Australian artists have long been entranced by working-class culture, as a source of human drama, and as a cause of and a butt for humour. The Barry McKenzie movies brought to centre stage a performance that bohemian artists of the 1950s had long rehearsed in the pubs of Sydney and Melbourne and toured abroad as 1960s travellers to critical acclaim.
The ocker, like the bushman, larrikin and digger before him, emerged in a period of national questioning, when the old certainties were confronted with a new cosmopolitanism and accelerating social change. In re-working these national types for the 1970s, Barry Humphries brought a keen awareness of social distinction and an ironic amusement towards Australian provincialism, sharpened by his own life as a suburban child, a bohemian artist and an expatriate.
The Adventures of Barry McKenzie displays an interest with social class not usually apparent in Australian cinema. Parodying the nuance of status, accent, education, cultural literacy, hierarchy, snobbishness and deference is Humphries’s forte, and one not to be sneezed at in a public culture which believes its own propaganda that Australians are classless.
From his own childhood in Melbourne’s Camberwell he was acutely aware of the condescension, philistinism and wowserism nestling in the Australian bourgeoisie. Humphries believes people are unequal but does not support making them more equal. He believes in art and by conceiving himself as an artist, imagines himself above the hoi polloi.
When Humphries the 1950s university student took to a life of painting and acting, he found the perfect identity in bohemianism. His biography describes his entree into the student and artistic demimonde, first in Melbourne’s artistic Drift, then amongst the libertarian pub philosophers of the Sydney Push. These were the same circles in which a young Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Clive James and Bruce Beresford drank, argued and shagged.
Barry McKenzie, the back bar orator, owes something to the rambunctious ‘beerhemia’ of 1950s Sydney. But Humphries was even then a one-man show. He was too nihilistic for the Drift and too aesthetic and foppish for the Push. Neither a romantic nor a political radical, he combined the dadaist desire to shock and subvert with the dandy’s ease of superiority and social climbing. He was particularly fond of the aestheticism of the late 19th century which emphasised a refined and distancing taste, and had its apotheosis in the British wit and playwright, Oscar Wilde, who provided Humphries with a model for the type of artist he would be.
Bohemians are dÃ©classÃ© and are very good at crossing over borders of class, nationality, sometimes gender, because identity play is their stock-in-trade. A performer like Humphries allows the Elizabeth Bay dowager or Carlton academic to cross-over borders of class and taste, if only for one ‘Nice Night’s Entertainment’ (the name of one of Humphries’ most famous one-man shows). The best bohemians make themselves a work of art, modifying their identities and performances to suit the audience and medium, balancing the shocks with the familiar. Barry Humphries made this his career.
Edna may have come from ‘a middle income bracket’ but her wayward nephew was explicitly working class. ‘I’m just an ordinary working man, like you,’ he tells Earls Court slum landlord Spike Milligan. Bazza is a caricature of the middle classes’ worst fears about working-class male behaviour he is perpetually intoxicated, obsessed with sex, has a broad accent peppered with slang, swears and engages in all sorts of vulgar bodily acts, gets together with his mates in a gang, is belligerent and gets in fights, he has leisure and money to burn.
The fun of the McKenzie oeuvre is that it plonks lower class Australian suburbanites down in the heart of the Metropolis. Humphries doesn’t like the Australian suburbs. He began his satirical career in Australia in the late 1950s making fun of what he conceived as their insularity, banality and philistine conformity. His mockery built on a long tradition of Australian artists and intellectuals disdaining the suburbs as compared to the cosmopolitan inner city enclaves where they lived.
This line is contradicted by the host of creative non-conformists, Humphries included, who emerge from the supposed suburban wastelands. My own experiences growing up in suburbs heaving with human drama and creative potential yet stifled by class blinkers leave me amused by Humphries’s sharp observations and gift for irony but wishing he was more sympathetic to the eccentrics, subcultures and stirrers who actually dwell there.
However, in the creation of Barry McKenzie and especially the two films, Humphries’s better angels prevailed.
Part of his critique of the Protestant middle-class suburbs in which Humphries grew up was the denial of pleasure. Barry McKenzie, on the other hand, lives for the pursuit of pleasure, symbolising the lower urges commonly associated with the ‘lower classes’: both Humphries and Beresford appear to have enjoyed unleashing Bazza’s vulgar hedonism on the wowsers.
While Barry McKenzie is undoubtedly a piss-take of a certain type of unreconstructed working class Australian, he is also Humphries’s life-affirming revenge on the thin-lipped, small-minded snobs he grew up with, who can still be found waving a disapproving finger at the larrikin and the eccentric.
Something interesting happens with Barry McKenzie when he is transported from the open space of the Aussie suburbs to the great wen of London. Like many expats before and since, Humphries was disillusioned with the England of his dreams. In The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, dotty dowagers peep from behind faded lace curtains and the greedy landlord rubs his hands like Uriah Heap. Cockneys are depicted as gelded gnomes, surly officials or thuggish gangsters, alternatively deferential and bossy.
No matter their social position, the English Bazza meets, from Peter Cook’s obsequious BBC producer to the customs official who rifles through his luggage, are conscious of their place in a pecking order that polices their every move. Not so Barry and his mates, who blithely crash into or through these barriers and, as a consequence, experience a social mobility which was a lucky reality for a fortunate handful of Australian expatriates in the 1960s and 1970s.
Some Australian writers, painters, actors and journalists, like Leo McKern, Dame Joan Sutherland, Peter Porter and Sydney Nolan did remarkably well in post-war London. This mobility was raised a notch in the 1960s when the number of Australians journeying to London increased with cheaper air travel and self-conscious Australian neighbourhoods arose. This was the moment the Barry McKenzie comic strip captured so vividly.
What changed from the mid 1960s into the 1970s was that Australians in London built careers in the arts and media as ‘Australians’ rather than Austral-Brits, and made an outrageous show of it. Humphries recently admitted that the invention of the Barry McKenzie character provided ‘a good outlet for my Australianness.’ The larrikin Aussie performance given by those such as Humphries, Beresford, Rolf Harris, Richard Neville, Germaine Greer and Clive James had an exotic appeal in the cosmopolitan mix of the great metropolis but also gave these well-educated stirrers a democratic post-colonial edge to cut through the British class system.
McKenzie uses a more extreme version of the same trick, but is more a ‘loaded dog’ than pet Australian. At a toffy party in a scene in Bazza Holds His Own he deals with English condescension by singing:
I hope your chooks turn to Emus
And kick your dunny down flat to the grass.
I hope your balls turn to bicycle wheels
And back peddle up your arse.
I hope every lah di dah pommy like you
Get the trots when he swallows a plum.
Go stick your left eye in hot cocky shit
And your head up a dead bear’s bum.
This isn’t Victor Laszlo striking up a bar room rendition of the ‘Marseillaise’ to drown out arrogant Nazis in Casablanca, but for any Australian who suffered English snobbery in the imperial centre, Bazza’s song could feel that good.
Humphries and Beresford, having experienced expatriation, seem to want to have a bet each way with McKenzie, mocking his provincialism but also celebrating an ingredient missing in the English regardless of their background. The result is that British audiences can enjoy laughing at the Australians, and Australians can laugh at the English
There is a tone of triumphalism in Barry exposing himself on national television in the first film’s climax. Humphries and Beresford seem to be saying ‘so there’ to the Establishment for every petty put-down they ever endured. But then a chastened Bazza sheepishly confides to Edna as he is spirited away in a plane at the film’s end ‘I was just getting to like the poms’.
The Bazza films straddle the ambiguity of Australia’s love/hate relationship with the English in the post-colonial era, when we were keen to assert our differences and independence but not quite ready to sever the ties and go our own way. They reflect a time, now passed, when Australia could only frame its distinctiveness in comparison to the Mother Country.
In exploring the fraying imperial relationship, the Bazza films re-work the ANZAC legend, the founding story of young Australian innocents abroad, to resonate with the ‘New Nationalism’ of the 1970s. Barry himself refers back to both World Wars using recycled clichÃ©s from ANZAC Day like ‘our superlative fighting men,’ and both films play on the idea of the young Australians saving the Old Country in their own incorrigible way.
The films’ use of a spirit of riot plays to the ANZAC legend’s celebration of the unruly digger bucking against English authority, popularised by official war historian CEW Bean. The ANZAC association is made explicit in Holds His Own. In the first half, Bazza’s drunken tourist mates sample the delights of gay Paris in a manner recalling popular accounts of the carousing soldiers of the First AIF on leave in France.
When Barry is tempted by a Parisian prostitute he refuses because, ‘I once knew a bloke whose uncle in the war went chockers with a frog and his nose fell off.’ On the lookout for some colonials to send on a mission over the Iron Curtain to rescue Edna Everage, Sir Nigel of the ‘pommy Foreign Orifice’ asks for ‘some young, intelligent, sober Australians’ before modifying his request to ‘some young Australians.’
When the drunken Australians turn up at an airfield at night for their mission, he asks if the boys would like ‘a few grogs before they go over the top.’ As they run riot the Ambassador assures Sir Nigel, ‘I think you’ll find they have plenty of the old ANZAC spirit.’
As silly as the ensuing battle with the communist vampires is, a quasi-serious note is struck when traitorous Col the Frog dies saving his mate Bazza, and redeems himself with a deathbed speech that could have come from the bar of an RSL club: ‘I was one of those who thought there was a place better than Oz tell all those long haired students and commo unionists from Col the Frog, Australia is the greatest little country on earth.’ The ANZAC myth, while celebrating the democratic, levelling spirit of the diggers, was quickly co-opted for conservative ends, and so it is here.
Col’s death represents a rare moment of poignancy in the films because it deals with the themes of sacrifice and mateship central to Australian national mythology. The film doesn’t let it go: at the Old Cock pub in the film’s last London scene, Bazza proposes a toast to their fallen comrade, and geysers of Fosters fill the air. Col’s flag-draped coffin is borne home to a hero’s welcome at Sydney Airport and carried by his mates past the Prime Minister; the last shot is of Col’s grave, a mound of earth under a blue gum next to a sleepy billabong, marked only with a baguette and a pair of brogues his dying request.
Humphries and Beresford, with some help from Philip Adams, caught an emerging mood in their generation of artists with the character of Barry McKenzie, helping to invent the ‘ocker’ a 1970s manifestation of the Australian larrikin tradition. By the 1970s ‘ocker’ had superseded the elitist put-down ‘Alf’, but unlike that colloquialism, came to be celebrated as a badge of honour by people exhibiting what was thought of as typically raw ‘Aussie’ working class, rowdy or uncouth behaviour, in part thanks to the McKenzie films although they never use the term.
This was a period of rapid change, as blue-collar work made way for office work, more and more women entered the workforce, tertiary education expanded, social mobility increased and mass migration brought new diversity. Artists like Humphries and Beresford, writer David Williamson and director Tim Burstall looked on the disappearing Australian workingman with both satire and nostalgia to say things about a culture emerging from isolation.
Bazza is badged as a relic from a bygone era by his double-breasted suit and especially his hat, and set lose amongst the foreigners, artists, hippies, ad men and women’s libbers who make up a changing world.
There is not a new social movement of the 1970s that Barry doesn’t drive to distraction, reminding us just how incomplete these revolutions were, and how intransigent suburban Aussie manhood could be. Ocker characters lacked the cultural capital of the bohemian to navigate borders smoothly. Ockers like Barry McKenzie, Stork, Alvin Purple and the loutish Laborites at Don’s Party made a loud nuisance of themselves as they crashed though classes, genders, ethnicities and nationalities. They allowed a new generation of artists to identify with Australia while simultaneously mocking how incomplete was its cosmopolitan journey.
The ocker trend was loudly condemned by an older generation of Australian artists and intellectuals who had come down firmly on the cosmopolitan side in the cultural wars of the 1940s and 1950s, and could not read the social satire in the new nationalism, dismissing ocker art as dumbing down.
Max Harris warned fellow sophisticates of art and literary circles that ‘manifestations like Paul Hogan, Barry McKenzie, Alvin Purple are merely surface reflections of a backward shift to uneducated attitudes [a]reversion to proletarian tribalism’ that must be opposed in the name of civilisation. Philip Adams astutely countered that
Australians will always need to make its larrikin films for the simple reason that there are a vast number of larrikins at all levels of our population, from parliament to working-class pubs with no two of them quite the same.
As screenwriter and critic Bob Ellis argued: ‘A country can’t mature until it has learned to celebrate its gaucheries’. The avant-garde modernists of Harris’s circle, such as the Angry Penguins painters and writer Patrick White, had explored nationalist themes, but in an elitist way. The new nationalist artists of the early 1970s were exploring identity in the popular media and with themes that resonated with the younger mass audiences.
Through the Ocker, younger Australian artists like Beresford, Humphries, Burstall and Williamson have a bet each way, making art that appealed to the public’s residual hostility to intellectuals and artists, while inviting the more discriminating to have a knowing laugh.
This is an edited extract from Tony Moore’s The Bar
ry 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).
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