The ABC TV documentary about Barry Humphries is about ten minutes longer than the version seen by British viewers.
“We took out the commercial breaks and added in much more material, particularly on the mid-1950s to mid-1970s,” West says. “In doing so, we tracked Humphries’ rise in Melbourne and how he got to become successful in the UK. We also put in the subplot about his struggle with alcoholism.”
West replaced the British narrator, Toby Jones, with Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, a friend of Humphries. “We’d rewritten the narration quite substantially, partly for the obvious nuances,” he says, adding that the personal connection made it all the more appropriate.
West featured material October Films did not consider to be of much interest to British viewers, “for whom the fact of Barry being Australian is less important. And certainly how Melbourne shaped the man, I think, was a bridge too far for them.”
74-year-old Humphries has jealously guarded the machinations behind his famous alter egos, including Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson and this documentary gets about as close as possible to getting behind the facade.
Faced with the prospect of someone drilling for secrets, Humphries could have clammed up, but instead took a far smarter tack and decided to co-operate.
One look at the finished documentary and you can see it allowed him to control the process — to bend the filmmakers to his vision.‘‘Barry was initially enthusiastic, then suspicious about having a documentary made about his life and times,’’ Sibley says.
‘‘This surprised me because Barry has seen it all with the press over his long time at the top and manipulated them to his will on occasions.’’
The film has scenes of Humphries revisiting the Camberwell home in which he grew up, reminiscing about his parents, his university days as a dandy and Dadaist, and his first trip to England. Past friends including journalist Philip Adams and filmmaker Bruce Beresford also provide insights. Most intriguingly, there is footage of Humphries sitting in an armchair looking at the same documentary we’re seeing.
It’s a self-conscious act that reveals how much, despite Sibley and West’s best intentions, he ultimately controlled the project. The backbone of the documentary is the Dame Edna tour of Australia in 2007. If Sibley and West thought following the tour would get them inside Humphries’ dressing room as he transformed into his comic creations, they were in for a shock.
“While I was not attempting to find skeletons in his closet, he remained unconvinced throughout filming,’’ Sibley says. “On tour I’d find myself restricted to front-of-house while he was ensconced in his backstage dressing room behind a firmly shut door, happy that any prying cameras were well out of the way.
“I didn’t take it personally because for 50 years Barry has been carefully guarding the process he undergoes to change, or more accurately transform, into Dame Edna and there is no way he would let a documentary maker wander around unsupervised.’’