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'I've never had more fun on TV'

The Dame Edna specs are nowhere to be seen, but the cutting humour is intact. Barry Humphries chats to Gemma Dunn about adventures, fame and youth

Published 30/07/2016

Barry Humphries
Barry Humphries

When Barry Humphries was invited to host Channel 4's new three-part series, A Granny's Guide to the Modern World, the popular comic admits he was, at first, surprised.

"I thought, 'oh, someone must have died - perhaps they wanted Rex Harrison?'" he teases. "I was the obvious alternative, I suppose.

"I'm still alive and if I look through my credit cards, I've got something called a Senior Railcard. How did I get this? By crossing some invisible line," the 82-year-old continues. "I have become, I guess, old. And because I don't have any serious physical symptoms yet, I've always rather been on the side of youth.

"On the other hand, I'm quite determined to keep the generation gap. I think there's nothing worse than elderly people behaving in a sort of groovy way."

Humphries may have earned the 'OAP' title, but he certainly doesn't act his age - or, indeed, look it.

With a wave of dark brown hair, the Melbourne-born comedian is a far cry from his famous characters, namely the lilac-haired, acid-tongued Dame Edna Everage. But while the glasses might be missing, his humour is certainly not.

"I've always tried to preserve a liberal view, until the producers of this programme asked me to drink kale - a kale smoothie!" he exclaims, looking perplexed.

"And to simultaneously listen to a form of music called 'grime'. Benjamin Britten wrote an opera called Peter Grimes," he adds wryly. "But this wasn't Peter Grimes; it was a different sort of music."

Playing on the logic that modern-day Britain can be a confusing place to be old, A Granny's Guide looks at the extent to which things have changed in the past few decades.

"These programmes have been, to my pleasure and deep honour, placed in a time capsule so that older folk in the future, and even extra-terrestrials, may learn how we in 21st century Britain learnt to adapt to the strange and many ridiculous customs imposed upon us by the young," Humphries notes.

He's not alone in his quest to unlock the mystifying zone of technology, fashion, language and the invention of political correctness.

The show also sees a group of equally inquisitive "oldies" feature alongside Humphries, enlisted to investigate a string of modern-day scenarios.

There's 94-year-old Bobby, who learns why certain terms are deemed politically incorrect, while senior citizens and best friends Daphne, Trish and Margot go on a quest to discover if recreational drugs can be fun for those who usually relax with a spot of gardening.

With a curious attitude and a willingness to get to grips with the modern world, Humphries and his cohorts learn what the younger generation really think of them via a focus group, how to impress people by using some more inventive swear words, and that it really can be fun to blast your best friends to smithereens while playing a video game.

"We have on this programme some wonderful old folk and they are all great comedians too," the he adds.

"I haven't enjoyed myself more on any show. I'm not including my own shows.

"But I've tried to make this a little bit my own and I think I was invited for that reason. I don't very often do anything as myself - even when I'm talking to you. I'm a version of myself. I'm not really me."

Does this mean - as an internationally renowned comic and actor, best-known for outlandish alter egos, as well as his contribution to film, writing, theatre and art - that he's simply defending his privacy in an over-exposed industry?

"Celebrity is a new-fangled thing, isn't it?" four-times-married Humphries reasons, after pausing a moment. "A celebrity really is someone who is known to everyone who doesn't know them.

"We can name a few well-known current celebrities, but how well really do we know them? I like the company of old people; I learn from them, you see, very often from their mistakes. And I love hearing about the past, and in my time of life there are fewer old people that one knows - they kind of die."

When it comes to the "youth of today", however, he picks his battles.

"The most negative thing is that the younger generation feel no need to add up in their heads, or spell, or use correct grammar, or good manners," he states.

"If I were pregnant and a lady, and I was in the Underground, the only person who would stand up and offer their seat to me would be Polish or Eastern European. No English people do that anymore.

"The girl I employ to dictate letters has to press spellcheck because she can't spell. But, then, I have discovered that spellcheck can't spell either. It's like satnav - if you want to go the long way, use a satnav."

And the good things?

"There are many, many good things," Humphries responds with a wink.

"There's a lot of good will from the younger people - a lot of humour.

"Isn't it funny that now there are kids growing up who want to be stand-ups - it's a pity, really."

A Granny's Guide To The Modern World, Channel 4, Wednesday, 10.30pm

Belfast Telegraph

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