Friday, September 2, 2011
Before I get into the actual review I need to say a thing or three. Handling Edna is not my usual sort of review (well the review will probably be similar, because that's how I do things, but it's not the usual sort of book I review here), it's not fantasy or sci-fi. It's sort of a mixture of biography and fiction, I'll explain that in the review. It's also about an Australian icon, so may not be of interest to those from elsewhere, although I'm sure a lot of people in the UK are aware of Dame Edna.
Dame Edna Everage is an icon of Australian stage and screen. The character has conquered the UK, but never quite managed to capture audiences in the USA the same way she did in her homeland and the motherland.
It's hard to know exactly how to classify Handling Edna. It's part auto biography, as the author Barry Humphries does cover a lot of his own life in it's pages, but it's also part fictional biography as the book details Barry's life with Housewife Megastar Dame Edna Everage. Edna's not real, she's a character Barry has played for the last 50 plus years, but the book presents itself as if Edna is very real and Barry does not in fact dress up in drag to portray here, but has managed her for most of her long career.
Before 'discovering' Mrs Edna Everage (before then Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam called her an Australian dame she was Mrs Edna Everage of Moonee Ponds. Barry actually admits that he doesn't even know if she's ever had the damehood ratified by the Royal Family, although as she's on good terms with them it's entirely possible) Barry Humphries was a modestly successful comedian/satirist. His material wasn't bad, one example 'Snow Complications' still survives to this day and holds up tolerably well. However Edna has always been his crowning achievement.
The book details how he originally met with and was strangely drawn into managing her career. I felt the early part of the book really shone. Barry's eagle eye and great descriptions of Melbourne; the city itself, the suburb he grew up in Camberwell and Edna's own Moonee Ponds (which Humphries claims is the only place in Australia to have named itself using a mixture of aboriginal and english words), are both uproariously funny and uncomfortably accurate. Humphries is a satirist first and foremost, even Edna is his way of poking fun at Australia and Melbourne suburbanites in particular, and while he's funny, he is also bluntly honest, occasionally cruel.
I felt as Edna's career and possibly Barry's life spiralled out of control that the book lost a bit of focus and while he still sprinkled in pop culture references and skewered suburban beliefs and cliches, he occasionally got things wrong. He was deliberately vague about dates, but even then he mentioned a few people and celebrities out of time. The ending was a little weak, in that the story went from satire to high farce, but then again it's hard to end a story that is still very much underway. Humphries doesn't appear as much as he used to, but neither or Edna have actually retired as far as I am aware.
One of the most fascinating parts of Handling Edna for me, was the obvious love hate relationship between Barry Humphries and Edna Everage. In some ways I think Barry chose to write this book as a pseudo biography because he finds the character of Edna easier to handle if he believes she's real and not him in drag. At times he seems to resent Edna for having to build his success on her and not be recognised as himself. Humphries is known for two other characters (both are mentioned in the book); Sandy Stone, a retired gentleman from the suburb of Glen Iris, who sets out to bore people with his endless monologues about life in the 1950's in suburban Melbourne and Sir Les Patterson, the minister for the Yartz, a boorish, drunken, offensive Australian politician. At one time Les' profile actually threatened to exceed that of Edna's. He only admits to being Sandy. He seems to share Edna's distastes of Les, and even in this no one can actually be sure of how Les and Edna came to share a stage.
It's a real fun read, especially recommended if you're from Melbourne or Australia and want a trip down memory lane or if you're a fan of Edna and her over the top stage spectaculars.