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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sian Cain

Barry Humphries, Australian comedian and creator of Dame Edna Everage, dies aged 89

Barry Humphries, the Australian comedian and actor best known for his creations Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson, has died aged 89.

In a seven-decade career spanning theatre, television, books and film, Humphries was famed for his absurdist, discomfiting and transgressive humour, poking fun at Australian culture with his cast of personas, some of which would rank among the best-loved comedic creations of all time: Dame Edna Everage, the gaudy, waspish housewife from Moonee Ponds; Sir Les Patterson, the vulgar and boozy Australian cultural attaché; the fundamentally decent and senile Sandy Stone; and archetypal Aussie bloke Barry McKenzie.

Everage, in particular, took on a life of her own, landing several talkshows, an appearance on Saturday Night Live and a recurring role on the 1990s drama Ally McBeal. Humphries described Everage and Patterson in particular as “wonderful outlets. I’m very careful myself about what I might say. Edna and Sir Les, on the other hand, can point to the nudity of the emperor.”

A statement from his family read: ​“​He was completely himself until the very end, never losing his brilliant mind, his unique wit and generosity of spirit. ​

“With over ​70 years on the stage, he was an entertainer to his core, touring up until the last year of his life and planning more shows that will sadly never be. ​His audiences were precious to him, and he never took them for granted. Although he may be best remembered for his work in theatre, he was a painter, author, poet, and a collector and lover of ​a​​​​rt in all its forms.

“He was also a loving and devoted husband, father, grandfather, and a friend and confidant to many. His passing leaves a void in so many lives. The characters he created, which brought laughter to millions, will live on.”

Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said: “For 89 years, Barry Humphries entertained us through a galaxy of personas, from Dame Edna to Sandy Stone. But the brightest star in that galaxy was always Barry. A great wit, satirist, writer and an absolute one-of-kind, he was both gifted and a gift. May he rest in peace.”

Born John Barry Humphries in Kew, Melbourne, in 1934, as a child he loved dress-ups and acting. The eldest child of working-class parents, his “boring” childhood in the leafy suburb of Camberwell was spent “disguising myself as different characters”.

“I also found that entertaining people gave me a great feeling of release,” he wrote, “making people laugh was a very good way of befriending them. People couldn’t hit you if they were laughing.”

As a teenager he became a lover of literature, theatre and art, all feeding into his first sustained character, Dr Aaron Azimuth, a cloaked dandy and dadaist. He attended Melbourne University but never graduated, leaving to make his theatrical debut at Melbourne’s Union theatre in 1953.

Humphries’ lifelong fascination with dadaism manifested early on in a series of unsettling performances amid ordinary life that would become legendary: one involved Humphries, disguised as a Frenchman, boarding a Melbourne tram to beat an accomplice who was pretending to be blind, to the horror and disgust of passengers; on aeroplanes he would empty a tin of Heinz Russian salad into a sick bag, before pretending to vomit and eat it. In another, he would hide a serving of roast beef and a glass of champagne in a bin; then, dressed as a tramp, he would rummage through the rubbish and sit down to his meal in front of perplexed onlookers. “I was trying to bring theatre into real life,” he said.

Dame Edna Everage throws her trademark gladioli into the audience at Last Night Of The Poms at Royal Albert Hall in London in 2009.
Dame Edna Everage throws her trademark gladioli into the audience at Last Night of the Poms at Royal Albert Hall in London in 2009. Photograph: Mark Allan/Getty Images

In 1955, while on a tour bus driving around rural Victoria in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Twelfth Night, he began to develop a character that would dominate his whole career: Edna Everage. With her lavender bouffant and winged glasses, the sharp-tongued housewife was a parody of the priggish streak Humphries saw in his parents’ generation, particularly his mother. “I recognised the intrinsic bittersweet comedy of suburban life,” he later wrote.

In 1959 he moved to London, where he befriended British comedians and satirists including Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Spike Milligan, all of whom he would work with repeatedly. He appeared in his first film, 1967’s Bedazzled, alongside Cook and Moore; wrote the cartoon The Wonderful World of Barry McKenzie in Private Eye; and acted in numerous West End productions, including Oliver!, The Demon Barber, and a stint as Long John Silver in Treasure Island, alongside Milligan.

Humphries’ first one-man show in London, A Nice Night’s Entertainment, opened in 1962 to scathing reviews. He finally cracked the mainstream in 1976’s Housewife, Superstar! The show’s success in the UK and Australia led Humphries to take it to the US in 1977; he later summed up the negative reception with: “When the New York Times tells you to close, you close.”

Humphries as cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson.
Humphries as cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson. Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

In London, Humphries became a self-described “dissolute, guilt-ridden, self-pitying boozer”, with friends and family becoming worried about his dependence on alcohol. During a visit home to Australia in the early 1970s, his parents sent him to a private hospital to dry out after Humphries was found beaten unconscious in a gutter. He never drank again – “I haven’t touched a drop for almost 50 years,” he told the Observer in 2022 – and attempted to help Cook, who later died from alcohol-related illness.

Humphries moved his comic strip to the big screen in The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, in which he played three roles alongside Milligan and Cook in 1972: it became the most successful feature made in Australia at the time. In the 1974 sequel, McKenzie’s aunt Edna was made a dame during a cameo by the then Australian prime minister, Gough Whitlam.

In the late 1980s, Everage landed her own talkshow in Britain, The Dame Edna Experience, delighting audiences in irreverent and waspish interviews with celebrities; in the 1990s Humphries took the format to the US, launching Dame Edna’s Hollywood. Giving interviews as Edna, she would claim that Barry Humphries was her manager, and he even wrote several books as her, including the 1989 autobiography, My Gorgeous Life: the Life, the Loves, the Legend. As Everage, Humphries won an Olivier for best comedy performance in 1979 and a Tony award in 2000, an achievement he described as “like winning a thousand Gold Logies at the same time”.

Over his career, Humphries appeared in films playing characters such as the Great Goblin in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Bruce the great white shark in Finding Nemo. He also appeared in The Rocky Horror Picture Show sequel Shock Treatment; the Spice Girls film Spice World; and had small roles in Da Kath and Kim Code and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.

Dame Edna Everage meets the Queen at the gala variety performance for the monarch’s silver jubilee in 1977.
Dame Edna Everage meets the Queen at the gala variety performance for the monarch’s silver jubilee in 1977. Photograph: PA

He lived in West Hampstead, London, for 40 years; however, he claimed to always travel with a copy of Melways street directory so he could peruse Melbourne’s streets and “dream of Hawksburn, Rosanna, Aspendale, Gardiner, Dennis and Spotswood”.

Humphries was married four times, and had four children. His last marriage, to the actor Lizzie Spender in 1990, lasted to his death. “Why has this last marriage endured? Oh, because I’m a bit smarter now,” he once said. “The truth is I’m not a very easy person to be married to.”

He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1982, and a CBE for services to entertainment in 2007. “I’m deeply honoured,” he said of the latter. “At last I can address Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage on an improved footing.”

In his later years, Humphries was criticised for several comments he made involving race and gender; the Melbourne International comedy festival’s Barry award was renamed after a series of controversies. “It’s so much easier to shock people these days,” he told the Guardian in 2018. “I find it extremely provocative and therefore inspiring to find myself in a society that is so prudish when it thinks it’s being liberal. It’s ridiculous.”

He announced his retirement from live entertainment in 2012, as he was “beginning to feel a bit senior”. However 10 years later, at the age of 88, he embarked on another tour around the UK.

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