The film Barry McKenzie Holds His Own is gross, rude and offensive. Barry, the star of the movie, chunders twice, slips on ‘an alsation’s visiting card’, tells a prostitute he’s ‘that randy he could root the hair on a barber shop floor’, and poses nude for a Cleo “style centrefold for Jet Set (‘the women’s magazine with balls’) with only an ejaculating can of Fosters to protect his modesty.
As with its prequel, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, the film’s ribald antics turn upside down the stitched-up hierarchies of a string of condescending authority figures but the chief target is the hype surrounding the so-called ‘Australian Cultural Renaissance’ associated with the Whitlam Government, giving the film a hard political edge.
Holds His Own’s play with the cultural strut packed a satirical punch for 1970s audiences. While both films aim their satire at boorish post-war suburban males, the sequel goes after the new educated middle class that was taking on airs and graces in the wake of the ‘new Nationalism’ ignited by the patronage of Prime Ministers John Gorton and Gough Whitlam.
Barry Humphries as
Senator Doug Manton
Everyone in the film is on the ‘cultural’ bandwagon. ‘The Government’s shelling out piles of bloody moolah on any prick who reckons he can paint pitchers, write pomes or make flaming fillums,’ Barry tells Col ‘The Frog’ Lucas in Paris, explaining how drunken film critic Paddy (played by Clive James) ‘copped $20,000 to come over here to go to the flicks.’
In the 1970s, trendies bearing cask wine and a fondue set made shrill claims about Australia’s new-found sophistication, much to the amusement of Barry Humphries, the writer of both Mckenzie movies. ‘Back in Australia’, Bazza says, ‘we’ve got culture up to our arseholes.’ In Holds His Own, cosmopolitanism happens in ‘the contemporary Australian-Spanish style’ and European culture is to be found at the Munich beer festival.
In the film’s pre-title introduction by Labor Minister for Culture, Senator Doug Manton (Humphries as a prototype Sir Les Paterson), with a model of the Opera House in front of him, a huge Fosters ad behind him, and the buzz of blowflies just audible in the background, audiences are informed: ‘The fillum you’re about to see makes me proud to be an Australian.’
The movie’s send-up of heavy “handed government patronage of Australian culture still resonates, as debates about national identity and the ‘Yartz’ are constants in our political discourse, erupting in Keating’s Creative Nation vision in the mid-1990s, Howard’s backlash against the inner-city latte set, and perpetual angst about the local film industry.
The film’s main criticism of socialism that it empowers bureaucrats to regulate human creativity sprang from Humphries’s individualism and belief in the artist-hero which was translated into political conservatism; he was hostile to socialism, both as a theory and in its totalitarian practice in the Soviet Union.
And Director Bruce Beresford brought from his exposure to Sydney’s libertarian Push a hostility to authoritarianism and to the welfare state, and a scepticism towards the left-wing romanticism of the early 1970s. Bazza’s ‘Pommy Bastards’ t-shirt of the first film was now replaced with one emblazoned ‘Commie Bastards’! Communists are depicted as corrupt parasites using Marxist jargon to defend their privileges: ‘This is an insult on the Transylvanian working class,’ hisses the vampire Erich Count von Plasma when he discovers Edna is not Betty Britain (Queen of England). The communist leaders of Eastern Europe are vampires sucking their countries dry (literally). Given what we now know about Ceausescu’s tyranny and his grisly end this portrayal was not too wide of the mark.
Like many conservatives, Humphries slides his critique of totalitarian Marxist regimes into easy put downs of the broader Australian Left and the Labor Party. When Bazza and his mates parachute into Transylvania they pretend to be students from the Bondi Organisation for Radical Education (BORE) who ‘all think the sun shines out of Stalin’s arsehole.’ Like Sir Les Patterson, Senator Doug Manton is a philistine. The Government officials who preside as judges of the immigration game show at Australia House are caricatures of the fat, middle-aged blokes who run the NSW ALP’s Sussex Street version of Tammany Hall.
In Holds His Own, the much-vaunted cultural renaissance is a con being spruiked by the same old Aussie blokes in shorts and long socks who always run this place, personified in Ed Devereaux’s knockabout Australian Ambassador who confesses, ‘I won’t say we don’t pull a few swifties to pull the tourists with all that garbage about that flamin’ joke of an Opera House.’
But it’s not just unsophisticated politicians and cynical bureaucrats who are in Humphries’s and Beresford’s sights. Every crank idea and trendy cause of the 1970s cops a spray of the always-foaming Fosters. As Bazza puts it in the ‘Ratbag Song’:
A ratbag is a sheila or a bloke
Who’s kind of funny,
But who never sees the joke.
The song salutes a galaxy of ratbags, including: anonymous phoners, sperm bank donors, poofta liberators, scientologists and ‘everyone in Ireland’. Humphries was building on his mid-1960s character Neil Singleton, a beatnik-bearded, left-wing pseudo-academic described by Craig McGregor as Humphries’s ‘most savage and most perceptive stage satire so far.’
We know we’re taking no prisoners when Bazza bumps into Rhonda Cutforth-Jones (Merdelle Jordine), the Black, posh-accented, feminist editor of Jet Set. Rhonda asks Edna if she’s ever ‘balled a chick,’ and Edna replies with a crooked smile that, ‘I may be old fashioned, young lady, but lesbianism has always left a nasty taste in my mouth.’
And what of the colourful racist invective thrown around with such redneck abandon, beginning with the continuous disparagement of the English? At a time when Australia was busily apologising for the recently ended White Australia policy, Holds His Own shows a bunch of White blokes terribly anxious about other races. Old prejudices were clearly dying hard if its Australian Ambassador can say to a Transylvanian who wants to immigrate:
We don’t want types like you undermining our wonderful institutions and unique life-style, crawlin’ like termites through the fabric of our nation-hood. We got too many chink lovers as it is.
Despite having come from a country in the throes of a massive immigration program and a Government pledged to land rights and a Racial Discrimination Act, Bazza and his mates don’t care much for ‘abos’, ‘heathen chinee’, ‘yellerens’, ‘frogs’, ‘wogs’ and ‘dagos’.
Bazza does not mince words when he stumbles upon an expensively couturied Rhonda Cutforth-Jones emerging from an airline toilet with Dr de Lamphrey:
How come a clean living Australian bloke like me cops so many knock backs, when a dirty, Ikey Mo type bastard like you cracks it for a knee trembler with an abo in an airborne dunny?
Humphries’s and Beresford’s ockers play with the language of the streets and playground rather than the sanitised language of government tolerance programs.
While still shocking to us today, in the 1970s one of the most popular British TV programs was Till Death Us Do Part in which the working-class, East-end London bigot, Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell)
, fretted about ‘coons’ and ‘Pakis’ taking over England. In the same way, Humphries and Beresford were satirising the prejudices of the old Aussies rather than contributing to them. Humphries was never a racist but he was astute and honest enough to know that many in the Australia of the 1950s and 1960s were. Rather than ignore or despair at it, Humphries picks at the scab of Australian racism, ventilating this running sore.
Today, Holds His Own’s pre-occupation with borders, people smuggling, airport searches and migration control seems eerily topical. Given Australia’s ritual outbreak of immigration hysteria and the rise and fall of One Nation, was Humphries too far off the mark in suggesting that decades of prejudice could not be eliminated overnight by government fiat?
Holds His Own mocks radical chic but Gough Whitlam is OK: ‘I reckon the PM is that smart he could sell soap to the pommies,’ as Barry tells his auntie. To show what a good sport he is, Whitlam, the Pericles at the centre of all the democratic patronage mocked in this private enterprise-funded film, appears at its end to welcome back the Australian heroes and, improvising before the camera, regally ‘dames’ Edna Everage, who is now set on her trajectory to housewife superstardom.
Quizzed by television presenter Mike Willessee as to why Australia’s Prime Minister stooped to appear in this of all films, Gough deadpanned: ‘Hasn’t everybody held his own? I certainly have.’
For Humphries, Whitlam’s appearance was ‘like a mighty chord concluding a work of symphonic music.’ As a sophisticated cosmopolitan, he was both attracted by, and cynical of, Whitlam’s capacity to change Australia. Humphries had seen the 1950s and knew that a nation of rough-as-guts old-style politicians like ratbag NSW Premier Robert Askin and Federal Labor Minister Rex Connor couldn’t be changed overnight by whacking Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles over the fibro.
There is some truth to Holds His Own’s send up of the fellow travellers who did well out of the Whitlam revolution. In his 1971 play Don’s Party, playwright David Williamson, who had sympathy for the Left, made many of the same criticisms about radical hypocrisy, the gap between political philosophies and personal behaviour, and the discrete bourgeois pleasures of selling out and settling down.
Humphries did more than poke fun at the Left: for a decade from the mid 1970s he sat on the board of the anti-communist magazine Quadrant which then, as now, favoured the ‘free market’ while disparaging the 1960s ‘new class’ of academics and protesters. A conservative contrarian while many in his generation were moving left, Humphries nevertheless retained a bohemian delight in transgression that makes him a radical. While Humphries the artist indulges elitist inclinations, the performer loves the applause from the crowd. Here was the paradox in Humphries’s cultural politics, and possibly his personality.
The Barry McKenzie movies laugh at the expense of the Left and the post-1968 counter-cultures, but they are also an affectionate tribute to Australian larrikinism and a permissive art of shock that sat uncomfortably with the Liberal Party.
Due to the influence of protestant moralism, and petit bourgeois derision of the modern art that Humphries held dear, few on the Australian political Right appreciated the Bazza oeuvre. An unamused Liberal Senator George Hannan railed in Australian Parliament about $250,0000 of public money going to make ‘a ghastly vulgar film.’
Traditionally, the Australian ruling class had always been uncomfortable with larrikinism, associating it with Irishness and working-class unruliness. With the exception of Prime Minister John Gorton, larrikins have been thin on the ground among Liberal politicians. Humphries longed for the leadership of a sophisticated conservative elite who preserved what was best from the past unencumbered by fads and humbug. He was not to find it among the philistines, economic rationalists and tub-thumpers of the Liberal Party, which is probably why he prefers the port-stained, over-educated eccentrics who spice up the British Tory Party.
The Bazza movies ironically found their biggest fans among Lefties, the students and ALP types they mocked. Left-of-centre historian Manning Clark congratulated Humphries for:
catching a type Australians recognise, and are really proud of, and so barrack for him as they would for one of their football heroes, or Ned Kelly I loved it.
This left-wing under-taste was strengthened by the films’ association with Phillip Adams, who was well-known as an ALP fellow traveller. Bazza’s pommy-baiting played up to a strong anti-English sentiment among some sections of Labor, especially among those of Irish Catholic descent and, following the Whitlam Dismissal, the growing number of republicans. While Humphries cared little for the ‘It’s Time’ euphoria, Holds His Own is umbilically tied to this particular period in Labor’s history.
Humphries’s promotion of the carnivalesque in Australian life was a natural fit with Labor then the home of wags, mateship and the long lunch. The quickest of wits, Whitlam did not share the Liberals’ prissy disdain of Aussie slang, famously lampooning Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen as a ‘Bible bashing bastard,’ and wondering whether ‘double-headed fellatio’ was available in Tasmania. More laterally, he responded to conservative politician Sir Winton Turnbull’s pronouncement in Parliament, ‘I’m a country member’ with ‘I remember.’ (Think about it.)
In the 1970s the Government was chockers with colourful characters who brought personality and a dash of the larrikin. The loud-tie and silver-tongued Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby, Rex ‘buy back the farm’ Connor, the beatnik-bearded Moss Cass, the quick-witted ‘Diamond’ Jim McClelland, and the dapper, street-talking young dandy, Paul Keating were all political heart-starters after the grey somnambulists who ran Australia during the long Liberal sleep.
Within ten years of Gough’s film cameo, Australia was to elect as Prime Minister Bob Hawke, a larrikin character highly reminiscent of Barry McKenzie and who held the Guinness record for sculling beer. And when Keating became yet another McKenzie-esque larrikin in The Lodge, he was to cause an entirely Bazza-style furore in England by daring to touch the back of the real Betty Britain.
Larrikinism made a come back in 2003 when the ocker maverick Mark Latham became Federal Leader of the Opposition. But it was to be all-too-brief. Perhaps it is no longer time for larrikins?
Nevertheless, from an era which made possible a celluloid encounter between a Prime Minister and Bazza, I am left with the passionate belief that an authentic Australian leader, especially a Labor one, should be a larrikin to smuggle a sense of the carnivalesque what Keating called ‘vaudeville’ into our otherwise materialistic politics.
This is an edited extract from Tony Moore’s The Barry McKenzie Movies (Currency Press), RRP: $16.95. This is the fifth title in the ‘Australian Screen Classics Series’ jointly published by Currency Press and the National Film & Sound Archive (a division of the AFC).
Tony Moore is Commissioning Editor of Pluto Press and is completing a PhD about Australian bohemia. He was a doco-maker at ABC TV from 1988 to 1997, and writes regularly about the arts and politics.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.