The Adventures of Barry McKenzie Review
Barrington Bradman Byng McKenzie, generally known as Barry, Bazza to his mates (Barry Crocker), is sent to England “to further the cultural and intellectual traditions of the McKenzie dynasty”. Accompanying him is his aunt Edna Everage (Barry Humphries). While in England, the dim-witted, loud-mouthed and sex-crazed Barry is almost married off to the daughter of perverted aristocrats (Dennis Price and Avice Landon), falls in with a bunch of hippie musicians (among them Julie Covington), and meets up with childhood friend Gaylene, now Lesley (Mary Anne Severne), not knowing that…but the fact that she lives in a house called Radclyffe Hall might give you a clue. (And that’s not the only fairly upmarket joke in this determinedly lowbrow comedy.)
If it hasn’t been written already, you could write a whole book about Australian influence on British popular culture – particularly in the Sixties, when Rolf Harris, Germaine Greer and Clive James all first made their marks. Add Barry Humphries to that list. Barry McKenzie, the lantern-jawed, permanently be-hatted Aussie abroad, first appeared in a comic strip in Private Eye, written by Humphries and drawn by Nicholas Garland. (It could well have influenced Monty Python’s “Bruces” sketch, from around the same time.) Sydney-born Bruce Beresford was in London, being head of film production of the BFI between 1966 and 1971. He had known Humphries since the early 1960s, and had in fact written a Barry McKenzie film script but had found no interest in it. After leaving the BFI, Beresford returned to Australia. Phillip Adams, head of the Australian Film and Television Board, who had met Beresford and was an old friend of Humphries, suggested the idea of making a Barry McKenzie film. Beresford and Humphries wrote the script and Beresford made his directorial debut. Humphries co-starred as Edna Everage, who hadn’t featured in the original comic strip (she’s plain Mrs Edna here: she becomes a Dame in the sequel, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own) as well as playing two other roles. The supporting cast was made up of a number of Humphries’ friends – Peter Cook, Spike Milligan and (in a cameo) William Rushton amongst others – and a large number of British supporting actors, including Dennis Price in his last role. Barry Crocker, a popular singer with a striking resemblance to the cartoon Barry, was cast as the lead. (Trivia note: since the Barry McKenzie movies, he’s best known for singing the Neighbours theme.) The film opens with a declaration that the Commonwealth of Australia has passed the film NPA – No Poofters Allowed.
The Adventures of Barry McKenzie is a militantly lowbrow, very un-PC comedy, full of basic, scatalogical humour, certainly overlong and hit and miss. Yet there’s an essential innocence to it (helped no end by Crocker’s portrayal of Barry) that makes it hard to dislike. It’s a product of less cynical times. On the way, we get an intriguing time capsule of early 70s London. Joan Bakewell, then a presenter of late-night BBC2 arts/cultural programmes and nicknamed “the thinking man’s crumpet”, turns up as herself interviewing Barry with disastrous results. Much of this can be credited to Humphries’s and Beresford’s arts backgrounds and connections, and only goes to show that it takes brains to make a successful dumb comedy. Another plus is Barry’s inventive Aussie slang, much of it invented by Humphries, with countless different expressions for urination. My favourite is “shaking hands with the unemployed”.
The Adventures of Barry McKenzie is visually somewhat ragged, a combination of the low budget and the filmmakers’ inexperience. Beresford has had a long and diverse career. It’s hard to call him an auteur, as you can’t sense any distinctive personal themes and style in his work. However, he’s almost always a highly competent craftsman and, at his best, more than that. It is fair to say that he’s become much slicker since his debut: it was only with his fourth feature, Don’s Party, that the critics took notice of him. Also making his debut was cinematographer Don McAlpine, who was Beresford’s regular DP into the 80s and more recently shot Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge. There’s nothing to suggest that level of ability here…but then again should a film like this look too smooth?
The film was a big hit both in Australia and in England, despite many Australian critics taking exception at their countrymen being portrayed as hard-drinking, chundering, percy-pointing vulgarians. The English might have equal cause to complain, as they are shown as a country of uptight, corrupt poofters and pervs. There are those who would have you believe that the 1970s Australian film revival began with the respectable likes of Picnic at Hanging Rock. But in reality it began with broad “ocker” comedies such as this one, its sequel and Stork. It’s a long tradition: leave out the contemporary vulgarity and explicitness and there’s not a great leap to this from the likes of Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938, featuring Peter Finch in his screen debut). Add lots more softcore sex, and you have another big hit of the time, Alvin Purple. It’s a tradition that continues to this day, with films like The Wogboy. (I can’t see that title remaining unchanged if it ever gets a British release, can you?).
Barry McKenzie played in cinemas at 114 minutes, but this DVD version follows previous video releases by running to 102 (106 without PAL speed-up). Not having seen this film in a cinema, I don’t know what’s missing, though the trailer contains several deleted shots and at least one alternate take. I suspect nothing more sinister than Beresford trimming and tightening the film after its initial release. It’s still too long, though. If whole scenes are missing, instead of parts of shots, it would have been good to include them on the DVD.
Guerilla Films’ DVD edition is a “30th Anniversary Edition”, but don’t expect anything too special. The transfer is full-frame. Don’t be alarmed by Humphries (in the interview included on this disc) referring to the film as a “Panavision feature”: this transfer is not panned and scanned but is open-matte. Judging by the amount of headroom, a ratio of 1.85:1 would seem to be intended. (Humphries is probably confusing this film with its sequel, which was shot in Panavision, i.e. 2.35:1.) The print used shows signs of age, with quite a few white specks and scratches here and there, but is generally acceptable. Shadow detail is poor in places and there is some grain. The film as a whole has a rather drab, flat look, but that tends to be what you get with low-budget 70s films. “Full as a boot colour”, not quite.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and basic it is too. At times, especially near the beginning, it can be shrill and the top end distorts…but on the whole it’s clear enough. Crocker’s Aussie accent is more likely to be a problem with some people, which makes it regrettable that there are no subtitles provided. There are eighteen chapter stops. Oddly, though not illogically if you think about it, the scene selection menu starts at Chapter Two.
The main extra is an 18-minute interview with Humphries, which covers pretty much most bases, and will do in place of a commentary. There’s also the fairly long (2:20) trailer and a lingo glossary.
By no means a great film then or now, but certainly deserving of its place in film history, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie still entertains, given the right mood and sensibility. Guerilla’s DVD is generally basic, from transfer to extras, but in a way that’s appropriate. As Barry might say, can’t be getting too posh.