Barry Humphries
[ Issue 31 ]

Emily Bronto is without doubt an admirer of Rare Indeed

For your reading pleasure Bikwil gives you Rare Indeed

Barry Humphries

Here is the fifth in our series Memorable Moments in Music  — Peter Mara's piece about the loving restoration of some old recordings: Rare Indeed! — Barry Humphries and the Regal Zonophones.

The German actor’s voice has timbre ripened by cigarettes, age and whisky and his monologue, spoken against the ragged yet tuneful singing, conjures up a picture of lonely sailors in some foggy seaport longing for the warmth and love of their homes.

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Rare Indeed! Barry Humphries
and the Regal Zonophones
[ Memorable Moments in Music No. 5 ]
 — Peter Mara


The Australian poet Les Murray has found his biographer in Professor Peter Alexander — and what a story that is. Our Nobel Prize winning novelist and dramatist Patrick White has won a worthy Boswell in David Marr. But who will be sufficiently astute to write the biography of the most enigmatic and talented of all? Painter and writer, actor and female impersonator, baritone and falsettist, Satirist to the Age, the tender yet sadistic Mr Barry Humphries.

In the recent double CD of vintage 78’s, So Rare, chosen by Humphries, his tender side is to the fore in his treasuring of forgotten and lost musical masterpieces. These are 78’s which were stored in new condition in at least two Melbourne suburban garages by fastidious owners. Sandy Stone characters, no doubt: collectors who hoarded their fragile 10 inch circles for sixty or seventy years knowing that within the spirals of their black yet golden coins was held, in silent imprisonment, the Spirit of Music, captured forever young. The two doughty knights, who crept into those lonely sepulchres of sound and who magically released the young princes and princesses of Song into the sunlight were the veteran record producer Bill Armstrong of Melbourne and his cobber Barry Humphries.

In his 1992 autobiography More Please Humphries recalls how he was paid by E.M.I. to smash up 78’s made unsaleable by the arrival of the LP. There were five boxes of ten inch Parlophones entitled When the Lighthouse Shines Across the Bay featuring a monologue by the famous German actor Conrad Veidt. It was Humphries’ first task, as reluctant Vandal, to hammer one neat small hole in these perfect discs so that no artists’ fees would need to be paid. As if in reparation Humphries has chosen this, the first record he guiltily pulverised, for inclusion in So Rare.

The German actor’s voice has timbre ripened by cigarettes, age and whisky and his monologue, spoken against the ragged yet tuneful singing, conjures up a picture of lonely sailors in some foggy seaport longing for the warmth and love of their homes. A big hit of 1933 carries its lonely appeal onwards into a new century.

Unlike most contemporary entertainers Humphries, from the beginning of his career, turned to the show business creatives of the previous generation as though this firstborn child from Melbourne was searching for older, stronger brothers to show him the way. In London he sought out Mischa Spoliansky, a popular composer of the Weimar period.

You would think of a Central European like Spolianksky as a damaged, starveling survivor of a bombed out, war ravaged Europe, but here, in the detailed booklet that comes with So Rare, is the beaming, ancient Mischa, beautifully attired, seated at a grand piano with the elegantly tailored Mr Humphries nearby. His 1932 song Tell Me Tonight is performed in German by the magnificent, Hitler persecuted, Comedy Harmonists.

In 1999 when ABC FM radio began playing the records of the Comedy Harmonists again (my cousin Ella tells me they were on the radio “all the time” in the forties and she loved them) I bought an imported CD of their music. Bill Armstrong, using well preserved Melbourne acetates and working in his studio to remove any crackles or hisses has restored the clean original rich sound. In comparison the imported CD has surface noise and a drab sound. Armstrong’s restoration of the forty-six 78s means that we now hear the music more clearly and richly than it’s ever been heard before.

In his amusing and fairly frank autobiography More Please Humphries writes of his triumphs and also of his alcoholism, depression and of his destructive, sadistic behaviours. In 1962 or thereabouts I was in the audience at the Macquarie Auditorium for A Nice Night’s Entertainment — Barry’s first one-man show. Barry struck terror into his audience, even those of us who made certain they didn’t come late! His satire was so savage, his sexuality seemed indeterminate and he himself projected insecurity and oddness. You felt he had a frightening inner rage and that he was close to breaking out into destructive behaviour. Yet there was a joy in seeing someone, for the first time, having a go at the materialism, the aggressive philistinism, and the comfortable assumptions of authoritarian, narrow minded middle Australia. His early shows in Sydney were sold out and the LP’s did well — they had a taste of forbidden fruit about them.

In 1968 I saw a lank haired, sallow, plain looking chap get on the London Underground at St John’s Wood. This fellow sat by himself, talking to himself and shaking with laughter. He was in an inner world entirely — perhaps creating an episode of the hilarious Private Eye comic strip The Adventures of Barry McKenzie — and oblivious to all the other people in the carriage. He seemed like one of those mad people around London and going all the way downhill fairly rapidly.

In 1981 or thereabouts, on a Saturday night, over the car radio, I heard Barry give an interview to the ABC. If you have ever known Depression and, really, who hasn’t, you would have recognised a person speaking from a place where there is no hope. This was a bleak, abandoned cave Humphries was speaking from where everything was burnt and wasted. Barry spoke of his alcoholism and of his long term membership of Alcoholics Anonymous. Indeed that connection with AA seemed the only torn fragment of hope he could grasp at that time.

Barry recovered and all of us have benefited from the riches of his inner world. His satire became gentler and he relied on his wit, his ear for language and the outrageousness of his characterisations. Indeed an intimidating figure became a loved humorist — an essential part of the Australian scene like Gough Whitlam or Les Murray.

But in 1959 Barry was at an early stage in his journey. Arrived in London, unknown, he sought out yet another established creative figure of the previous generation. Humphries met Eric Maschwitz, head of BBC light entertainment and lyricist of Room Five Hundred and Four and A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square. Maschwitz was friendly and helpful to Humphries and forty years later he returns the favours. Both those songs, in splendid wartime renditions, are on the CD. Vera Lynn’s 1941 Room Five Hundred and Four is poignant, giving a believable and intimate glimpse of wartime romance and reminding us of how she is able to hit a note in its perfect centre. Dame Vera, 24 when she recorded this hit, is now in her 84th year.

One of Humphries’ positions in Melbourne had been that of elocution teacher to housewives at the Greta Meirs School of Charm. What an extraordinary position for the embryonic satirist but it is notable that on every record chosen by Humphries, excepting the few by foreigners singing in English, the diction is outstanding. Hildegarde’s 1937 So Rare has a crystalline harp accompaniment supporting an effortless voice, floating to the highest notes and having great beauty of diction. Humphries has known Hildegarde since the 70s and in 1999 she was alive and well in New York at the age of 93.

There are five songs by Hildegarde on the two CDs of So Rare, all recorded in London in 1937, which reveal the technical as well as musical excellence of that period. That the glamour of Hildegarde, forgotten for more than 60 years, has been brought back into the bright light of the present is one of the triumphs of this collection.

A fine baritone himself, Humphries includes several tracks by pianist-baritones. Leslie Hutchinson and Turner Layton, both recorded in London, enjoyed great popularity in their day. But try to tell them apart — it’s quite a test.

Barry, the gender bender, is at work in his choice of Noel Coward’s Mad About the Boy and he includes the once banned piece of harmless naughtiness Ain’t It Gorgeous — the old 78 was probably hidden in one of the garages with a pile of yellowing Man magazines. Almost all the recordings on the double album originated in London. The collection indicates just how greatly pre-war Australia was dependant economically and culturally on Britain.

I haven’t seen a film by the enormously popular dancing, singing star of the twenties and thirties Jack Buchanan, but the three records he made with Elsie Randolph are light and witty with the bonus of having the piano played by Ray Noble who leads the orchestra.

One of the great voices, selected by Humphries, belongs to an Australian, Marjorie Stedeford, (1912-1959) who “made it” in London singing with the top orchestras of the thirties. Her voice, deep like a man’s, is superb on Stardust.

Were it not for Barry Humphries and Bill Armstrong the glorious effortless singing of Lucienne Boyer (1901-1983) and the youthfulness of Ann Lenner (1910-1997) would remain lost and abandoned. And all of us would be the poorer for not having heard the work of those hundreds of anonymous musicians and arrangers whose meticulous and inspired playing now lives again.

In the choice of the songs and his friendship with many of the elderly composers and singers, there is material for the future biographer. Let’s soon have a thorough, truthful and scholarly biography of the greatest son of Marvellous Melbourne — Mr Barry Humphries. In the meantime, give thanks to Messrs Humphries and Armstrong and enjoy the gift of forty-six packages of gaiety and delight retrieved for us from sombre, silent vaults of Time.


Like Parlophone, Regal Zonophone was a popular brand of 78.

The So Rare two-CD set catalogue number is 11-2 on the BAC label.

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