melbourne housewife who I called Edna, which was intended for Zoe Caldwell, who has since gone on to earn some distinction on Broadway.”
By some distinction, he means she is a four times Tony Award winner for her performances in Tennessee Williams’ Slapstick Tragedy, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Medea and Master Class.
“She had a lot of things to do in the show, so I was told to do the sketch myself. It felt odd at first performing in women’s clothes from the thrift shop.
She was a young Melbourne housewife who talked about her home in precise detail.
“That was what everyone was like at the time. My childhood was very privileged.
“We stood up for God Save the King, we were treated to theatre brought to us ‘direct from the West End’ by the second touring company from England and we lived in cottages with gardens.
“For me, it’s a way of remembering Melbourne. It’s a small city in Victoria in a remote part of South East Asia and it’s where I come from.”
Even if Dame Edna was created as a one-off festive treat, she went on to become a worldwide comic institution who left a mark on TV with her possums catchphrase and trademark gladioli flowers.
Her ITV talk show, The Dame Edna Experience, for example, ran for just 14 episodes at the end of the 80s, but redefined chat programmes.
Over the years, Dame Edna has taken on a life even her creator doesn’t fully understand.
She really took off after Humphries left Australia to star in the original West End version of the musical Oliver and brought Edna to England.
Asked what her enduring appeal is, he adds: “That’s not my responsibility, I do it for my own enjoyment.
“But she works because she’s well observed and I believe in the character.
“I was always told she would never work anywhere else. I was told not even to go to Sydney with her as she was too Melbourne, let alone the rest of the world.
“But you don’t need to have been to Melbourne to understand her. When I was young I read Dickens without ever having been to London, Hardy without having been to Dorset and Yeats without having been to Ireland. They had a universality to them, not that I’m comparing myself with them of course.
“Plus I’ve always liked to keep a dialogue between the audience and the show.
“The show is the audience I think.”
Alongside Edna, the latest show features other favourite characters such as Sir Les Patterson, that belching envoy of Australian values, and Sandy Stone, the ghostly figure of suburban mundanity, along with a new one, Gerard, Sir Les’s paedophile Catholic priest brother.
But do any of them reflect people from Barry’s rollercoaster ride of a life in which he’s fathered four children and been married four times, currently to Lizzie Spender, the daughter of British poet Sir Stephen Spender?
“I suppose I must have informed them in some respect, although I’ve never really thought about it. I suppose I had a mother who was emotionally inaccessible.
“She was hard to read. In some respects she indulged me, like paying for art classes, but on the other hand she was discouraging. She sold my books and picked up on the bad reviews I got rather than the wonderful ones. When I think about it, it was pretty horrible.
“I don’t think I really approve of any of them (my creations).
“I’m much more of a sort of arty type and I’m very surprised I’ve ended up doing this really.”
Eat, Pray, Laugh will be the end of a comic institution. Barry Humphries is taking a final bow. Or is he?
“Well I did it because it was proposed really. We did it in Australia and I thought after the Palladium, I’d travel a bit around the UK. I love going to these places and visiting the second hand book shops.
“But I’ll go on doing other things so the audience shouldn’t despair.
“I might just leave it a year or two and then get back out there.”
He has a mischievous glint in his eye, but I wouldn’t rule out seeing him in that spangly frock once again.
- Eat, Pray, Laugh! Barry Humphries Farewell Tour is at the Mayflower Theatre from January 28 to February 1. Tickets: 023 8071 1811 or visit mayflower.org.uk