Review: Handling Edna by Barry Humphries
Blimey, mate: how's this for confusing? Handling Edna is an autobiography of a real person -- Australian comedian and writer Barry Humphries -- and his unreal life as 'manager' of a fictitious persona, Dame Edna Everage. So whereas the writer is real and a lot of incidents in this book are real, ie they actually happened, many more are obviously made up and besides, Edna's just a construct anyway.
Feeling confused yet? Wait, there's more: not only does (the real) Humphries refer to (the fake) Edna as real, there are times when (the real) Humphries is impersonating her in England while (the fake) Edna is in Australia, even though of course she isn't because, well, she's not real. Does any of that make sense?
Not to worry. Handling Edna is good fun, wherever you stand: either buy into the gag that Edna exists and this is her harassed manager's story, or enjoy Humphries' fine imagination, clever comic writing and inherent likeability.
Edna might be a boor but Humphries has always come across as a total gent.
Dame Edna, of course, is the barmy Aussie housewife with the outlandish hair, Liberace-style glasses, and uncouth, arrogant and mouthy personality who achieved fame for Humphries, and herself, in the 1980s, with a series of popular TV shows in Britain.
Fans remember how she cut celebs down to size with her mumsy brusqueness, her ridiculous garb, her so-silly-it-was-memorable catchphrase: "Hello, possums!" But as the book details, the polymathic Humphries -- he's also an essayist, critic and renowned landscape painter -- has been portraying Edna for more than 50 years. He gets a lot of sport out of slagging off the pretentious suburbanite from Moonee Ponds, but you sense there's a great affection there, too. Edna may be a clown, in all senses, but she's his clown.
Indeed, it can be almost disorientating reading this fake/real memoir. Talk about a fictional creation eventually consuming the creator; sometimes you're not sure where Barry ends and Edna begins, and that's probably the way he'd want it.
I wouldn't necessarily recommend Handling Edna -- personally, I have only vague memories of her old shows, and never found them particularly amusing -- but the book itself is nicely written, easy to read and often very funny.
I especially liked his lengthy commentary on the first letter Edna sent him, complete with green ink and circles over the 'i's. Her description of a forthcoming performance as Mary Magdalene as being "one of the leads", along with God and Jesus, made me laugh aloud.
The photos are great, too: Edna greeting the Queen like a queen herself, a mock-up of Edna and Humphries smiling together. Although of course that one makes you wonder, should there really be two people in this picture? Which is where it all starts to get confusing again.
Darragh McManus is an author and journalist. His book GAA Confidential is available from bookshops and online