William Sitwell recalls his meetings with the extraordinary talent that was Barry Humphries. 'And then I walked her back to her room. Just me and Edna. It was fascinating to see how deeply he inhabited his creations, literally becoming them, for a single person.'
The first contact Barry Humphries made with my family was unsuccessful. The comedian, actor, writer, satirist, author and book collector had written to my grandfather. His name was Sacheverell Sitwell, the youngest of the trio of sibling writers (his sister was Edith and brother, Osbert) who had lit up the British arts and literary scene of the 1920s. My grandfather was in his eighties and his mail was intercepted by his housekeeper of long-standing, Gertrude Stevenson.
With my parents and brother and sister we shared a house with ‘Sachie’, in his last years after his wife, Georgia, had died; occupying a wing of the treasure trove that was Weston Hall in rural Northamptonshire.
I spotted the card one morning in my grandfather’s kitchen. There was a photograph of Dame Edna Everage on the front and inside a note from ‘her’ expressing admiration for the work of Sachie; my grandfather had written some 130 books on travel, art, architecture and more as well as numerous volumes of poetry, newspaper and magazine columns. Could the Dame possibly pay Sir Sacheverell a visit and have some books signed?
‘I don’t know who this peculiar person is,’ Gertrude said. ‘And it’s not the first time they’ve written.’
‘But that’s Edna Everage!’ I squealed. It was the late 1980s, I was a teenager, and Dame Edna ruled the Saturday night schedules with The Dame Edna Experience.
Gertrude was none the wiser. The only thing that ever seemed to be on her television set was her husband Bernard’s beloved wrestling. I squirrelled the card out of the kitchen and passed it to my father.
A few weeks later and Barry Humphries came to Weston Hall to meet my grandfather. He came with a pile of books to have signed, stayed for lunch and we were all extremely excited to meet him.
Weston Hall had seen a parade of great names through its doors over the years: writers, actors, dancers and broadcasters. But for myself and my siblings this was the most exciting. Barry, the genius behind Edna and his other creations such as Sir Les Patterson and Sandy Stone, was himself a softly-spoken, utterly charming, erudite, sharp-witted and well-dressed man.
He stayed for lunch and then returned on many occasions, becoming a good friend of the family. Indeed my father even talked him into opening the annual Weston and Weedon Horticultural Show, which took place in the gardens. The village gardeners vied to win prizes for their veg and flowers, there were exotic bird exhibitions and a brass band.
Barry, now morphed into Edna stepped out of the house for her great appearance and climbed into the family coach, a beautifully restored early 20th century single-horse-drawn Brougham Chariot. The coach turned on the gravel driveway, then took a long circuit down the drive, left along a path at the far end of the garden and finally down the long avenue before halting in front of some stone steps.
She alighted to great cheers from the assembled crowd and entered the tent. ‘As I look around this marquee today I see an array of beautiful flowers,’ she said, then, noting the sizeable number of blue-rinsed ladies, added, ‘and one or two cactuses…’
She’d written a poem especially, the last line of which was: ‘As for me I’m no ordinary mother and wife/ I was Dame Edith Sitwell in a previous life.’
It was utterly brilliant. She toured the exhibits then after, back in the house, I interviewed her for my university radio station and newspaper.
And then I walked her back to her room. Just me and Edna. We went up the main staircase and along the passage with my guiding her through the various paintings on the wall. ‘These are by the Italian artist Gino Severini,’ I explained as we approached her bedroom. She took a deep interest, making comments and not for a moment coming out of character.
Back in her room and her dresser helped to morph her back into Barry Humphries who re-emerged some time later for a cup of tea. It was fascinating to see how deeply he inhabited his creations, literally becoming them, not just as a performance for hundreds, thousands or millions of people but even for a single person.
My father asked his assistant at what point Barry became Edna as he dressed. ‘Around the moment the false teeth go in. He clears his throat and it’s Edna.’
We saw Barry often at Weston. I remember the funniest after dinner conversation in the dining room where another guest, the English character actor Derek Nimmo, and he engaged in the most brilliant repartee. It was an historic night, I know that we just laughed and laughed at their brilliance but I can’t remember what they talked about. Just the recollection at one point of Barry recalling how a Filipino lady had once entered the sauna room of a friend’s house to clean it, became curious as to how it worked, switched it on, got stuck in there and never re-emerged…
He would entertain us in The Crown, our village pub. One weekend at the bar and also with my old pal, the actor Dominic West, a local approached Barry. 'Hello Mr Humphries. I've lived here for 35 years,' he stated proudly. 'Oh,' replied Barry adding, with shades of Edna: 'I wish you could stay.' My father was also there and he noticed my dad had quite a thirst for alcohol. ‘He’s a big sipper,’ he remarked. Which indeed Barry once was, but by the time we knew him he hadn’t had a drink for some 20 years.
He showed huge kindness to myself and my siblings always taking an interest in what we were up to and doing us the odd favour.
As editor of the magazine Waitrose Food Illustrated I once corralled him into writing a tribute to Australian cheese as Sir Les; self-appointed special attaché to the Court of St James and, as he put it, ‘a man who has literally sat on the international cheese board.’
He wrote about his encounters with cheese across the world, mentioned the keenness an airline stewardess had once shown in his ‘blue mauve vein’ and described Tasmania as ‘that bushy triangular zone down under where the cheese is second-to-none’. Sadly the Waitrose editorial team rejected the finished article. I, embarrassed at the trouble he had gone to, broke the news to Barry. ‘Bit too strong for Waitrose was it?’ he said softly, and forgivingly. He drew an illustrated of Sir Les sniffing cheese which I treasure.
A deeply funny and simply lovely man. How we’ll miss you Barry.