The year is 1959 and the place is Melbourne. A 25-year-old actor with a fondness for Samuel Beckett, booze, poetry and outrageous pranks has just got married for the second time, to a beautiful ballet dancer. Keen to escape the stultifying suburbia of his childhood, he and his new wife board a steamer bound for London — which he hoped would be a bit more swinging.

The pair found themselves less swinging than sinking — in a Notting Hill basement living in Patrick Hamilton-style penury. It is not clear what might have become of them had Barry not got wind of another couple of Australians who had also escaped the cultural desert Down Under and were occupying a tall terraced house in north London. He sat down to write to them.

I don’t have the letter that Barry Humphries, who died last week aged 89, sent to my parents — but I remember my mum’s account of it. She had just had a second baby (me) and was in no mood for rescuing a couple of random, destitute compatriots. But his letter was so funny and so precisely anticipated her dismay at acquiring some antipodean albatrosses, she said yes.

There were two empty, if shabby, rooms at the top of our house, which Barry and his wife Rosalind could have in return for what he describes in his autobiography More, Please as “a modicum of household help”. The idea was that this help, which would involve looking after my sister and me, was to be performed by Ros, while Barry looked for work in the West End.

As it turned out, he found nothing but Ros got a job dancing — leaving Barry as the family’s de facto au pair. I don’t know if Mum had spotted by then that he wasn’t the safest pair of hands, or if he was already starting the day with what he called a “grappling hook”, a mixture of brandy and port. Either way, one afternoon she left me in his care and went out.

On returning, she got off the 214 bus outside our house, and spotted a familiar pram being pushed up the front steps. The person propelling it was a stranger — a sinister woman, tall with pointy glasses and a gash of lipstick. It would be nice to say that my earliest memory was looking up from my pram and seeing a prototype of Edna Everage.

Instead, I comfort myself with the idea that I may have been the only person in history to be so unmoved by the sight of the housewife superstar — who went on to convulse the world and once rendered the then Prince Charles and Camilla helpless with mirth by simply turning up in their box at the London Palladium — that I slept through the whole thing.

The Humphries’ stint upstairs lasted about three years, although the arrangement might have failed sooner were it not for Mum and Dad’s affection for Ros. Barry’s drinking made him a liability as a lodger (and presumably even more of one as a husband), and although Dad came to disapprove of him he also respected him, less for his hilarity than for his serious interest in art and poetry.

Mum was inclined to forgive anyone who could be so funny about making ice cream — which was his next job after looking after us. Having proved unsuitable as a nanny he was snapped up by the Walls factory in Acton, making raspberry ripple in tunnel 9, before finally getting an acting job as the gravedigger in Lionel Bart’s Oliver!

Even after they’d moved out, Barry’s voice lingered in our house as we’d listen to his record from 1962, “Wild Life in Suburbia”, on the gramophone. I can still hear the slow, droning whine of his alter ego Sandy Stone, Australia’s most boring man. I can see my mum, who had heard it so often, laughing and mouthing along with the words.

Sometimes during the ’60s, the Humphries came round for Sunday lunch. On one visit, Barry recounted a time when he’d walked down our terrace with an open can of Heinz Russian salad concealed in his coat. He’d doubled up and made sick noises as he poured the salad on to the pavement — only to take a spoon from his pocket, wipe it with a handkerchief and start eating with relish.

His description of this trick, which he went on to perform on aeroplanes using the in-flight sickbag, had powerful appeal to me back then: I don’t think any other story from my childhood excited me so much. It turns out you didn’t need to be seven years old to think this funny — the stunt was sufficiently outlandish and subversive to make it into many of his obituaries last week.

In 1976, when Barry was on the wagon, on to a new woman, a global star and somewhat estranged from the Kellaways, he sent us tickets to his sellout show in London. I was thrilled to be in the best seats watching someone I had once known who had become so famous. I could see Edna was the work of genius but couldn’t quite laugh. Maybe it was that the morphing of the familiar man with his floppy dark hair into the croaking, gladioli-throwing Edna was too much. Or maybe it was something I saw in the woodshed as a baby.

Lucy Kellaway is an FT contributing editor

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