Barry Humphries and his Quadrant connection

It is not often publicly acknowledged that Barry Humphries was a political conservative and, for a big slice of his adult life, he was close to Quadrant. He made his first contribution to the magazine in 1970. It was an interview by editor Peter Coleman recorded with Barry and English comedian Dick Bentley in London in 1970 and published in the April edition of Quadrant that year. Barry had become a popular performer in Britain through a television series on the BBC. English media critics loved the way Barry’s principal character, Edna Everage, represented Australian crudity but were baffled to learn that Australian audiences had for at least a decade relished his satire too.

In June 1975, Barry became a regular contributor to Quadrant with his column named Pseuds Corner. It was more a selected paste-up of other writers than written contributions of his own, being mainly extracts from writings by journalists, celebrities, politicians and other public figures. It often cruelly exposed, in their own words, their most embarrassing pretensions. It ran in most editions for two and a half years, finishing in December 1977.

At the same time as Pseuds Corner became a regular part of the magazine, editors Peter Coleman and James McCauley roped Barry in to become a member of their newly formed Editorial Advisory Committee, (which soon after changed its name to Editorial Board). Barry remained a member of the board for the next sixteen years, finishing his position in December 1991. Other members at the time included the cream of Sydney academic intelligentsia: David Armstrong, Owen Harries, Leonie Kramer, Martin Krygier, Elwyn Lynn and Vivian Smith, most of whom matched Barry in the longevity of their time on the board.

One way Barry used his editorial position was to make test runs of some of the gruesome characters he created for his stage and television performances. The first of these to make it into Quadrant pages was Craig Steppenwolf (right) a high school teacher whose political radicalism was obnoxious. The front cover of the November 1975 edition bore a picture of Barry dressed as the mad-looking Craig. The piece inside was a transcript of stage directions and dialogue for a music hall performance of the character, written by Barry and his co-satirist Ross Fitzgerald.

Unfortunately, Craig’s character did not make it much further on stage. It was probably too early for such a character to be widely recognized, and he was dropped from the line-up. However, the next character Barry introduced to Quadrant’s pages was much more successful. In April 1977, Quadrant readers were given a script of Mr Les Patterson giving his “Historic Address to the British”. The front cover of the issue carried an especially nauseating picture of Barry’s character “Les Patterson, cultural attaché to the Court of St James”.

Another character who was also tested on Quadrant’s front cover in July 1981 was a film producer named Phil Philby, Inside the magazine was a script for “A Fillup for Phil Philby Films”, which records the ostentatiously self-effacing Philby receiving a Gold Goanna award for best Australian film of the year. This one didn’t go much further either, but like Craig Steppenwolf it had lots of potential.

Barry scored his fourth front cover in May 1984. This time the central character was Barry himself. Quadrant devoted the front cover of the May edition and a celebratory dinner for his fiftieth birthday. The edition carried tributes from Leonie Kramer and David Armstrong, with verse written by Geoffrey Lehman and Geoffrey Dutton. Barry contributed a thank-you verse of his own, titled Jubilee Blues, which went like this:

Jubilee Blues:

Ungracious Stanzas from the Guest of Honour

No taxis due to rain and I was late
Not only late but recently turned fifty
yet Quadrant felt this feat deserved a fete
The night before they re-elected Nifty.*

I got there damp and infinitely flattered.
The function room was full — (it held a few) —
And some were there whose friendship really mattered —
One or two.

Later amidst the Camembert and mirth,
The dreaded hour arrived to make a speech;
Chill memories of an audience in Perth who wondered if
I’d meant to jest or preach.

A few sought bons mots sage and mystical,
Another canvassed Edna on ‘the trousseau’.
To speak about oneself seemed egotistical —
Irrelevant however, not to do so.

Accepting all those warm congratulations for having
Fifty years ago been born,
I thought about the manifold frustrations of those who
Make a livelihood of scorn,

Drag howling Caliban to his reflection
Remembering as you show the fool his folly
Your Chimera could win the next election
In this the land of Bob and Bert and Molly.

If you pursue the satirist’s vocation
Force-feeding fibbers from the candid cup
All you’ll succeed in doing for the nation
Is cheer it** up.

* “Nifty” is the soubriquet of a provincial Australian public
servant (circa 1980), so-called for his adroitness in defending

** ”It” means “the bastards”.






18 thoughts on “Barry Humphries and his Quadrant connection

  • NarelleG says:

    Thank you Keith.
    A light went out for Australia.
    Vale Edna.

  • Another Richard Harrison says:

    Sorry for being pedantic, but Humphries was a director of Quadrant Magazine Company until at least 1991.

  • sunday.creek.stn says:

    As always, the last verse of “Jubilee Blues”, succinctly nails “it”.
    Who is going to cheer the nation (and all us “its”) up now?
    What a sad question that is.
    Perhaps if I plant some glads…..

  • ianl says:

    I’ve always found his Sandy Stone character the most poignant and pointed (at the left side of middle class Aus).

    We (my wife and me) saw one of his live performances in Sydney in the late 70’s. Yes, he had us crying with laughter – but we noticed quite a few members of the audience, mostly middle-aged women, quietly disapproving amongst themselves of his satire. These people were obviously much annoyed at being made fun of.

    The Sandy Stone character seemed to disturb them most. We thought about that. Our conclusion was that the Stone persona in particular exposed the comfort a large section of the Aus middle class found in huddling in mediocrity.

    We always thought that was likely a big chunk of the reasons BH left for the UK. And satire lives, still.

    • mrsfarley2001 says:

      There’s one helluva lot of the British middle class that have enjoyed wallowing in mediocrity for more years than I care to remember, Ian.

      I often think Hyacinth Bucket owed a lot to our Barry. With all apols to Sheridan, both Richard Brinsley (Mrs Malaprop) and the son of Hyacinth & the long-suffering Richard, her spouse.

      How-some-ever, as my granny used say.

      Always cherished Barry’s bit of doggerel about Oz, once read in Quadrant: “it’s so safe here & sunny, we don’t have to think; so our bodies are brown & our government’s pink”. Think it was part of a longer work, sometime in the 80s.

      Barry was funny, unlike most of today’s “comedians”.

      May God grant him a merciful judgement.

  • Brian Boru says:

    Like my wife and I, all of Moonee Ponds is in mourning. The little man has closed the shop for the day and we weep at the passing of our great compatriot.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Thankfully, Barry Humphries was too big to cancel. They tried, but they simply could not manage it. Barry just charged ahead and won through. Dame Edna and Sir Les live on forever now.

    Not so Chris Lilley, and his character Mr. G from ‘Summer Heights High’, who was by Lilley’s time extremely recognisable as a teacher type. Lilley’s whole hilarious oeuvre has been effectively cancelled. Barry was ahead of his time with Mr. Craig Steppenwolf, a teacher pushing absurd leftist politics, who would certainly be recognisable today as a cultural type.

    Vale, Barry Humphries. As with Queen Elizabeth 2, it feels like the end of an era.

  • Keith Windschuttle says:

    Richard Harrison, thanks for the correction. I hadn’t seen the official registration. We’ll change the text accordingly.

  • oldandfeeble says:

    What Barry Humphries had was wit, a quality sadly missing in almost all current so-called comedians.

  • IainC says:

    Despite, or perhaps because of, his towering intellect and razor-sharp mind, Humphries, unlike modern comedians, respected and admired the “ordinary Australian”. His comedy poked gentle, and affectionate, fun at the common man and woman, secure in the knowledge that, at heart, he was one of them, and no matter how crude or irreverent the joke, he was on their side.
    Modern comedians, in contrast, despise the working man and woman, and pour scorn on their hopes and dreams, contemptuous of the little people and their love of home, family and country.
    Humphries, an international housewife superstar and emigre, never forgot his origins and the suburban, daggy, homespun culture with a spouse, 2 kids, a dog and a blow up pool next to the barbie, that allowed him to leave, fly to Ultima Thule and prosper without ever breaking the cultural umbilical cord that led back to home.
    Rest in glorious peace, Barry.

  • IainC says:

    I submitted this comment to both the Oz and H-S, both rejected for reasons which mystify me.

    (Quote from an Oz article a few days ago.)
    His comments about transgender people in 2018 – he described trans identity as a “fashion”, and sex-change surgery as “self-mutilation” – led the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to cancel him, wiping his name from the Barry Award.
    (And my response.)
    Those Morlockian epigones weren’t fit to carry Sir Les’ extra-deep chamberpot (“are yez with me?”). I’d hate to think how high Barry Humphries’ IQ was, but it soared over the shrivelled, bitter-lemon intellects of modern comedians. Rest in glorious peace, ya flamin’ Aussie b—d.

    This later addition, pertaining to various tributes to BH, was accepted, though.
    I’d suggest The Barry Awards for Best Male and Best Female Comedians, in the shape of a raised digit pointing in the direction of the Melbourne Comedy Festival Committee.

  • Sindri says:

    That wonderful clip of Dame Edna in the Royal Box, being handed another ticket and announcing briskly to Charles and Camilla “They’ve given me a better seat”. Just brilliant. I doubt we’ll ever see another like him.

  • Trevor Bailey says:

    Only a day before Barry Humphries died did I say to a friend that the former’s death would mark the last great public figure whose death I’d mourn. Quadrant Online is the first and only place I’ll share my grief among the like-of-mind. By sad coincidence, I’ve been reading a little Gogol this month, and this author’s pioneering treatment of ‘poshlost’ (untranslatable from its Russian provenance but roughly taken to mean ‘vulgar, banal, sham’) leads me to think that for five decades of adult life I’ve been treated to an insight into the human comedy by its greatest Australian exponent. Vale John Barry Humphries.

    • mrsfarley2001 says:

      Dear Mr Bailey,
      Some doggerel to cheer you up.

      What a wonderful concept is “Poshlost”
      For a time when the crudest hold sway,
      And nothing’s allowed to be classy
      The good and refined being outre
      Poshlost marks the end of our empire
      Only lefty opinion’s okay
      “Poshlost” is that word that’s been lacking
      Perfect cultural fit for today.

      Best wishes!

  • padraic says:

    I agree with you Sindri about the skit where someone found him a better seat. It’s my favourite. My sister who was a student nurse in Sydney in the beginning of the 60s saw one of his first performances in Sydney and had us in stitches at home as she regaled us with some of his skits. His humour in public was what was self- repressed among Australians and was totally new and “outrageous” at the time , but eminently funny. He had let the genie out of the bottle. As an expatriate Australian in London in 1964-66 I became a translator for local UK work colleagues for many of his baffling expressions (for them) that appeared in the Private Eye comic strip – The Adventures of Barry MacKenzie. He had what you may call “a delicate turn of phrase” for some of the coarser aspects of human behaviour. One character that never took off was Lance Boyle, but the name was hilarious. He was a genius and may his soul rest in peace. (I wonder what he would have made of that).

  • Watchman Williams says:

    Whenever I tuck into the curried prawns and rice at the Moonee Ponds RSL, I always remember my old mate Sandy Stone, who would always say of our meetings at the local cultural centre “it was a nice night’s entertainment”.

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