Watching Barry McKenzie Holds His Own today it’s difficult to believe that as a kid I was allowed to show this movie at my high school.
The 1974 sequel to The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) is packed with lines like “Our dear little stunted, slant-eyed, yellow friends” and “Have a crack at putting the ferret through the furry hoop”, which might have been expected to ring alarm bells with the powers that be.
But it was the 70s and few of us knew about sexism and racism, least of all the Education Department. What we did know was that this film – with its ribald and absurd humour, inventive Aussie slang, great songs, sex, slapstick, beer, violence, vomiting, prostitutes and kung-fu fights – not to mention a ridiculous vampire subplot – was a hoot.
A generation reared on Mavis Bramston and Alf Garnett knew the difference between a prejudiced diatribe and sharp satire. And who could doubt that Barry McKenzie Holds His Own was a “real good cultural show” when the Prime Minister himself, Gough Whitlam, made a cameo appearance?
As the years have passed Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, like a fine brew, has only got better, and in my opinion, it is one of the rare instances where the sequel surpasses the original.
You know you’re in for a treat when the opening title tells you you’re about to watch a Reg Grundy Production – no South Australian Film Corporation guidelines here. Then a grandiose operatic swoop through the clouds cuts to a plate of live frogs being served on a French aeroplane spiralling out of control because the pilot is shagging the air hostess.
The whole tone is sillier than the first movie. Humphries has thrown the switch to the absurd and infantile and (perversely) honed a great political satire. And it’s really funny! Where The Adventures of Barry McKenzie was faithful to the comic strip and had its feet planted in realism, Holds His Own exists in a parallel universe where anything can happen as it mocks the media landscapes of the time, from Hammer Horror and Kung Fu movies to Cold War Spy thrillers to boosterish government tourism documentaries.
The plot? Well, Edna Everage (Barry Humphries), on tour in Paris with her nephew Barry McKenzie (Barry Crocker), is mistaken for the Queen by two vampires who kidnap her to help lift the ailing Transylvanian Tourist Industry, located in a corrupt Eastern Bloc republic.
Barry, his mates, their women and the governments of Australia and Britain must rescue Edna from the clutches of “the illustrious socialist leader” Count von Plasma (Donald Pleasence) before he discovers Edna’s true identity as an Australian housewife.
On the way we encounter a clerical seminar on ‘Christ and the Orgasm’, Barry masquerading as an Arab to get into England as an illegal, a spectral encounter with Barry’s convict ancestor in a gaol, an immigration game show, a reprise of Humphries’ much spewed upon Jewish psychiatrist from the first film, and Barry’s clumsy attempts to lose his virginity.
Foster’s lager has transubstantiated from the obsessive beverage of the first film into a magical potion rivalling Popeye’s spinach, and Plasma is eventually seen off with a cunningly improvised cross of tinnies – the mighty Fosterix! Rarely has an Australian film enjoyed itself with such sublime nonsense.
It’s fun to see well-known personalities as they were then, doing the 70s rather than remembering it. Edna Everage, while still a housewife on a package tour, has assumed greater plot significance and hints at the purple-headed monster waiting to conquer Britain.
Barry Crocker (who gets camper by the year) reprises his portrayal of the beer-swilling innocent abroad but also gets to play Barry’s twin brother, with-it wowser clergyman, the Very-Reverend Kevin McKenzie.
The director is a pre-Hollywood Bruce Beresford, slumming it in his Grundy period. There’s a young, hirsute Clive James playing Paddy, a perpetually drunk London-based Australian film critic, apparently based on Paddy McGuinness but doing a fair approximation of the younger Clive James. There’s Skippy‘s dad Ed Devereaux, resplendent in shorts and long socks as the Australian ambassador, Sir Alec.
My favourite is Col ‘the Frog’ Lucas (Dick Bentley), a lefty/arty type living in self-imposed exile in Paris who has gone native (he carries a French loaf, wears spats and has the lingo down pat – “Too flambé right!”) and who moonlights as a pimp and communist spy. Some say he’s a parody of Alistair Kershaw but I reckon he’s Frank Hardy, who forsook Australia for gay Paris and the Soviet Bloc after the Power Without Glory defamation trial.
With the spirit of the Whitlam era being knackered by the reverential nostalgia of ageing boomers, it’s great that this cheeky piss-take of the ‘Australian Renaissance’ survives, preserved for eternity in amber fluid. In a perverse way, the movie shows Australians at their best.
This is partly because of the film’s mix of larrikinism, humour and pommy bashing, but mainly because Bazza and his entourage have a healthy libertine disdain for authority, pomposity and cant. Tinnies are hurled with democratic gusto at petty bureaucrats, snobs, frauds and especially smug trendies.
Make no mistake, Holds His Own is gross, rude and offensive – a passing parade of bodily fluids, excreta and base human drives. But in a fine tradition that goes back to the mediaeval carnival, the film’s ribald, vulgar antics are subversive, turning upside down the stitched-up hierarchies of a string of condescending authority figures: clergymen, a psychiatrist, British police, an Eastern Block potentate, immigration officials, even a liberated feminist.
Vulgarity is a powerful, levelling weapon, as Aristophanes, Shakespeare and The Bulletin bards well knew.
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”. “I think you’ll find plenty of the old ANZAC spirit,” replies Ed Devereaux.
Sir Nigel gets it by the skin full, as Bazza and the Boys drunkenly rampage through an upper-class English party singing: “I hope every la-de-da pom like you gets the trots when he swallows a plumb / Go dip your left eye in hot cocky shit and stick your head up a dead bear’s bum!” McKenzies’ Marauders are C.W. Bean’s levelling larrikin ANZACs, updated with a government grant and an Airways bag.
Here then is perhaps the greatest Australian movie ever made … and one you’re unlikely to ever see. While The Adventures of Barry McKenzie has had a few rare appearances, its sequel has never been shown on TV, is not available on video and never gets a guernsey on the pretentious art/retro cinema circuit. We found our copy in London.
Why has the film disappeared? I think it’s less that the Australian sense of humour has changed (it’s always a crowd pleaser when we show it) than that some of the people who made it are no longer amused. Having grown old and respectable, a young iconoclast like director Bruce Beresford is probably rather embarrassed by the whole thing, preferring to drive Miss Daisy into the American heartland than be remembered for a Reg Grundy Production about ocker piss-heads pub crawling around Europe. In fact, Beresford recently confessed he was unable to get work after making the film and feared his directing career had come to an end.
Maybe the worthies that suck limpet-like on the Australian film industry had “gone all sophisticated” (like McKenzie in Europe) and decided Australians needed a correcting diet of costume dramas like My Brilliant Career (1979) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1976).
Lift that low brow, but stay around the middle! I reckon that Beresford’s film had gone too far – biting the hand that fed it, announcing Australia’s cultural revolution to be a sham. The emperor was not only naked but was holding his own with too obvious satisfaction.
The middle-aged Max Harris, who took his cosmopolitanism very seriously, attacked the Bazza films for revering the ockerism that his mates had fought a war to destroy. The producer of Adventures, a cocky young Phillip Adams, retorted that Harris may have once been an Angry Penguin but had turned into a muddle-headed wombat. The whole ocker thing was a joke, Joyce, but the cultural commissars had stopped laughing.
Where the first Barry McKenzie movie aims its satire at the boorish post-war suburban males, Holds His Own goes after the smug new educated middle class that was taking on airs and graces in the wake of the “Australian Cultural Renaissance” ignited by the patronage of Gorton and Whitlam.
Everyone is on the ‘cultural’ bandwagon, getting their share of the take. “The government’s handing out piles of moolah for any bastard who reckons he can paint pictures, write pomes or make filums,” Bazza tells drunken film critic Paddy.
In the 1970s trendies bearing bottles of Chianti and a fondue set made shrill claims about Australia’s new-found sophistication. For Humphries, the gentlemen doth protest too much. In Holds His Own, cosmopolitanism happens in “the contemporary Australian-Spanish style” and European culture is to be found at the Munich beer festival.
Humphries had seen the 1950s and was smart enough to realise that you can’t change the country of Robert Askin and Rex Connor overnight, just because a blow-in in a safari suit whacks ‘Blue Poles’ over the fibro. The film is introduced by the Minister for Culture, Senator Doug Manton (a proto Sir Les Paterson), with a model of the Opera House in front of him, a huge Foster’s ad behind him and the buzz of blowflies just audible in the background. Doug boasts about the wave of ‘artistic endeavour’ sweeping out of Australia to conquer the world while leafing through his copy of Venomous Toads of Australia. “The filum you’re about to see,” he puffs, “makes me proud to be an Australian.”
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 the film by 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”.
It’s still business as usual for the boys from the Rum Corps who’ve simply rote-learned the latest government guidelines and buzzwords, mispronouncing terms like “pitcher”, “culchar” and that old favourite “the yartz” – sounding much like the boofy blokes on the SOCOG team today when they go on about “multiculturalism” and “environmental impact statements”.
But it’s not just unsophisticated politicians and cynical bureaucrats who are in Humphries’ sights. Every crank idea and unthinking trendy cause of the 70s cops a spray of the always-foaming Foster’s. 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.”
We know we’re taking no prisoners when Bazza bumps into Rhonda Cuthbert-Jones, the black, well-spoken, feminist editor of Jet Set, ‘the first magazine with balls’. Rhonda asks Edna Everage 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”.
Humphries thinks little has changed in the suburban backblocks. Despite the best efforts of liberal Christianity, cultural re-education, the Australian Film Commission or feminism, it seems most Aussie blokes are xenophobic homophobes who just want to get pissed and laid.
And what of the colourful racist invective thrown around with such redneck abandon? Watching today, the racist stereotypes stick out like dog’s balls. At a time when Australia was busily apologising for seventy years of the just ended White Australia policy Barry McKenzie Holds His Own shows a bunch of white blokes terribly anxious about other races.
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’, ‘ikey-mo type bastards’, Pakistanis, ‘frogs’, ‘wogs’ and ‘dagoes’. Given Australia’s ritual outbreak of immigration hysteria and the rise of One Nation, was Humphries too far off the mark in suggesting that decades of racism could not be eliminated overnight by government fiat?
Given that this is a Humphries film the Left does not come off well. Bazza’s ‘Pommy Bastards’ T-Shirt of the first film is now replaced with one emblazoned ‘Commie Bastards’! The communist leaders of Eastern Europe are vampires sucking their countries dry (literally) and lording it over their people like decadent Persian Satraps. He was right there. Humphries thinks the Australian Left are blind to the realities of the Communist world. Sir Nigel grumbles about the ridiculous detente between the Australian government and the Soviet Bloc, and it’s clear the Australian ambassador and Humphries share this view.
To infiltrate Count Von Plasma’s Mountain fastness and rescue imprisoned Edna Everage, Bazza’s motley crew masquerade as the Bondi Organisation for Radical Education (BORE), as the only people to get into the Eastern Bloc from Australia are the ones who “think the sun shines out of Stalin’s arsehole”.
After saving Barry from a communist vampire, a repentant Comrade Lucas declares: “If you see any of those long-haired students or commie trade union types you tell ’em from Col the Frog that Oz is the greatest little country on earth.” The film’s climax is a battle between a Chinese martial arts chef (a gift from Count Plasma’s ‘friends in Peking’) and Bazza’s band. As a tour guide boasts about the superlative fighting machine that is Socialist man,
Bazza prevails by blinding the Chinese chef with a well-aimed spray of Foster’s.
But Gough is OK, Barry telling his auntie: “I reckon the PM is that smart he could sell soap to the pommies.” Just to show what a good sport he is, Whitlam, the Pericles at the centre of all this democratic patronage, appears at the film’s end to welcome back the Australian heroes and regally Dame Edna Everage, now set on her trajectory to housewife superstar.
I reckon Whitlam knew that a renaissance that didn’t laugh at the Medicis wasn’t worth having. Quizzed by Mike Willessee as to why the PM deigned to appear in Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, Gough deadpanned: “Hasn’t everybody held his own? I certainly have.”
© Tony Moore
Barry McKenzie/Rev. Kevin McKenzie
Aunt Edna Everage/Dr Meyer Delamphrey/Senator Douglas Manton
Erich Count von Plasma
Sir Alec Ferguson
Colin ‘The Frog’ Lucas
Sir Nigel Stewart
Bishop of Paris
John Le Mesurier