“The Christmas Eve of my life”: Inside Barry Humphries’ final TV shoot

Legendary Barry Humphries approached Who Do You Think You Are and challenged them to find something interesting - but never saw the final edit.

“He said several times that he was in the ‘Christmas Eve of his life.’ Isn’t that a lovely quote?” says executive producer Maxine Gray.

For Gray, it isn’t often that a celebrity reaches out to request being featured on SBS genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?

“It happens sometimes, but not usually with someone of Barry’s standing.”

But that’s just what happened when Humphries’ agent reached out. Gray met with Barry and wife Lizzie Spender in early 2022 to discuss the idea. The result is a very special episode -one that Humphries never got to see.

“I do feel that he was interested in a kind of legacy project. He said,” on camera, ‘This could be the last thing I do on television,’ so it did seem to be something he’d thought about. He said, ‘What I’m slowly becoming to realise is I will be someone’s ancestor soon,'” she recalls.

One of Humphries’ relatives had researched the family but found little of interest.

“He was more or less challenging us to find something more interesting. He said, ‘I am the most interesting person in my family tree. I’m quite convinced of that. But I would like to see what you can find out,'” says Gray. “So he threw down the gauntlet to us.”

“We have to find something! It’s Barry Humphries!”

At first researchers struggled to find much that would make an interesting SBS episode, but Gray doubled resources and pressed them to dig deeper.

“I was like, ‘No, no, keep looking, we have to find something! It’s Barry Humphries!'” she continues.

“We knew that he wanted to find something titillating. He was looking for something rich, something scandalous. Barry said in his first interview, he hoped to find an artist a gypsy, even a criminal. He doubted that there were any links to royalty but he would love a surprise.

“Blow me down, we found a criminal on one side and we found a link to royalty! Hellelujah!”

Filming took place in July 2022 in the middle of a UK heatwave, but Gray says 88 year old Humphries was always generous and patient, despite the demands of filming in 40+ degree temperatures.

“We filmed that opening interview with him at his home. There was no air conditioning. He was absolutely sweltering -and of course, we have a duty of care. But he was always such a trouper saying, ‘Yes, yes, I’m fine. I’m fine!’ The cameraman was fanning him between takes, trying to keep him cool. It was brutal,” Gray insists.

One scene saw the veteran star walking to one of his favourite spots, at the top of Primrose Hill in London’s Regent’s Park. Both Gray and Lizzie Spender were worried.

“He insisted it was okay. They met him at the end of a long, hot day filming. He jumped out of his car, took the director’s arm and he walked up that steep hill to the top, like a man two decades younger. It was amazing.

“He was delightful to work with”

“He was delightful to work with. It wasn’t a facade with Barry. He was warm, he was charming, curious, and mischievous. In a way we got Barry, maybe at the best time of his life, in that I felt like he had mellowed.”

Wherever the crew went filming with Humphries, fans were thrilled to see him.

“He got the biggest response of any celebrity they’d worked with. In the UK, I think he’s even more well recognised than he is here. People wanted his autograph, to be photographed with selfies, all of that,” Gray observed.

“Everywhere they went people recognised him instantly and wanted to talk to him. He was very generous.”

Ancestral facts in the episode were new information to Humphries with particular emphasis on solving the mystery of his mother’s family history.

“Everything was about his mother

“It was all about his relationship with his mother. We knew that. So when we looked at her side of the family, we wanted to find something that in some way, would explain a little bit of his mother to Barry. And he said we did,” said Gray.

“While he was on this shoot with us he said, ‘This is a great adventure I’m caught up in. It is a page turner. It’s full of excitement and suspense. It’s giving me dreams. I’m having vivid dreams. I dreamt I was surrounded by ancestors. They were very cross that they were being dragged out of their graves to appear on this program. It was a funny dream. I laughed during the dream and they didn’t want to be disinterred…”

Sadly, Humphries never got to see the episode, his final television project, before his death two weeks ago.

“It is a shame. Because I think he would have loved it,” reflects Gray. “I feel like he had a sense of how it will all come together and he played into that the whole time. He could see how the episode was going to pan out, he could see the story arc that we had in mind and he made sure he gave us the quotes that we needed at every point, for us to be able to tie it up with a bow.”

Who Do You Think You Are? screens 7:30pm tonight on SBS.

7 Responses

  1. Barry strikes me as a lovely guy, but this episode was a real snooze-fest (also my first time watching any iteration of WDYTYA). I was struggling to stay awake a couple of times hoping for more substance, but the findings, frankly, weren’t all that interesting. He’s a fascinating subject in isolation, but I think he was right in saying that he is perhaps the most interesting person in his family tree. It was also eerily prophetic when he said at the start of the show that this could very well be his final television project. The editing and cinematography were quite nice too. Rest in peace, possum.

  2. Just watched Barry’s last performance and got goosebumps at end. Gave him a well deserved round of applause. Fabulous show. Indeed, the most interesting person in his family tree

    1. No it’s not you, it’s the way the “bash” on the hat has been done. Stetson and Akubra hats get the “bash” to shape the top and sides.

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