Harry Mount

When John Lennon took on Barry Humphries

[Credit: Neil Spence]

Harry Mount has narrated this article for you to listen to.

Barry Humphries would have been 90 on 17 February. To commemorate his life, Radio 4 is broadcasting Barry Humphries: Gloriously Uncut that evening. For the programme, I recalled the joy of talking to Barry about the column he wrote for the Oldie. What a delight, too, it was to hear from the great diplomat Sir Les Patterson on everything from Australian politics to the history of lesbianism: ‘A lot of high-achieving Sheilas – like Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scots, Boadicea, Dusty Springfield and Florence Nightingale – all paddled the pink canoe at some stage of the game.’ One day, he asked my colleague Penny about me. On hearing I wasn’t married, he said, deadpan, ‘Is he a vagina-decliner?’ Barry had immaculate manners and so asked Penny not to pass on the question. She did though, and it was the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.

The cartoonist Nick Garland, a Spectator regular, co-created legendary Australian Barry McKenzie with Barry. Nick’s also on the Radio 4 programme. He told me of an extraordinary dinner party, held at Peter Cook’s house in 1964. Peter, Nick and Barry were there, along with John and Cynthia Lennon. They started to play a game where they were all excessively polite to each other. ‘Oh, I understand you’re a famous singer in a very popular group?’ Barry said to Lennon. ‘Oh, and I understand you’re an extremely funny Australian?’ Lennon responded. And then, suddenly, the game turned nasty as their latent competitiveness emerged – and they started trading insults at lightning speed. ‘I thought one of them might hit somebody,’ said Nick. ‘We had our baby, Emily, there, in a bassinet. I instinctively moved between her and the three men.’ Just as it was getting out of hand, Cynthia Lennon shouted, ‘Stop it, John!’ They immediately switched back to polite chitchat, as if nothing had happened. ‘John Lennon was the equal of Barry and Peter,’ says Nick. ‘Barry was so quick that he liked to wrongfoot people, embarrass them and leave them slightly puzzled. But you could see he wouldn’t mess around with someone as outstanding and gifted as John Lennon. There was no way he could have embarrassed him, or he would have come back at Barry.’ Oh, to have been there – as an observer, not as a combatant in that scary battle between comic geniuses.

To the Anthony Powell Society annual talk at the Travellers Club. Hilary Spurling, Powell’s biographer and a former Spectator literary editor, gave the address. I’m glad it was largely about the considerable influence Violet Powell – my dear great-aunt – had on Powell’s masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time. A member of the audience had to leave early. Making a quiet exit, she tiptoed towards the vast double doors – and couldn’t get out. Confusingly, for a club built in 1832, they were sliding doors. The poor lady desperately tried to push and pull the handle in silence – a Marcel Marceau masterclass in miming frustration that transfixed the audience. Anthony Powell, a Travellers member, would have appreciated the scene. A running joke among Society members is that you can call anything unusual ‘very Powellian’. Even if there’s no similar incident in Dance, its 12 volumes somehow capture anything coincidental or slightly farcical in everyday life. A very Powellian evening.

I’m being driven mad by BBC News 24. At the top of the hour – and on the half-hour – the ‘fillers’ are growing longer. They are essentially preening adverts for the BBC. First, Laura Kuenssberg shows off about her show Newscast. Then Zeinab Badawi promotes Take Me to the Opera. Then comes John Simpson, striding through the BBC newsroom, banging on about Unspun World. These three take up two minutes of airtime – and their clips are repeated ad nauseam. Half an hour later, there are more fillers, with video of correspondents silently showing off, before the revolving globe counts down to the hour. Another minute wasted. The pips on the radio – which have just celebrated their centenary – last only six seconds, as they count down to the hour. Why can’t BBC TV news emulate BBC radio news and broadcast more, erm, news, rather than boringly blow its own trumpet?

Aaarggghhh! News reaches me of an old friend who has me to stay at her lovely Norfolk house. I’ve heard she marks thank-you letters out of ten, for length and speed of reply. I used to send postcards the day after I got back from her house. But she is angry, I learn, at me writing only a few sentences. My next thank-you letter – if she asks me again –will be the length of a small novel.

Written by
Harry Mount

Harry Mount is editor of The Oldie and author of How England Made the English (Penguin) and Et Tu, Brute? The Best Latin Lines Ever (Bloomsbury)

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