The Best Film I Never Made and Other Stories about a Life in the Arts, the multi-faceted and fascinating collection of essays from Bruce Beresford is out this month through Text.
Bruce Beresford is known for such acclaimed films as Driving Miss Daisy, Mao’s Last Dancer and Breaker Morant.
Opinionated, wry and engaging, The Best Film I Never Made will provoke and delight in equal measure. It is the ideal gift not only for cinema buffs but for anyone interested in music, art or literature.
Text brings you a nostalgic extract from this collection about Bruce Beresford’s personal friendship with the ever-entertaining Barry Humphries.
THE TWO BARRYS
I’ve never been a great fan of comic strips. I’m probably missing out on something but only three ever held my attention for a long period. As a child I adored Prince Valiant and still remember the eponymous prince standing beside a huge pile of vanquished foes, his singing sword still in his hand. In those days, the 1950s, Hal Foster’s superbly drawn strip was printed in one of the Sunday papers in colour.
I love Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury for the author’s disenchantment with fashionably popular causes and ideas, and Barry McKenzie because of Barry Humphries’ unpredictably pointed satire, humour, and ear for the vagaries and vulgarities of Australian English.
I first met Barry McKenzie and Barry Humphries around the same time and in the same place – London, the mid-1960s. I had returned to England anxious to avoid the looming Biafran War, in which a number of my Nigerian friends were subsequently killed, and was intent on somehow sliding past the obstructive film union and finding work in the film business.
The Barry McKenzie strip (at that time, amazingly, banned in Australia) was running in the satirical magazine Private Eye, where McKenzie’s outrageous adventures among the Poms and, in particular, his scatological remarks and euphemisms for bodily discharges and fornication were a source of discussion and wonder. I noticed that Barry Humphries was performing with Spike Milligan in a Christmas production of Treasure Island at the Mermaid Theatre. Both actors improvised wildly, to such effect that the play, scheduled to close in mid-January, ran until April.
Armed with a casual suggestion from Patrick White to ‘give Barry a call’ I marched backstage, rather warily, after a performance and introduced myself. Expecting nothing more than a few pleasantries, I was surprised at Barry’s amiability and what appeared to be a genuine interest in my pretty well non-existent career.
Now that I’ve been friends with Barry for over fifty years and have directed him in four feature films, I’m often asked if he (a) is difficult to work with, (b) is crazy, (c) is unreliable and (d) believes he is really Edna Everage. The answer to all four questions is no, though (c) could apply occasionally. He can certainly become Edna Everage when performing – in the way that all great actors can inhabit whoever it is they are impersonating – but the shift back to his own personality can be so striking that I have attended stage performances where I heard the people sitting around me loudly refusing to believe that the urbane man receiving applause could possibly be the woman they have been watching for an hour or more.
Barry has always struck me as good-humoured and even-tempered. His relations with his fellow actors, stage crews and film technicians is always cordial. I am jealous of his ability to remember everyone’s name, even if he bumps into them some years after the time he was working with them on a stage show or film set. In contrast, I have sometimes met actors I have directed and been unable to remember not only their name but in which film of mine they appeared.
He has a wide range of interests. His reading is vast and is greatly aided by his irritating recall of detail. He seems to have read everything in his enormous and well-catalogued library – one that ranges from an unpublished short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (in his own handwriting) to the arcane novels of Marmaduke Pickthall.
I find his collection of paintings even more fascinating. There are few works, very few, by artists who are household names but many charmingly decorative works (quite a few of them of attractive ladies) by mainly European painters of the period 1880 to 1940, although there are also oils and sketches by American and Australian artists. It is the collection of a man with impeccable and individual taste, unimpressed by the fleetingly fashionable and guided only by a response to beauty. I have not heard him express admiration for Basquiat or Cy Twombly. Barry is a keen painter himself, and it has always fascinated me that his wild and colourful landscapes bear no affinity with the pictures that he collects.
It has puzzled me, especially over the past five years, to hear Barry occasionally referred to as right-wing. I’m not at all sure what this means these days. I was once called ‘right-wing’ when I told a leftist friend that I favoured a multi-party to a one-party political system. There was criticism recently when Sir Les Patterson, a politician and one of Barry’s creations, spoke on behalf of the cartoonist Bill Leak, who had died, perhaps from stress, after being persecuted over the content of one of his cartoons. Sir Les spoke in favour of freedom of speech, a point of view that strikes me as admirable. It seems to be an odd concept to advocate boundaries on the subject matter of a political cartoonist.
I can remember few political comments from Barry apart from an admiration he once expressed for John Howard, a sentiment that was shared by many fellow Australians, who re-elected him as prime minister three times. On another occasion, some years ago, Barry expressed fury over the fact that in the 1930s the Australian government restricted entry to the country to many of the Jews fleeing the insanity of Hitler.
Back to Barry McKenzie. It was some time in 1968 that I suggested to Barry Humphries that a feature film could be made from the comic strip. He doubted that the character could sustain a full-length movie but agreed that this would depend largely on finding someone who fitted the role perfectly. About a year later he called me from Sydney and expressed enthusiasm about a singer he had met named Barry Crocker who had a ‘great big chin’ – an essential attribute of the comic-strip version of McKenzie. I didn’t think a chin was the sole qualification for the role, but was just as enthusiastic when I met Crocker in 1971. I’ve always admired the easy charm and innocence he brought to Bazza – it enabled us to get away with the most ribald euphemisms.
Initially, Barry gave me all of the old comic strips so that I could lift scenes, characters and dialogue for the film script. I even had some material that the artist, Nick Garland, considered in such poor taste that he refused to illustrate it. There was also a fairly detailed outline of a McKenzie musical that Barry had written, and abandoned, some years previously. I can imagine the reaction of West End managements when presented with the songs ‘Don’t Tread in the Poop on the Pavement’ and ‘The One-Eyed Trouser Snake’. I didn’t show such refinement and included the second of these in the film, where it was sung by the unlikely combination of Barry Crocker and Julie Covington. Julie, now forgotten, had a superb voice and was the original Evita. She is on the first recording but mysteriously turned down an offer from Andrew Lloyd Webber to play the role on stage.
When Barry returned to London we spent some weeks together preparing the final version of the script. There was still no finance for the film, but with the help and enthusiasm of Phillip Adams the backing (around $250,000) was provided by the somewhat reluctant Australian Film Commission. ‘Delete all the Australian slang from the script,’ was their final directive just before production started – advice which, if followed, would have resulted in a film only a few minutes long.
I once asked Barry how much of Barry McKenzie’s vocabulary was invented and how much was real. Virtually all of it was real, he said, and I realised, as I listened more carefully to how Australians actually spoke, that Barry had the acuteness to pinpoint phrases from ordinary conversations that would normally pass unnoticed. I know that he eavesdropped on people in bars and restaurants and, of course, he forgot nothing. After much insistent questioning, however, he admitted that one phrase was entirely his invention. Interestingly, it is perhaps the most famous of all of McKenzie’s bon mots: ‘point Percy at the porcelain’.
When Private Eye dropped Barry McKenzie the comic strip was at the peak of its popularity. The reasons given were, variously, that Barry missed some delivery dates for the material (probably true) and also that the ex-public-school boys publishing the magazine had forged social links with the royal family, so had become wary of printing too much of McKenzie’s humour at their expense, especially after one celebrated episode where McKenzie found himself inside Buckingham Palace, where he disturbed the Queen on the lavatory.
The Adventures of Barry McKenzie was commercially successful in Australia but horrific reviews focused on its vulgarity being bad for the country’s image. Barry Humphries and I were both taken aback at the vitriol, which was unexpected. Perhaps naively, we had imagined it was all just harmless fun. The censorship board gave the film an X rating, which forbade almost any audience from attending, but after we pointed out there was no nudity in the film, no sex (McKenzie always shied away from it) and no bad language but just a lot of euphemisms, the rating was revised to a G, which meant anyone at all could attend a screening.
A sequel, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974), was less successful but, I thought, even funnier than the first one. Again, the critics were hostile in the extreme and I could see my career as a film director coming to a halt. Ostracised locally, I went back to England and directed a lamentable rock musical. While contemplating opening a second-hand bookshop I had a phone call from Phillip Adams asking if I would be interested in making a film of Don’s Party. I am sure other directors had been approached before me but had baulked at the prospect of directing eleven actors in one small house for the entire action of the film. I think I was too ignorant to be aware of the problems, and was an admirer of David Williamson’s writing, so happily took on the task and gained some critical credibility.
The two McKenzie films seem to be regarded now with an affection denied them at the time of their release.
Barry Crocker, a most likable man, is still living in Sydney. He was forty-two when the first McKenzie film was made but played a twenty-four-year-old with ease.
Barry Humphries, now in his eighties, is still performing all over the world. Last year, while he was doing his one-man stage show in Los Angeles, I had a call from him to see if I would like to pick him up and drive with him to Pasadena, where he had heard there was a formidable second-hand bookshop. Halfway to Pasadena, on the freeway, his phone rang. It was the stage manager of Barry’s show at the Ahmanson Theatre, enquiring as to his whereabouts as the theatre was full for the matinee.
Barry had forgotten all about the matinee. I turned the car around on the freeway and headed back to Los Angeles, assuring him as I did so that the audience would have to wait, as the show couldn’t begin without him. I dropped him at the stage door a few minutes before the curtain was due to go up. I found out later that he managed to appear on stage, made up as Edna Everage, on time.
Virginia, my wife, and I went to the show again on the final night. The theatre was full. It was full every night of the six-week run. It could have continued for months but Barry had another commitment in London.
The Best Film I Never Made: And Other Stories about a Life in the Arts is out now through Text Publishing. It is available in all good bookshops, on the Text website (free postage!) and in eBook.
Until next time,