Fifty years ago, Barry Humphries stopped drinking and said goodbye to embarrassment, misery – and putting his hand on the wrong knee.
He is to be remembered in a State Memorial Service at the Sydney Opera House, at 12am (London time) on Friday, December 15th. The service will be live-streamed on the ABC News YouTube page and available around the world. You can watch the service for three months after the event on https://youtube.com/live/3dnA5KAoySo
Mount Disappointment is about 50 miles north of Melbourne. It is aptly named. On its sere foothills, I performed my first act of gross immodesty with a compliant, young, exotic dancer. It was on a Good Friday, long whiles agone.
Boxing Day is another important landmark in my youthful education. Perhaps the most important – for it was on that day, 50 years ago, that I put the cork in the bottle.
It was half a century ago, but I can still remember that remarkable day. I woke up in a small private hospital in my home town of Melbourne – a place that an American friend describes as a hospital for thirsty people – and I couldn’t remember why I was there.
A nice nurse or, should one say, a non-binary healthcare professional, asked me if I wanted anything. I managed to articulate the word ‘Brandy.’
It arrived, in a tall water-glass filled to the brim. With both hands, I managed to quaff it straight down without spilling much, and then lay back waiting for the effect. But nothing happened. Alcohol, which had promised me so much over 15 years of service, had finally broken its promise. Somehow I knew that that long brandy had been my last. I had always known that the day would come when I would stop drinking, but had always hoped it wouldn’t be today.
I asked my friend Brian, a used-car salesman, who knew me at this time, how I looked.
‘Not in showroom condition, mate.’
Now my poor readers are dreading yet another showbiz self-congratulatory ‘How I beat the grog’ horror story. It seems that every celebrity or almost-celebrity who abjures his drug of choice has to share his story of courage and sacrifice with the world after ten minutes of sobriety.
Yet it is true that we old addicts experience an ineffable sense of gratitude when we discover that we can live happily for an entire day without stimulants and accelerants. If there are no rooftops from which we can shout, then there’s always the Mail on Sunday.
In the 1960s, when on a daily basis I was dedicated to habits of intemperance, the BBC Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush was a drunks’ paradise.
My career was gaining momentum, in spite of the fact that the handbrake was firmly engaged, and I found myself working in a perfect environment. The BBC Club on the fifth floor closed at 3pm – a sad moment announced by the metallic clatter of a grille descending between the drinkers and their drink. This enabled writers and producers to return to their offices in a sufficiently coherent state to make TV programmes.
Not seldom I would stray into the club after hours, in search of an ‘approachable’ bartender. A generous tip could sometimes guarantee a large Teacher’s – and alkies always enjoy paying more.
Once or twice on such clandestine visits, I saw a famous television producer with his face pressed against the grille, and Clifford, a popular and well-remunerated barman, pouring whisky into his mouth through the brass lattice.
Of course I was appalled. How degrading! How could a man stoop to such indignities in search of a tipple?
And was it the producer of Z-Cars, Till Death Do Us Part, Marty Feldman, Crossroads and Steptoe and Son whom I saw, late one afternoon, with chunder-flecked lips, peacefully slumbering on the terrazzo floor of main reception at the headquarters of the nation’s venerable broadcaster? Yes, it was.
I wondered if he would ever sober up enough to feel embarrassed. Probably not; it would be too painful.
Embarrassment – creeping, cringing, crippling, crushing and inevitable – is one of the worst side effects of chronic alcoholism. It is almost as bad as cirrhosis, heart disease, fatal reflux, divorce, suicide and death; and inexcusably putting your hand on the wrong knee.
‘You were on good form last night!’ says your friend with a rather hard look. Or ‘How are YOU feeling this morning?’
But you don’t remember last night. You were there, palpably, but you weren’t there. You were functioning in a blackout. And what was this in your pocket? A book of matches. The Blue Lamp Club! Where’s that? And where was the car you must have driven?
It was like that time last week when you woke up in a strange bedroom with a shawl over the lamp and the odour of patchouli, and two little kids burst into the room and addressed the lump in the bed beside you and said, ‘Mummy! Who’s the funny man?’
You were the funny man – and you had to be funny again tonight! And twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
I hadn’t been in the Clinic for Thirsty People for more than a few days when a carer told me there was someone to visit me. I knew it wouldn’t be a family member because they had all (wisely) dropped me. It was someone called Mr Fiddess, and he’d been waiting two hours for me to wake up. ‘I’m too busy today to see anyone!’ I snapped, a little implausibly.
But Buster Fiddess appeared in the doorway. He was a famous old vaudeville comedian who had lapsed into alcoholism and taken to sleeping in parks and railway sidings with a three-cornered bottle (meths) for company.
I had heard, God knows how, that he had sought the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and was a changed man. He was working, too, in Australian soap operas and police dramas, playing derelicts sleeping in parks and railway sidings, with a three-cornered bottle for company. They were roles to which he brought a particular insight.
Buster sat by my bed for about 60 minutes while I dozed.
When the man who had waited two hours to see me finally left, he said only a few words. ‘I reckon you’ll make it, mate.’
Was it then that I first felt the first glimmer of hope?
Two years later, when I had finally taken Buster’s path to recovery, I was in London to make a film about alcoholism called The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. I strolled past the Coach and Horses in Soho. Norman Balon, the famous publican, spotted me through the window and invited me into the bar.
Now Buster had given me a piece of advice. ‘If you get out of the lion’s den, mate,’ he besought me, ‘never go back for your hat!’
I sipped my ginger beer (on the house) and noticed, at the far end of the bar, a few old cronies, frozen in time.
Among them was Jeff Bernard, whom I hadn’t seen for two years. He had long lost his rather spivvy good looks and now his face resembled a worrying lung.
‘I haven’t seen you for a couple of weeks!’ was all he said.
These were the people I had once believed were my friends. A sobering thought.
I had a good friend in Sydney, Vincent, who inherited half a billion dollars. He liked a drink, but only the best. No alkie he. After he’d made a few bad investments and shaved a few mill off his fortune, I sensed the impending catastrophe. His clothes got cleaner, his cologne got stronger and his overseas trips got a lot longer.
With great trepidation, I suggested a thing he might try that would only occupy a few hours of his time every week and cost nothing.
‘Oh, that!’ he exploded. ‘I hope I’m not as bad as that!’
One morning, he told me he’d complained to the council about a noisy gathering across the street that had percolated through to his $14-million mansion. It was the sound of loud laughter and applause from an adjacent hall, every Thursday night. It was the local AA meeting, five minutes’ walk from the house in which Vincent was soon to die – with a Baccarat glass of Krug in his trembling hand.
In San Francisco, at the start of my triumphant conquest of America, the stage door-keeper appeared at curtain fall. ‘There’s a young woman to see you.’
I had a reservation at Postrio and I was hungry. ‘I don’t think...’
Eddie interrupted me. ‘A very attractive young woman.’
And she was certainly an acceptable looking member of the opposite-sex community.
‘You don’t know me,’ she said, ‘but my mother talks about you all the time. Whenever the family gets together, I say, “Mum, tell us another Barry story.” You guys must have had a wild time!’
Total recall was eluding me but I was smiling, painfully. ‘Please remind me of her name. My memory these days is…’
The girl said a name which was like the Danish word for ‘wildly promiscuous au pair’.
It meant absolutely nothing to me. ‘Roughly when was this?’ I ventured cautiously.
‘Oh,’ she exclaimed, ‘sometime in the sixties. OMG, you guys were cool!’
The sixties, I thought. Ah, the sixties! I don’t remember the sixties.
Only later in that decade did I pick up the gift of life.