Barry Humphries’s diary: My war with ‘Wow!’

Plus: The posthumous wit of Oscar Wilde and the curious poignancy of Murder, She Wrote

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

I’m counting ‘Wows!’ Suddenly everyone is using this irritating expletive expressing incredulity, amazement and nothing at all. I’ve heard it from the lips of daughters in law, professors of literature, rabbis and housewives. No doubt at least one priest has said it after a particularly lurid confession. It is spreading like leprosy over ordinary discourse and will, in time, die out like ‘Zounds’ or ‘Gee whizz’. I wonder if it will turn up as an anachronism in Downton Abbey? I saw on television the other night a superb production of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls with great performances from David Thewlis, Ken Stott and Miranda Richardson. The adaptation was impeccable and no one said ‘Wow!’ but there was a jarring moment when one actor referred to ‘the bottom line’, briefly wrenching me back into the present.

Another star-studded celebration of Oscar Wilde (his birthday) at the Langham Hotel, hosted by Gyles Brandreth and Oscar’s grandson Merlin Holland. Some ignorant malapert said in the Observer the other day that Wilde never wrote anything when he came out of the slammer. What about De Profundis and the post-vinicular Ballad of Reading Gaol? And what about his voluminous discarnate witticisms, many dictated in automatic writing to Mrs Hester Travers Smith, the distinguished medium. ‘Being dead is the most boring experience in life, if, that is, one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster.’

I’ve lately fallen into the habit of chewing the right corner of my lower lip in moments of scepticism. I know why I do it. It’s an unconscious homage to that great actor Michael Kitchen, who invented this mannerism for his flawless impersonation of Christopher Foyle in my favourite TV show. I’ve watched Foyle’s War countless times and my admiration for the writer Anthony Horowitz, Mr Kitchen, glorious Honeysuckle Weeks and their satellites continues to grow. John Betjeman would certainly have worshipped Sam in her ATS uniform and lyle stockings. If Hester Travis Smith was still with us, I’m sure that Betjeman would send her Ouija board spinning at the mere whiff of Honeysuckle.

Other shows I enjoy late at night on my new TV set are Murder, She Wrote and The Professionals, the latter for its pacey, modern camerawork and its glimpses of old London in the far-off 1970s, when phones rang and characters picked up cordless handsets the size of small cars. Angela Lansbury’s wonderful series set in Cabot Cove — surely the murder capital of the world — is riveting, not just because one can never get enough of Angela Lansbury, but because all the male characters have terrible wigs and the women have hair and shoulders that fill the screen. Some of these late-night diversions have, for me, a certain poignancy as I count the few cast members who are still alive.

Last weekend I was in Nice with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley for their new Ab Fab movie. I played a small but striking role as the sleazy old boyfriend of Patsy at a pool party festooned with Russian babes. My usual theatrical work is rather solitary, so this was a heart-warming tonic. Later, gorgeous Miss Lumley and I dined in a modest bistro, but I noticed a middle-aged couple at a nearby table were staring rather hard at my companion. ‘ENT,’ I whispered across the table. It was my mother’s customary acronym when, during my early schooldays, she took me to one of her ladies’ luncheons in a Melbourne tea shop and noticed a rather conspicuously dressed couple at a nearby table: the woman rather loud and toothy, the man in mustard-coloured corduroy trousers, suede shoes and houndstooth jacket with un-Australian side vents. ‘ENT.’ English Next Table. Sure enough the star of Absolutely Fabulous had been clocked by a British tourist. ‘I’m so sorry to interrupt your privacy,’ he said, husky with reticence. He then politely expressed his admiration for several of Miss Lumley’s achievements; compliments she received with her habitual grace. Oddly enough, I went unrecognised, although on reflection the nice man from Ealing might have been too awestruck to accost me.

On the Côte d’Azur the dead have the best views; it made me think of Gstaad, where the best aspect of the valley is from a hostel for the blind. I drove over to Menton yesterday and climbed the hill to the cemetery to pay my respects at the tombs of Aubrey Beardsley and Katherine Mansfield. A night off last Saturday in the restaurant at the Negresco in Nice, a marvellous belle époque hotel which, alas, has been expensively ‘reimagined’ by a colourblind decorator and kitsch-meister and been utterly ruined. ‘Vulgarity is the rich man’s modest contribution to democracy,’ posthumously quipped Oscar Wilde to Mrs Travers Smith in 1928. Wow!

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Barry Humphries is the creator of Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage.

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Show comments
  • LordHumpty

    Nicely written Barry. I find the equivalent to wow on twitter is the word “wild” The kids just love going wild.

    • Frank Marker

      Or the use of the word ‘sick’ for anything that is ‘splendid’.

      • red2black


    • Sue Smith

      As Twitter is electronic graffiti, it’s hard to imagine anything more than mono-syllabic being part of that lexicon!

  • I have fallen into the same mire: in fact worse: I wrote “just WOW”, I feel embarrassed. I was regarding the Cherry Blossom’s rugby win over Springboks. it was just so good…like…BOOM!

    Damn! I’ve done it again.

  • Shinsei1967

    What does “post-vinicular” mean ?

    • Hamburger


      • red2black

        A pun on ‘bars’? – horizontal ones in mathematics, and perhaps the mainly vertical ones Mr Wilde must have been behind. Also, “Barman! Another bottle of wine, if you please…” A viniculum is also ‘a bond, or tie’.

    • Sue Smith

      Look it up, as indeed you’ll have to attend to in much of Humphries’s writings. Christopher Hitchens was the same – they both love/d words! And so do I.

    • HMP 635967 Fred West

      Means you typed vernacular too quickly

  • Landphil

    What’s more irritating than ‘Wow’ is the increasing use of ‘So’ at the beginning of sentences. This is particularly evident in students and so-called ‘experts’ who are interviewed; e.g. Q: “Why did the bus crash”? A: “So, the bus crashed because…….”

    • HMP 635967 Fred West

      So at the start of a sentence DRIVES ME NUTS! What I particularly hate is when it is used as though they were continuing a point – when it is in no way based on any previous point made. I have tracked it for approx 12 months now and it emerged from Silicon Valley in the USA> I watch a lot of technical videos, being a programmer, and suddenly people started using it in California and for the first 6 months everybody thought I was nuts for pointing it out. Now it has spread and it seems any low rent “expert” drafted onto talk radio or libtard media thinks it adds a punch of authority to the start of every single point. A lady being interviewed on Radio 4 a couple of weeks back started EVERY SINGLE point – without exception with “so, [beat]”. I counted them, there were 22 statements starting in so in a 30 minute discussion.

      • Landphil

        So what are we going to do about it?

  • Precambrian

    Remind us how many of Wilde’s ‘partners’ were under 16.

    • ViolinSonaten b minor.

      Ah, yes indeed, a scandalous character who lived a life of utter debauchery and due to the period of time all went relatively unnoticed.

      • red2black

        But perhaps not the most important or most memorable thing about him?

  • trace9

    Well I suppose Les P.’ll have to drop the ‘Sir’ now. Silly old fart anyway – like his marketer.

  • gram64

    If I had been one of the ENTs, Barry, I would have chosen you to admire. How I wish I could have seen more of your rare no-Everage appearances, such as the time you shared reminiscences with Peter Cook: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qYl3ejL2Hc

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Entertaining as always, Bazzer – and I have a lot of time for someone who can get away with using such arcane terms as “post-vinicular”, “discarnate” and “malapert”.

  • HMP 635967 Fred West

    Personally, I am more of a Crikey man

  • Edward Studor

    What a sycophantic fool that person who gushed in front of Joanna Lumley was. She’s only an actress, an entertainer. In the 19c and before they knew their place.

  • antigravitas

    ‘Wow’ is almost always used ironically, at least in the circles I am familiar with. If one is hearing the term excessively, then this might be taken as a hint.