Barry Humphries: The Man Inside Dame Edna, Channel 4

by | Jan 9, 2008 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

Channel 4 tries to get to the heart of the enigma that is Barry Humphries, by following him to his hometown of Melbourne and interviewing childhood friends, adult contempories and the man himself. And despite learning a fair amount about his past, like a good boxer, Humphries dances away whenever things start getting too in depth. An enjoyable, mildly illuminating documentary? Yes. But an in-depth study? Not a chance.

What was good about it?

The documentary makers were refreshingly upfront about how much they’d be revealing about Humphries with the man himself’s opening lines: “While I’m always flattered when people want to make documentaries about me, I do take a certain delight in revealing as little as possible.”

The genuine affection that the locals (of all ages) have for Edna, when she returned to Moonee Ponds, the Melbourne suburb that she is alleged to have grown up in.

Even at the age of 73, Humphries seems like a man decades younger. The mind is razor-sharp, the zinging one-liners show no sign of slowing up, and to say that he still has an eye for the ladies would be a severe understatement, as he charms the attractive young archivist at the Melbourne museum. Ironic, then that his Melbourne Grammar School headmaster, unable to fathom the flamboyant Barry, had apparently said to him, “I do hope you’re not going to turn out to be some sort of poofter!”

When a small child, Humphries was clearly indulged by his wealthy builder father but the seeds of Edna could be seen when describing an incident from the more complex relationship with his mother. As they came back from tea at one of her friends houses, young Barry remarks how much he enjoyed the cake they’d been served. His mother’s one-word response sums up much of the class snobbery of Edna – “Bought!”

Clearly a gifted child, Humphries revealed that his mother and father had told him that “they didn’t know where he had come from” as they clearly had no idea about how to deal with their polymath son. And it was this ‘fish out of water’ feeling that drove Barry’s desire to escape the mundanity of the suburbs.

Sir Les Patterson – he’s sexist, racist and crude. Yet absolutely hilarious. And like Edna, seems to exist separately from Humphries, as both are happy to criticise their creator with lines that have a definite ring of truth about them. Sir Les: “I’ve met Humphries twice, and I don’t like him. He’s up himself!”

The clips from the stage show, where Edna and Sir Les play the audience like Menuhin played the violin, and where a momentary pause can reduce the audience to tears of mirth as much as a caustic one-liner.

The revelation that Humphries has had to re-purchase his favourite works of art two or three times after having to give them up as part of his (numerous) divorce settlements.

What was bad about it?

Humphries seemed to have so much control over the documentary that there was absolutely no chance of a soul-bearing moment. As the Toby Jones voiceover intoned that “we took Humphries back to the house in Christowel Street where he grew up” Humphries cut across it in a voice dripping with sarcasm, “Now what a novel, innovative idea!” And when the voiceover asked if Edna was based on his mother, Humphries leans back in his chair with a satisfied smile on his face – “Now this is where the documentary goes ‘in-depth’!”

Humphries jet-black hair. Surely Edna would have had a field day with a 73-year-old man who was still dyeing his hair?

The conceit of having Humphries and Edna fast-forwarding the parts of the documentary concerned with each other was a distraction that didn’t work.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles

09/01/2008

Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!

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