Sunday, 5 September 2010

God's Own Country

Whispering Gums wrote a post on Australian expatriate writers the other day. It began with this quote from Carmen Calill: "Australia is the only country I have come across that divides its writers into residents and those who have dared to live elsewhere".

Shortly after seeing Whispering's piece, I was in the library. As always, when looking for something else, I came across lots of interesting things that I hadn't known I wanted to begin with. Among them was this interview from Quadrant April 1970, looking at the attitude in Australia toward expatriate comedians. Peter Coleman was the interviewer and he was talking to Barry Humphries and Dick Bentley, (I don't remember Bentley, although I learn from Wikipedia that he was in the Sundowners, which my mother took me to see at the Essoldo Cinema in the King's Road, Chelsea, when I was way to young to understand the most basic children's flick, let alone something designed for adult Australians. The one impression I came away with was that my mother's homeland was about as unlike Chelsea in the 1960s as anywhere possibly could be.)

A lot of what they talk about no longer applies - particularly the bits about Australia House being anxious to downplay the rigours of the bush in order not to put off migrants (during the 80s at Australia's Vienna embassy in fact they used to have a documentary about Australia's most poisonous spiders and snakes running on a continuous video loop in the immigration waiting room.) Nevertheless, as with anything involving Humphries, the piece offers some amusing insights.

Barry Humphries and Dick Bentley, interviewed by Peter Coleman
Quadrant, April, 1970,
How dare you make us laugh?
From time to time Australian critics or officials have criticised Australian comedians in London for presenting an untrue, out of date or at least unflattering idea of Australia to British audiences. They are often supported by English critics: recently to Mr Barry Humphries's irritation, his BBC television work was praised by English critics for the way it ridiculed Australian crudity. In this interview in London Peter Coleman discussed this issue and the role of the comedian with two leading "expatriate" comedians.

Peter Coleman: Let's start with some horrific examples. Would you give the most horrific example you can think of that illustrates this peculiar attitude that you think Australian officials and Australians have to Australian comedians overseas.

Barry Humphries: Luckily I commute a bit back and forth. Last time I arrived at the airport two gentlemen of the press approached me almost simultaneously, and the first one asked a question that is quite commonly addressed to returning entertainers: "Glad to have you back Barry. Very nice to see you back in Australia. What are your plans? Are you going to stay in Australia for very long?" I was very interested in this because it is a trick question. I said I was going to do three television shows and then I had to go back to London to do a series with the BBC. And he immediately said - "Yes, we probably seem a little bit rough and ready to you now, a little dull and naive compared to your new-found friends in the West End of London." I was a little bit chilled by this. Seconds later another microphone was thrust in my face and another voice said to me - "We're very glad to see you Barry. What are your plans?" I was very guarded at this point and I said - "Oh well, I'm very glad to be back in Australia and as a matter of fact, though I've got this BBC series, I would very much like to be staying on and working here some considerable period of time." And he said, "Yes, we heard that you weren't doing too well over there."

Dick Bentley: I don't get that treatment. I've been away rather longer although I've been back in ’51, ’55, ’61, ‘66, and I'd go back rather more often if they'd have me. But it drives me barmy: "I suppose you reckon you are an Englishman now." This is ridiculous. I usually say - "No, actually I'm Swedish" - but your opening remarks, Peter, indicate that Australians do not hold a favourable view of us.

Coleman: Well, apparently there have been some criticisms made. For example, you were involved in some controversy some years back. What was that?

Bentley: I did a programme for the BBC sound radio -an Australia Day programme and we had all the top people from the operatic field, the concert platform and all the people from all the cultural departments - all Australians. It was a 45 minute programme and sandwiched amongst these pleasant cultural items I introduced Keith Michell, who was at Stratford-upon-Avon at the time, reading a little from the ‘balcony scene’ from CJ Dennis's Sentimental Bloke, which I loved. There was also a sketch of two run-down terribly effete people from Mayfair – a fellow and his girl and their counterparts in Australia - talking. The Mayfair fellow says - "vin rouge my pet? " and the Australian says - "a drop of plonk darl?" This was considered to be slang and of course CJ Dennis was considered undoubtedly to be slang. The two items took about 4 1/2 minutes, but the front page heading in a Sydney newspaper the following day said BRITAIN SHOCKED BY SLANG PACKED AUSTRALIA DAY PROGRAMME. I took the rap. The fact that I did the Mayfair fellow seems to have escaped them.

I don't think Australia House were in love with me round about that time. I went round to Australia House to see if I could get a copy of Dennis's work – the combined essays – I always love that – and I said to the lady at the counter. "Do you have a copy of CJ Dennis's work?" "Oh," she said, "there's been a terrible run on them lately – they've all gone." I said "Good, I suppose people heard it on the programme." She said, "Yes all those English people, they've come and bought all the books." I said "I thought they'd like it." She said, "Oh they don't like it. The English only buy that book because they like to see Australians in a bad light."

I hear on the grapevine that Barry is persona non grata at Australia House. Is this because he is supposed to, I was going to say, rubbish his countrymen, though I don't think that Australia House would approve of such a word, because I don't think that they acknowledge there is such a thing as slang. I understand they would probably use a word like denigrate.

Coleman: Well, Australia, in the government view, is a "swinging refined country, fly free and fireproof". As one correspondent said in the Guardian this week: the typical Australian is a middle-aged housewife talking about nickel and oil or on her way to the stock exchange for the weekly lecture, and none of this fits in with the "bastard from the bush" image. The question arises as to how much truth there is in this? Is this kind of comedy making fun of an outdated stereotype? This is what they would say if they were pressed.

Humphries: What would they say if they weren't pressed? Quite recently I did a tour in Australia, one of those one-man shows and it went down well. It seemed to me that if it had described stereotypes of Australian characters that didn't exist the audience wouldn't have laughed with the energy they did. It seems to me that people laugh at things they understand. But the fact is that I did the same show for a limited season in London at the beginning of this year and a number of English critics commented on the fact that this indicated that Australia was not a very desirable place to live in. Quotations of this kind went back to all the Australian newspapers and numbers of people including a well-known New Zealand impresario… who shall be nameless… went to the press, said he had seen the show in London and that I was doing Australia a grave disservice and that the authorities at Australia House should have the power to take me off the stage. Apparently it's okay if you say this sort of thing in Australia, but if you say it abroad its rather different, it's rather bad form. But curiously enough an Englishman approached me recently and said that he had thought of going to Australia and had decided against it, but when he had seen my show he thought that he would revise his decision and go to Australia after all. He said "You see, it must be quite a good place, because it seems that Australians, whatever we'd heard to the contrary, are able to laugh at themselves."

Coleman: I think that's probably true, that probably Dick Bentley and Barry Humphries are among the best migration drummers that we have…

Bentley: We have a disadvantage in being comedians. We're not jockeys. I think actors are a bit suspect with Australians. In Australia I remember a fellow being asked – "What do you do? An actor? No, what do you do for a job?" So it's slightly shaky there and perhaps comedians even more so. But I was interested in your point about people laughing at themselves. I should imagine that one of the main functions of Australia House is public relations, nurturing the relationship between this country and Australia.

Humphries: They are very partial to giving dried fruit to people in the Strand. They rush up and plunge handfuls of dried fruit at them, much to their astonishment.

Bentley: I think that, rather than widening the gap, the very fact of seeing the Australians laughing at themselves – this is the kind of thing the British have done all their lives – will bring the countries closer together.

Coleman: I think that the critics who say that you are rubbishing Australia are to some extent missing the point. Did you see that critic in the Daily Express the other day, who said something to the effect that Barry Humphries is keenly aware of the lack of culture that his countrymen bear and that he is at his best when he's ridiculing them. I think this is to miss the point – that in fact what the audience is laughing at is not so much Australians as themselves. They see the characters you present, whether you call them Australian, British or Anglo Australian or something, and then they say they are laughing at Australians – but they know they're really laughing at themselves. I don't think that Australian officials and the pompous London television critics are right…

Humphries: I prefer to think that too. But I've never set out in a mood of mockery of Australia, never consciously at any rate. I've often seen aspects of Australian life that I positively detest and I've tried to describe that in my work quite a bit.

Coleman: It is interesting that there is not, in London, a number of Canadians exploiting Anglo-Canadian humour or South African comedians exploiting Anglo-South African humour or New Zealand comedians using Anglo-New Zealand humour. Perhaps this Anglo-Australian humour is a special thing.

Bentley: Well, comedy or rather comedians are in rather short supply and always have been in South Africa and, strangely enough, in Canada. I think that one of the things here is that Australians are worried that the British will think we are crude, that we have a lot of slang. With respect, I think that Australian comedians would know better than any official at Australia House just what the British public thinks. It is part of our business to find out what they think. We live on that sort of thing. We have contacts that are not available to any official at Australia House, the fellow in the pub, the dustman, the workman, old men, old Etonians, the whole spectrum of society. People chat. You're on the television here – we know pretty well what the British public think and they're not thinking that because we have a joke about Australia – oh dear, what a terrible place.

Coleman: Australia House may think you are holding Australia up to ridicule in another country.

Bentley: I wonder what the attitude of the British High Commissioner is to the Alf Garnett show – that it might put off Australian tourists?

Coleman: There was a press report the other day about this fellow who had read two books about Australia, Craig McGregor's Profile and Donald Horne's Lucky Country. Both, whatever else you might say about them, are critical books. This fellow was saying that, if the country could produce such critics, well it wasn't too bad.

Humphries: The thing is that if we are going to be concerned about the criticism of Australian bureaucrats then we ought to give them a little observation, and recently I had something to do with Australian bureaucrats – with the income tax department in Australia. It seemed to me that they had been doing a lot of checking up on me and I had to go to some conference. They drew me along to their offices and I sat in this austere room with two people, one of whom I might say very closely resembled GK Chesterton's description: his hairline began with alacrity, where his eyebrows reluctantly left off. One of these gentlemen said "We have quite a dossier on you Mr Humphrey." He even got the name wrong and there on the desk was the biggest book of press clippings I've ever seen. So I said: "You are obviously very interested in my work – if we can forget income tax for a minute, tonight is the last night of my show. Would you like to come along?' He said – "Oh no, that won't be necessary. No, my son has been to… er… one of your… er… er… shows and he has told me quite a bit about it, all I will need for my purposes." So I'm wondering how many of these Australia House blokes actually see, actually watch us, actually listen to us. In fact it's conceivable they don't at all. They'd rather watch the Black and White Minstrel Show… 'We hear that this long-haired Brian Humphrey and this other fellow Bentley… quite amusing. I believe ... my son tells me… but of course we're busy. We're working late at Australia House, but I have it on very good authority that they are doing the country no good." Do they think about Scobie Breasley [an Australian jockey]? Are they worried the British will think that Australia consists of a lot of dwarfs?

Bentley: Take this Edna Everage that Barry does. I think she is a very docile lovely old doll. I don't think there's any venom in any of this at all. There is no venom in his Sandy character and also – nobody mentions this – in his programme, he sends up some English figures, French figures and what have you.

Coleman: The argument these people put forward is that expatriates live in the past, migrants live in the past. For example, the Irish in America are always supposed to be singing Danny Boy and this drives the Irish ambassadors mad, as Danny Boy either never existed or certainly doesn't exist now. The Irish ambassador – like Australia House – wants to present the image of a "modern swinging country". They don't want Danny Boy any more. So they say that you expatriates live in the past, that you live in an Australia that is dead and keep on making jokes about an Australia that is dead, and why don't you look at current "swinging" Australia?

Humphries: Let's face this exceptionally despicable description of expatriates – exiles perhaps. The thing is that of course to accuse us of living in the past reveals their deepest fear. What they really are afraid of is that we might possibly be living in the future. We have the biggest slice of the cake over here and we get here what they might only be hearing about a week later…

Bentley: Let me talk about this giving of a false picture. I know of an Australian authoress who was doing a saga for the BBC, an all Australian thing. It covered a period when there was a really bad drought in Australia. She went to Australia House to get some film clips of drought and bushfires. And they told her – oh no, not in front of the British. So no drought, no bushfires, no bush – that's a strong point, don't show us all the bush, I know that point. Now on top of that I understand they are trying to give an image of no suburbia, because they quarrel about Barry's suburban satire. So if there's no slang, no drought, no bushfires, no suburbia, no beer drinking, no rough spoken people, as there are of course in every country in the world, if they are denying the existence of these people, I get very cross. I'm very fond of all sorts of people and, if they deny their existence, they're ashamed of them – and if they're ashamed of them, it is deplorable. Outside of that, they are just outrageous bloody snobs and they are rubbishing Australia by giving a false picture.

Humphries: It's interesting because it seems they would like expatriates to be their property. If we remained in Australia and did our work there, then we would be despised for that. It's like the story I told at the beginning "What are your plans Barry?" It's impossible to win.

Coleman: I remember, to give another illustration, talking to a High Commissioner and he complained of the London success of Nolan and Drysdale, in particular their landscapes, because they presented an image of Australia as having deserts and flies. This was bad for migration.

Humphries: Oh a very sensitive remark! We could put some plastic flowers on each picture…

Bentley: Incidentally, practically everybody comes from the suburbs. I was born in the suburbs – I was brought up in an atmosphere where if you ate spaghetti you were a bohemian and if you lived in a flat, how evil it was to live in a flat. I lived in a place called Auburn – Melbourne – and I remember meeting Sir Robert Menzies at a meeting of the English Speaking Union. I got in because I was very heavily veiled and I was standing near Sir Robert and he said very quietly – "Was it being born in Auburn that made you turn towards humour?" I think that this sort of kidding is fine – it's a nice quip, it's a bit of a sendup, he's not denigrating Auburn or rubbishing anybody. What was I supposed to do – punch him in the face? I think that there are any number of Australians who do this sort of thing and people don't give them credit for… their keen sense of humour.

Coleman: But you haven't met the argument that you get your humour out of past stereotypes, that your picture of Australia is no longer accurate, that there is a new humour waiting.

Humphries: They say that, but is it possible that they might lack a sense of humour?

Coleman: Very likely but…

Bentley: But what do they mean by passed? In the first place a comedian can't do the bloke next door; there's nothing duller than the bloke next door; a comedian is a bit larger than life. I've been in three of Barry's shows and in one I sent up a rather loud Australian who thought he was talking to a lecherous drinking American who is really a padre. As soon as the wife is out of the room I say we'll go out and get stinking with Bluey and Tomo and all that sort of stuff and I've got two tarts from where I work – all this sort of thing. It is only coarse for comic effect. If you're going to tell me that there are no course people in Australia…

Coleman: A lady in the audience asked why you always coarsened the Australian accent. She was not attacking you, but she was clearly annoyed.

Humphries: About stereotypes, I recently met a very drunken Australian journalist but a very intelligent fellow. He said "I don't see you very often now Barry but I used to get your records and thought you were terrific in the old days, when you used to play at small theatres and I went along with my wife sometimes and we thought you were very good, but the last time we saw you we were very disappointed." I said, I'm sorry about that. Why was that? "Well," he said, "I'm sorry Barry, but you've just gone off." Why? I said. "Well, there was auntie Edna on the stage and we used to think that she was terrific – a scathing indictment of suburban Australia – and suddenly we were laughing and the wife nudged me and there was a woman that looked exactly like Edna next to us – laughing." I said, what's wrong with that? "Oh," he said, "if you'd been any good she wouldn't have been laughing."

The strange thing is that an aunt of mine in Australia said "I quite like the show Barry." (In fact she's the aunt on which Mrs Everage is based.) "I love Edna, oh we love her. But there was this sort of bearded arty person you did on stage – I know the type – sort of university type. I don't think you hit the point – because next to us was a person who looks exactly like him, with a beard, a duffle coat, oh, a horrible protest badge – everything. And I tell you he was killing himself with laughing. So I don't think you're quite hitting the nail on the head." So what do you do?

Coleman: But stereotypes do come and go. For example, the Dave and Mabel characters – they survived in England years after they died in Australia, in the form of Ron and Eth. They were popular as English stereotypes. It would be difficult to have that kind of Dad and Dave humour in Australia now.

Bentley: I hear from the head of the ABC sound and various friends that the Glums are now being played in Australia and are really doing something for radio

Coleman: I believe they are also being played in Johannesburg and Hong Kong, so there seems to be something universal about their appeal…

Humphries: The comedian addresses himself to the public and not to a minority in the press, who might like to have the gift of making people laugh, who might like to have been entertainers, and who quite naturally must express their acrimony in some way.

Coleman: They also live by news – live by the idea of change. The journalist doesn't like to think that there is an eternal and unchanging comedy. He wants something new all the time.

Bentley: I think I would like to say here that if I thought I would never get on a boat and spend a week on the Hawkesbury River again, life would be a very dim prospect for me. And this is coming from someone who was born in Melbourne. I found myself at a dinner with very high officers of Australia House once by the way, we were all sitting round the table and a gentleman from Colombo said to my wife – "Is your husband's period of office finished?" One of the guests, the Victorian agent general, said: "You'll be going to Melbourne of course?" I said, no I'm not. He said, "You don't know what you're missing." I said, yes I do that's why I'm not going. And everybody laughed, nobody hit me. I was kidding. If you can't have a bit of a giggle… But there is a tendency to want to put you back into line when you return home.

Coleman: I think it's as simple as this, they see you making fun of Australian crudities and they feel embarrassed. You shouldn't swear in front of the servants.

Bentley: But you can be sure that when you get Australian entertainers together they never stop talking about home. There's a tremendous affection. And to anyone who says – well, if you like Australia so much, why not come back and work there, the truth about that is I approached someone in this very building, a member of the ABC, I didn't like to grovel on my knees but I did hint that I would be very happy to work in an advisory capacity. I must have picked up something, even with a brain like mine. I've been at everything for so long. I might have been of some help. But I'm afraid that I was suitably ignored – so one of my ambitions…

Humphries: I'm interested in Peter's description of the passé stereotype. The stereotype is something that persists, isn't it? Can a stereotype be passé? Dad and Dave are still going strong – but they are wearing different clothes, working for different newspapers. Ginger Mick and the Sentimental Bloke still exist. I think that at the moment Contemporary Australian Urban Society is congratulating itself on being more progressive than, say, California – but I think it's a little bit of a joke, because I just don't think it's true.

Coleman: And you remind us that it's not true, by means of comedy based on standard types, and this is unwelcome. I think this is the conclusion. People who are concerned to defend public images are just never going to like comedy, because comedy is concerned with the exposing of public images, official images. So you are always going to be on the outer.

Humphries: The kind of criticism that is addressed to a comedian would never be addressed to a soprano, a jockey, a ballet dancer or a cricketer. How dare you make us laugh, how dare you? What effrontery. Mr Breasley is it because you are a dwarf that you ride so successfully?


  1. A manifestation of the Cultural Cringe, perhaps? I wrote a post touching on this once. Most Aussies seem so self-confident it's surprising when they're chippy.

    Perhaps the Cultural Cringe might be a good topic for a post or series of posts for The Dabbler, Z, since you are in an ideal position to comment on Anglo-Aussie relations?

  2. I think the Cultural Cringe may have all but gone now, Brit - I'll ask around but I think the Sydney Olympics were its last rites. We look down our noses at the rest of the world these days. In fact, a friend in Melbourne mentioned to me recently that the thing she notices whenever she goes away and comes back is just how ridiculously unbelievably smug we all are. Proving her point, I said, 'Yes, but we've got so much to be smug about.'

  3. That in itself would be an interesting article. The Death of the Cultural Cringe?

  4. Very good zmkc! Though I have to say my smugness has taken a dive in recent years...

    I do love reading old journals - last year I was flipping through old ABC Weeklies from WW2 period. Wonderful stuff - with articles by all sorts of wonderful people including a book page by Vance Palmer. I plan to go back and read some more, when I can.

  5. Where did you find them, Whispering - are they in the National Library, or have you got someone in your family who's been hoarding them?