Barry Humphries and his Quadrant connection
Editor, Quadrant Magazine
It is not often publicly acknowledged that Barry Humphries was a political conservative and, for a big slice of his adult life, he was close to Quadrant. He made his first contribution to the magazine in 1970. It was an interview by editor Peter Coleman recorded with Barry and English comedian Dick Bentley in London in 1970 and published in the April edition of Quadrant that year. Barry had become a popular performer in Britain through a television series on the BBC. English media critics loved the way Barry’s principal character, Edna Everage, represented Australian crudity but were baffled to learn that Australian audiences had for at least a decade relished his satire too.
In June 1975, Barry became a regular contributor to Quadrant with his column named Pseuds Corner. It was more a selected paste-up of other writers than written contributions of his own, being mainly extracts from writings by journalists, celebrities, politicians and other public figures. It often cruelly exposed, in their own words, their most embarrassing pretensions. It ran in most editions for two and a half years, finishing in December 1977.
At the same time as Pseuds Corner became a regular part of the magazine, editors Peter Coleman and James McCauley roped Barry in to become a member of their newly formed Editorial Advisory Committee, (which soon after changed its name to Editorial Board). Barry remained a member of the board for the next twelve years, finishing his position in December 1987. Other members at the time included the cream of Sydney academic intelligentsia: David Armstrong, Owen Harries, Leonie Kramer, Martin Krygier, Elwyn Lynn and Vivian Smith, most of whom matched Barry in the longevity of their time on the board.
One way Barry used his editorial position was to make test runs of some of the gruesome characters he created for his stage and television performances. The first of these to make it into Quadrant pages was Craig Steppenwolf a high school teacher whose political radicalism was obnoxious. The front cover of the November 1975 edition bore a picture of Barry dressed as the mad-looking Craig. The piece inside was a transcript of stage directions and dialogue for a music hall performance of the character, written by Barry and his co-satirist Ross Fitzgerald.
Unfortunately, Craig’s character did not make it much further on stage. It was probably too early for such a character to be widely recognized, and he was dropped from the line-up. However, the next character Barry introduced to
’s pages was much more successful. In April 1977, Quadrant readers were given a script of Mr Les Patterson giving his “Historic Address to the British”. The front cover of the issue carried an especially nauseating picture of Barry’s character “Les Patterson, cultural attaché to the Court of St James”.
Another character who was also tested on Quadrant’s front cover in July 1981 was a film producer named Phil Philby, Inside the magazine was a script for “A Fillup for Phil Philby Films”, which records the ostentatiously self-effacing Philby receiving a Gold Goanna award for best Australian film of the year. This one didn’t go much further either, but like Craig Steppenwolf it had lots of potential.
Barry scored his fourth front cover in May 1984. This time the central character was Barry himself. Quadrant devoted the front cover of the May edition and a celebratory dinner for his fiftieth birthday. The edition carried tributes from Leonie Kramer and David Armstrong, with verse written by Geoffrey Lehman and Geoffrey Dutton. Barry contributed a thank-you verse of his own, titled Jubilee Blues, which went like this:
Ungracious Stanzas from the Guest of Honour
No taxis due to rain and I was late
Not only late but recently turned fifty
yet Quadrant felt this feat deserved a fete
The night before they re-elected Nifty.*
I got there damp and infinitely flattered.
The function room was full — (it held a few) —
And some were there whose friendship really mattered —
One or two.
Later amidst the Camembert and mirth,
The dreaded hour arrived to make a speech;
Chill memories of an audience in Perth who wondered if
I’d meant to jest or preach.
A few sought bons mots sage and mystical,
Another canvassed Edna on ‘the trousseau’.
To speak about oneself seemed egotistical —
Irrelevant however, not to do so.
Accepting all those warm congratulations for having
Fifty years ago been born,
I thought about the manifold frustrations of those who
Make a livelihood of scorn,
Drag howling Caliban to his reflection
Remembering as you show the fool his folly
Your Chimera could win the next election
In this the land of Bob and Bert and Molly.
If you pursue the satirist’s vocation
Force-feeding fibbers from the candid cup
All you’ll succeed in doing for the nation
Is cheer it** up.
* “Nifty” is the soubriquet of a provincial Australian public
servant (circa 1980), so-called for his adroitness in defending
** ”It” means “the bastards”.