'those that made it to the studio floor would walk past a nurse, watching over any guests who might succumb to sobbing, cardiac arrest or bedwetting'
The Dame Edna Experience – review by Brian Slade
If anything summed up the glitz and glamour of 1980s television it must surely have been the first foray into hosting a chat show for Barry Humphries’ megastar alter ego Dame Edna Everage. According to the intro’s voiceover, those shaping the destiny of the planet would behind closed doors follow the one woman who was delivering words of comfort to the bewildered, bringing colour to our lives…and she certainly did that in 1987 with The Dame Edna Experience.
Dame Edna herself was no stranger to television by the mid-1980s – she had indeed first been unleashed on the public as far back as 1955, albeit in a rather more discreet guise. Stage, movie and comedy success had been a mixed bag, but by the 1980s, British television had discovered Edna, helped significantly by an appearance on commercial An Audience With… programmes, the first of three.
By 1987, LWT were prepared to push the boat out and launch Dame Edna onto a weekly chat show format, although as she joked early on, her appearance was a long time in the making. ‘It all boils down to money,’ she announced, ‘for many years London Weekend have been scrimping and saving.’ And so The Dame Edna Experience was born.
The show was introduced at a time when chat shows weren’t solely stops on a promotional tour for its guests as they have become these days. Some guests did indeed have new products to offer, but there was no doubt about it – Dame Edna was the star. Indeed she would admit that while it was a chat show it was more realistically, ‘…a monologue interrupted by a total stranger.’
The set was as glamorous as its hostess – no penny-pinching by LWT on that front. Beneath a giant imitation of Edna’s outrageous glasses, a sliding door at the centre of a sprawling staircase that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the big American soaps of the time would peel back to reveal each guest. Not all would make it to the hot seat for an interview. Some would be jokingly disposed of halfway down the stairs if Edna felt they weren’t going to offer anything to the show.
Those that made it to the studio floor would walk past a nurse, watching over any guests who might succumb to sobbing, cardiac arrest or bedwetting. After all, this would be no ordinary interview. It was Dame Edna’s plan to ‘probe their most private crannies and vulnerable nooks.’
Of course before the guests arrived, everything in the studio had to be spick and span. In charge of this responsibility was Madge, Edna’s bridesmaid years before and constant travelling companion. This blandly dressed little lady was the antithesis of Dame Edna – no glamour, diminutive in stature and seemingly devoid of conversation – and that worked fine for Edna. She only needed her to empty ashtrays and bring the guests water.
Once the chat got underway, it’s fair to say that across the two series of The Dame Edna Experience, the quality of guests was very high. Television and movie greats were regulars, and genuine stars – Charlton Heston, Larry Hagman, Sean Connery, Mel Gibson, John Mills, Liza Minnelli to name but a few. There was even room for an appearance by Sir Les Patterson, whoever he was, although Edna drew the line at Barry Humphries.
The line-ups remained of the highest quality throughout the two series that were made and there is even an early pre-cursor to the now infamous Graham Norton red chair. However, for Dame Edna it was not members of the public who would be flipped. The most recently arrived guest would take their spot in the hot seat as the others moved across to the sofa. As ably demonstrated on Cliff Richard in the opening episode, if she felt the guest was letting the show down Edna would pull a switch, the chair would tilt and then disappear behind the set. It was controlled at the same panel used on the staircase to drop ‘guests’ before they took a seat.
By the second series the setting, while remaining glamorous was now seen to be Dame Edna’s penthouse, with guests helicoptered in to appear. Edna’s niceness, the famous theme song, would be shared in her demeaning yet heartfelt manner, each guest wearing their homemade name tag should Edna forget who they were. Having started with an interview with clean television campaigner Mary Whitehouse and finishing two years later with Ursula Andress, who happily ended her interview saying, ‘I absolutely enjoyed discovering you because I laughed and laughed since I arrived and nearly cried,’ The Dame Edna Experience was a juggernaut of laughs.
Although only two series were made, Edna didn’t disappear. The show was repackaged into several more following similar formats and she would never be far from our screens. Dame Edna sang away the final show in a number proclaiming that, ‘the only star in my slot is me.’ And if you didn’t enjoy The Dame Edna Experience – well in her own words, ‘If you find it boring, you’ve no one to blame but my guests.’
Published on February 24th, 2022. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.