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ABC News
Tim Callanan

A look back at the colourful characters of Barry Humphries

Barry Humphries created some of the most iconic Australian comic figures of the past 60 years.

These are some of his most well-known creations.

Dame Edna Everage 

Dame Edna is the most iconic of Humphries's characters. (AAP: Julian Smith)

The purple-rinsed Moonee Ponds housewife turned global megastar is undoubtedly Barry Humphries's most famous creation, and arguably one of Australia's most identifiable showbiz exports.

Dame Edna first appeared in a stage show sketch in 1955 as Mrs Norm Everage, looking very much like a suburban housewife and minus the bejewelled glamour and outlandish glasses we now associate with the TV icon.

Humphries developed the character further in the 1960s and 1970s, transforming her from a timid, mousy housewife to the colourful, acid-tongued Edna we know today.

Her graduation from "Aunt Edna" to "Dame Edna" came in a scene at the end of the film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, when then-Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam confers the title on her.

Dame Edna's star rose to giddy heights in the 1980s when she put her talents to work on several successful TV talk shows, where the format gave her the chance to gently skewer celebrity guests in front of an audience.

The Dame Edna Experience saw Humphries's alter ego take on celebrities such as Sean Connery, Cliff Richard, Charlton Heston and Liza Minnelli, with the host introducing each episode with her now-famous catchphrase: "Hello possums!"

Humphries would take Dame Edna around the world for successful stage shows throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with the housewife superstar making her last TV chat show appearance on a BBC special she hosted in 2019.

"You mustn't judge Australia by the Australians." 

—Dame Edna Everage

Sir Les Patterson

Sir Les Patterson was the character Humphries most loved to play. (Getty Images: Gie Knaeps)

Humphries once said that, of all his comic creations, Sir Les Patterson was the one that Australians found most offensive — possibly because it was just too close to the bone.

It was also the character Humphries, by his own admission, found the most enjoyable to inhabit.

"No story is too filthy, no gesture too lewd, no idea too racist," he told the 2008 documentary The Man Inside Dame Edna.

The slovenly and uncouth Patterson made his first public appearance on stage in 1974 as a warm-up act for Dame Edna Everage.

Once described as the grandfather of political incorrectness, Sir Les Patterson was privileged and private-school educated, yet boorish and completely lacking in grace and decorum.

Fittingly, he held "numerous ministerial positions" in the 1960s and 1970s Australian governments, including the Minister for Drought, Minister for Inland Drainage and Rodent Control and — most famously — Australia's Cultural Attaché to the Far East.

The genius of Sir Les Patterson, with his trademark gravy-stained shirt and ever-present glass of booze, was that he embodied the very image that 1970s Australia was desperately trying to distance itself from.

"I met Barry Humphries only about twice in my life, and it was two times too many. He's up himself, and I don’t get the point of him."

— Sir Les Patterson

Sandy Stone

Sandy Stone was the antithesis of the vulgarity of Sir Les Patterson and was — in Barry Humphries's own words — a man who lived a life that was completely "uneventful and uninteresting". 

Humphries devised the character in the late 1950s with the intention of satirising the banality of life in suburban Melbourne.

Sporting a dressing gown and clutching a hot water bottle — which Humphries said was always filled with actual hot water — Sandy delivered soliloquies in a quiet, whistling voice designed to almost lull audiences into a coma.

Barry Humphries as character Sandy Stone. (ABC Archive)

"I thought I would write about someone — and subsequently do it on the stage — who would talk to the audience very, very boringly and see how much boredom they could take," Humphries said of Stone.

As it turned out, audiences could take quite a lot of boredom and Sandy Stone became one of Humphries's most enduring and loved characters

Humphries had intended to skewer the 1950s' white culture he called "the age of Laminex" but came to love and empathise with Sandy Stone as he moved closer in age to his comic creation, who officially died in the 1970s, but came back to the stage and screen as a ghost.

"Over there somewhere is our old Astor 21-inch TV set. We bought it in the 1950s to watch the Melbourne Olympic Games. We saw Lorraine Crapp on that. Several times in black and white."

— Sandy Stone

Barry McKenzie

Barry McKenzie loved to drink beer to the point of "chundering". (Supplied)

Humphries did not play the role of the boozy, womanising Australian larrikin Barry McKenzie himself, but created the character who would later be played on film by Barry Crocker.

Barry McKenzie started out as a character for a comic strip created by Humphries for British satirical magazine Private Eye.

Humphries — at the suggestion of British comedian Peter Cook — aimed to poke fun at the legion of Australians who flocked to Earls Court in London, where the fictional McKenzie drank Fosters to the point of "chundering".

"He was sick in almost every episode. It's surprising that beer ever took off," he said in a 1987 interview with Clive James.

McKenzie was brought to life on screen in the 1972 film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, in which the Australian yobbo drinks and sleeps his way through the swinging London scene of the 1960s.

Barry travels to London with his aunt, Edna Everage, and after crudely drinking and chundering his way through a series of London adventures, retreats home to Australia after exposing himself on national television.

The film was a huge success by Australian standards and spawned an equally vulgar sequel, despite its director Bruce Beresford describing the film as a "colossal mistake" in a 2010 interview with SBS.

McKenzie allowed Humphries to enshrine a multitude of Australian colloquialisms from the 1960s and 1970s into film, however having "technicolour yawn" (vomit) and being "as dry as a dead dingo's donger" (thirsty) are probably the only ones that are fit to print.

"I need to splash the boots. You know, strain the potatoes. Water the horses. You know, go where the big knobs hang out. Shake hands with the wife's best friend? Drain the dragon? Siphon the python? Ring the rattlesnake? You know, unbutton the mutton? Like, point Percy at the porcelain?"

— Barry McKenzie

On the silver screen

Barry Humphries voiced the character of Bruce the great white shark in Finding Nemo. (Supplied: Pixar)

Humphries had an illustrious career on television, which also included a spot in the TV series Ally McBeal.

Howver, he also contributed many memorable film roles, including the 2016 Absolutely Fabulous movie.

He lent his voice to the character of Bruce the fish-friendly great white shark who battles a seafood relapse in the 2003 animated film Finding Nemo.

In The Hobbit, he brought another animated character to life, playing the large and wart-covered Great Goblin with considerable gusto.

Humphries also performed as musical number in the film, showcasing his comic talents to an audience that may not have been aware of his previous 50-year contribution to the performing arts. 

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