The “Aussie Ubu”
The legendary Australian comedian Barry Humphries is a satirist whose subject is the monstrosity of decent middle-class people. Though I love his most famous character, Dame Edna, my favorite will always be the superlatively obscene Sir Les Patterson, who claims to be Australia’s cultural attaché to the Far East. From his loose, drooling grin to his loud, puke-stained clothes, everything about Les is repulsive.
John Lahr’s page-turner, Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization: Backstage With Barry Humphries, devotes a chapter (‘Sir Les Patterson and the Chinese Year of the Trouser Snake’) to the character. Here’s how we meet him:
Sir Les bursts the seams of the real. He is a rollicking, tumescent theatrical creation whom Humphries has described as ‘on a sort of bacchic trip’. His cock, a pendulous eight inches of padded cotton, dangles beneath Humphries’ upholstered belly to his knees, making Humphries look for all the world like an Aussie Ubu. [...] Sir Les’s record Twelve Inches of Les and his book The Traveller’s Tool all draw attention to his most salient anatomical feature, which he refers to variously as ‘the pyjama python’, ‘the one-eyed trouser snake’, ‘my not-infrequently-felt-tip’, and ‘the enormous encumbancy which I’m holding down at the moment’.
Channel 4’s 1991 special A Late Lunch with Les
Sir Les has never appeared on stage or screen in the United States; Humphries, who announced his retirement in 2012 and is currently giving a farewell tour, seems to think the character wouldn’t play well here. Though Les appeared at the farewell shows in Europe, it looks like he’ll be absent from the tour’s US dates, which is too bad for us. (Of course, that doesn’t mean you should pass up your last chance ever to see Humphries live, which is the way to see him—his gift for spontaneous comedic creation is unrivaled.)
Sir Les Patterson live in 1988
His career started with Dada. In 1952, when he was a student at Melbourne University, Humphries put on “the first Pan-Australian Dada Exhibition.” Among his works on display were packages of a fictitious platypus poison (“PLATITOX”), a pair of Wellingtons filled with custard (“Pus and Boots”), and an image of Queen Elizabeth II with stubble (“Her Majesty’s Male”). Other pieces were made out of cake, lambs’ eyes, shoes, and tomato sauce.
From there, Humphries moved on to disruptions of everyday life. These were not performed for an audience or documented in any way, just carried out like acts of terror. Lahr describes one such action:
In one notorious escapade, Humphries had his accomplice, John Perry, dress as a blind man and take a seat in a non-smoking compartment of a Melbourne commuter train. Perry had dark glasses, his leg in a cast and was reading from a piano roll that looked as if it was braille. Humphries entered the compartment and began to smoke. He was dressed garishly and reading a foreign newspaper. Later, as he got up to exit, he unleashed a barrage of foreign-sounding gibberish, grabbing the ‘braille’ and tearing it, kicking at the ‘blind man’s’ leg, throwing his spectacles to the floor and leaving. ‘Commuters were invariably transfixed in horror,’ Humphries says. ‘No one ever pursued me. Mind you, I ran as fast as I could. People tried to comfort John Perry. He would always say, “Forgive him.” It was also very funny to do, and very hard not to laugh. It’s a bit hard to say what effect the stunt was meant to have, since it was meant to amuse us, a kind of outrageous public act.’
Later, Humphries would get himself banned temporarily from Qantas flights for tipping a tin of Russian salad into a sick bag, loudly feigning illness, and then eating his ‘vomit’. ‘If an air hostess sees you,’ he said, ‘it can produce what I call the Chain Chunder. Five minutes later the pilot is throwing up.’
Sir Les’s autograph
In his official capacity as cultural attaché to the Far East, Patterson reported on the 1997 return of Hong Kong to China for the BBC. He approached the story with the cultural sensitivity for which he is famous.
More of Sir Les after the jump…