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The New Daily
Louise Talbot

‘Where did I come from?’: Inside one of Barry Humphries’ final TV appearances

Watch Barry Humphries in 'Who Do You Think You Are' Source: SBS Australia

Inviting the late comic genius, writer and raconteur Barry Humphries to explore his ancestry in genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? was like “being with a rock star”, according to the team who worked with him in the UK.

“When the crew filmed with Barry in London’s West End he was mobbed by fans … he was so popular they were wishing they had a bouncer with them,” executive producer Maxine Gray told The New Daily.

“It was like being with a rock star, which of course he was. I just wish Barry had been able to see how it all came together in the episode.”

Humphries, an Australian icon and entertainment industry heavyweight with seven decades of material under his belt, died on April 22, aged 89.

The world’s best satirist, who made Barry McKenzie, Dame Edna and the inimitable Sir Les Patterson household names (among others), finally gets some answers about where he came from in the first episode of the 14th series of the show.

“The most fascinating thing about working with Barry was that he was desperate to find an exotic, colourful ancestor – he was hoping for an artistic Hungarian Jew,” Gray said.

“He didn’t want to be plain British … and yet, at the end of the day, that’s what he was.”

The adventures of Barry … Humphries

Humphries, who died at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney where he was being treated for complications following hip surgery earlier this year, was “completely himself until the very end, never losing his brilliant mind, his unique wit and generosity of spirit,” his family said. ​

He was never one to shy away from a good story, and SBS has unwittingly filled in the last bit of the jigsaw puzzle of his life, to find out more about his past and where he came from.

Thanks to a UK tabloid obituary by Moonee Ponds housewife Dame Edna, we know where she came from.

But what about Barry?

He was best placed to write the story of his origins and relished the opportunity to explore his ancestry, as he noted: “It might be one of the last TV shows I do because, in spite of my appearance, I’m quite old.

“I’m still fairly convinced that if there is an interesting person in my family tree, it’s me. I doubt if there’s anyone as interesting as I am,” he said in the episode.

“I’ll be fascinated to know how wrong I am.”

The show takes Humphries back to the UK, where he resided for most of his life, to walk through the small towns and regions where his ancestors lay buried, and sit in churches and libraries with social anthropologists and genealogists.

Digging through the archives of births, deaths and marriages is revealing and, as he said at the end of the show, the experience was “quite profound”.

“True, he had an ancestor in his father’s line who had an oblique connection to royalty, and on his Mum’s side he had colourful ancestors with a criminal bent, so he did find colour, but not necessarily of the type he was hoping for,” Gray said.

Was he disappointed at discovering his roots were not all that exotic?

“I don’t think Barry was at all disappointed in what he uncovered. He always said ‘I think we’ll find I’m the most interesting person in my family tree’, and I think there was something satisfying for him about being right,” she said.

In the teaser trailer, Humphries is sitting in an opulent home library, a laptop in front of him on a wide dining table, reading an official document through a magnifying glass.

“My God, the lunatic asylum,” he said.

“My mother used to say, in mixed company, ‘We don’t know where Barry came from’,” Humphries recalled during filming.

“Well, I began to think, where did I come from?”

Without giving too much away, Gray revealed the story on his father’s side “about the fair Quakeress and the King was entertaining and a bit of a romp”, but “his whisky-distilling ancestors on his Mum’s side helped shed some light on her character and the way she conducted herself”.

“He enjoyed that.”

Barry Humphries outside Knole House, Sevenoaks. Photo: Warner Bros.

One out of the box

John Barry Humphries was born in Kew in 1934 to Eric (a construction manager) and Louisa (Lou, a dressmaker who worked at one stage at Myer Emporium).

He wrote he was born less than a year after Hitler became chancellor of the Third Reich in “an ugly red-brick hospital in Kew” in a 2005 first-person piece for The Age.

He was educated at the nearby elite private schools of Camberwell Grammar and then Melbourne Grammar, where he flourished academically, although not so much in the gym or playing sport, preferring to slip through the fence and head towards bookshops.

He described his parents as “a post-Depression couple” who took Sunday drives with their boy (he was one of four siblings) to check out houses in other suburbs.

“They both came from the working-class suburb of Thornbury and thanks to the growing success of my father’s business they had moved to Camberwell on the fringes of the metropolitan area.”

He began, but did not finish, an arts/law degree at the University of Melbourne.

Humphries in dress-up in the backyard at home. Photo: National Portrait Gallery

The Guardian wrote his “life-long fascination with dadaism manifested early on in a series of unsettling performances amid ordinary life that would become legendary”.

He’d dress up as a Frenchman, “boarding a Melbourne tram to beat an accomplice who was pretending to be blind … on aeroplanes he would empty a tin of Heinz Russian salad into a sick bag, before pretending to vomit and eat it”.

“He would hide a serving of roast beef and a glass of champagne in a bin; then, dressed as a tramp, he would rummage through the rubbish and sit down to his meal in front of perplexed onlookers,” it wrote.

He loved theatre.

Humphries went on to delight and outrage audiences for more than half a century with his material presented in a unique blend of old-style music hall and contemporary satire.

He was also a respected character actor with many stage and screen credits, an author of novels and autobiography, and an accomplished landscape painter.

He moved to the UK and lived there until late 2022.

He found his village.

Barry Humphries wrote his own spoof obituary in 1981 titled ‘Goodbye, Possums’. Photo: AAP

In the SBS show, Humphries says his parents “showed no signs” of the things he loved and he wanted to know why.

Did he get the answers he was seeking?

“I think Barry’s mother had been an enigma for most of his life, but his experience on [the show] gave him a few more clues to his mother’s character and helped him in some way come to terms with her persona and his relationship with her.”

Gray says it was more “sad” than serendipitous that the last show Barry did about himself was on Who Do You Think You Are?

“He was so generous with his time and energy on the shoot, so interested and mischievous in his interviews with the historians, putting them at ease but also making sure he found some fun and laughter in every scene.

“He was completely charming and everyone who worked with him loved the experience.”

And even though he never got a chance to see the final cut, “he was so damn clever, I suspect he could imagine exactly how we would edit it and how his story would play out”.

“And also that he would remain exactly as he had predicted – the most interesting person in his family tree.

“I think he loved being unique.”

Who Do You Think You Are? premieres on SBS and SBS On Demand on May 2 at 7.30pm (AEST)

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