First Person

Sober Days with Barry Humphries

Barry Humphries and I were friends for sixty-one years. We drank together, got sober together, and worked together.

In late 1969 we were both admitted to a suburban Melbourne alcohol and drug addiction hospital, Delmont. The wonderful lead psychiatrist there, Dr John Moon, who happened to be a Christadelphian, was a strong supporter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Delmont was the last mental hospital either Barry or I were admitted to as a patient.

The night before we were due to be discharged, we were taken to a large AA meeting at the Malvern Town Hall. After the meeting I came up in tears to an inspirational AA member, Antique Harry, and said: “Do you ever think I’ll get this thing, Harry?”

Instead of saying, “No hope unless you get off the tablets”—which would have been true, but not particularly helpful—Harry said to me, with great gentleness: “If you stay close to this movement, son, you’ll be all right.”

Those words, which Barry overheard, changed our lives. With the assistance of Antique Harry, Broken Hill Jack, Breathless Beryl and other long-time members of AA, we both become free of alcohol and other drugs in 1970, and stayed that way. When Barry died in April last year, he and I hadn’t drunk alcohol for fifty-three years. 

When we were both two years sober, I played a small role in the raucous Australian comedy The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, which was released in 1972. In this path-breaking Australian film (or “fillum” as my father used to say), Barry played not only Edna Everage but a number of other characters as well, including the mad psychiatrist Dr Humphrey de Lamphrey. I played the part of one of Bazza’s mates waving him goodbye at Sydney airport on his first trip to England.

It was Barry Humphries who on Guy Fawkes Day, 1974, introduced me to my future wife and friend of forty-five years, Lyndal Moor. I had no idea that Lyndal had twice been Australian Model of the Year, or that she regularly acted at Sydney’s  Ensemble Theatre and appeared in television dramas such as Skippy, The Long Arm and Spyforce. Also, I had no idea that Lyndal was then living with one of Australia’s richest men, Clyde Packer, who at the time was Barry’s manager. We met at a very powerful AA meeting at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst, near Sydney’s Kings Cross—after which Lyndal never drank alcohol again. All I knew was that she was the most luminously beautiful woman I had ever met, and that I wanted to get close to her.

My first words to Lyndal were: “If you only knew what could happen to you if you stay close to Alcoholics Anonymous.” A year to the day we became lovers, and on Guy Fawkes Day, 1976, we were married (below) in the courtyard and garden of Lyndal’s little terrace house at 2 Leinster Street, Paddington.

When she ditched Clyde Packer (who fled to America, never to return) to team up with me, Barry quipped: “Lyndal went from diamonds to boiled lollies!” Barry attended the ceremony. His wedding present was The Complete Oxford Dictionary, compressed into two large volumes, and accompanied by a magnifying glass to enable us to read the small print. In the front, Barry wrote: “For darling Lyndal and Ross. In case you ever have ‘words’.” Lyndal died on January 22, 2020.

A year before, Barry and I had created the character of “Craig Steppenwolf, radical schoolteacher”, who Barry played in Melbourne in his 1975 show, At Least You Can Say You’ve Seen It. Barry and I wrote the script.

It was Barry’s enthusiastic review of my first Grafton Everest novel, Pushed from the Wings: An Entertainment that enabled my sexual-political satires to take off in Australia and overseas. In June 1986 Barry wrote in Quadrant: “Grafton Everest is a wonderful creation whom I would place without question in the ranks of Philip Roth’s Portnoy and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.” This unambiguous endorsement certainly helped Pushed from the Wings and also my next Grafton Everest book, All about Anthrax, both of which were published in London in 1989 by Corgi-Bantam in their prestigious Black Swan series. 

These Grafton Everest fictions sold well in the UK and South Africa. Overseas sales were also assisted by a glowing review in the London Observer by Howard Jacobson, who later won the Booker Prize. Jacobson’s review of the two adventures was headed “Conquering Everest”.

Not everyone loved the books. A humourless feminist critic in the Age in Melbourne excoriated Pushed from the Wings, moaning, “I never laughed once.” On Barry’s advice to me to flip criticism on its head (a suggestion that I have followed ever since), in the Black Swan editions I arranged for these four words to feature prominently on the back cover of Pushed from the Wings and also on its sequel. Much to that critic’s annoyance, they were widely used in marketing.    

I was with Barry at his very first appearance as Les Patterson. When I was living in an upstairs flat in Crown Street in Sydney’s Surry Hills, Barry asked me to come with him to the Rooty Hill RSL club in the outer suburbs. It was 1973.

Shortly after we sat down in the auditorium, Barry got up and said: “I’ll be back soon.” A little while later, a nondescript bloke in a crumpled suit stumbled on stage and said: “Gidday. Name’s Leslie Colin Patterson. Manager, Rooty Hill.” He then delivered a meandering monologue on the theme, “Time waits for no man”. It took me a couple of minutes to realise it was Barry! This was before Barry converted Les into Australia’s dribbling, randy, dipsomaniacal Minister for the Yartz.

Barry often told me that Les Patterson was the character he enjoyed playing the most. This was because, as a long-time sober person, he could channel all of his many negativities into the dreadful drunkard Sir Les. Barry chose the surname Patterson after I told him that Australia’s only Communist Party member of parliament was the Queensland MLA for Bowen from 1944 to 1950, Fred Paterson, whose biography I later wrote, titled The People’s Champion.

Barry and I often bounced ideas off each other about introducing possible new characters, including someone with a face like a fish. Indirectly this resulted in the following politically incorrect scene and interchange in his outrageous 1987 movie Les Patterson Saves the World.

Sir Les walks into a house, looks at a portrait, and says, “Last time I saw a mouth like that it had a hook in it.” When the other man says, “It is my daughter,” Sir Les responds, “Oh, she’s so beautiful.” 

Les Patterson Saves the World bombed at the box office. Co-written by Humphries and his third wife Diane Millstead, co-starring Pamela Anderson and directed by George Miller, this utterly over-the-top movie was a funny comedy for its time. In it, Australia’s alcoholic Ambassador to the United Nations and President of the Australian Cheese Board joins forces with Dame Edna Everage to foil a bio-terror attack ordered by Colonel Richard Godowni of the Gulf state of Abu Niveah.

One of my favourite scenes is when, stopped at international customs because she is carrying masses of valium in her handbag, Dame Edna proclaims, “Valium’s not a drug, darling. It’s a food!”

As it happens, Barry and my mother Edna Fitzgerald were friends. When she was invited to a performance in Melbourne, Dame Edna said, pointing at my Mum, “There’s a real Edna here tonight. She’s going to be so cross I mentioned her!”

Although on the surface they were utterly different, our fathers were also good friends. When Barry and I were still on the booze, Eric Humphries, a builder from conservative Camberwell, said to my dad, Bill Fitzgerald, who in the early 1930s had captained Collingwood Football Club seconds and only read the Saturday night edition of the pink-coloured Sporting Globe: “I was so worried about Barry, Bill, I couldn’t play golf on Tuesday.” These poignant words remind me so much of Barry’s most endearing character, Sandy Stone, who like Eric Humphries always spoke with a sibilant.

My mother and father would have been proud of the fact that, when I was working at Griffith University in Brisbane, I was instrumental in enabling Barry Humphries to be awarded an honorary doctorate for his many services to the arts in Australia.  

Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. His recent books, published by Hybrid in Melbourne, include a memoir, Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey, and the latest Grafton Everest adventure, Pandemonium, in which the hapless Dr Professor Grafton Everest is Australia’s first Secretary-General of the shambolic United Nations

6 thoughts on “Sober Days with Barry Humphries

  • lbloveday says:

    My mother, sister and wife also haven’t drunk alcohol for over 53 years other than “obligatory” sips (eg Communion wine, Toast the Bride and Groom with champagne) because they chose not to. I don’t understand how people who want to not drink, simply don’t drink, and especially don’t understand bragging about not drinking.
    I was sitting at the bar in a bar/bistro when a man came in and ordered food. The barman politely asked “Would you like a drink”? The man screamed at him “I don’t drink. It’s evil”, turned to me and screamed “EVIL”. The barman had neither said nor implied alcohol, my wife was seated next to me drinking mixed fruit juice he’d served, others were sitting at tables drinking Coke Zero, but I stayed quiet – “If you argue with idiots they drag you down to their level and beat you on experience” – John Noel William Newman
    “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul”
    William Ernest Henley
    I have a often-worn t-shirt:
    helping you
    stay drunk
    Since 1968

  • Brian Boru says:

    Thank you Ross for those insights of Barry who we loved so much.
    I remember how sad it was in Moonee Ponds when Barry died. The “little man” closed the shop for the day and we mourned.

  • norsaint says:

    Great stuff Ross. Rewatching the old Les Patterson interviews (on Youtube) with Parkinson in particular, is quite hilarious. No matter how many times you see them, it is impossible not to break out in uproarious laughter.
    I found myself standing next to Barry at some traffic lights years ago. I wrestled with whether to say hello or not but rather foolishly decided in the negative. I was going to ask him his opinion of the great Auberon Waugh, a fellow contributor to Private Eye in its heyday.
    In the next life perhaps.

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