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Don Woolford

Barry Humphries, 'greatest ever Australian', bows out

Barry Humphries, best known for his alter-ego Dame Edna Everage, is being remembered with fondness. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS) (AAP)

Celebrated Australian entertainer Barry Humphries is being celebrated globally after dying aged 89 from complications after hip surgery.

The comedy legend was best known for his alter egos Housewife GigastarDame Edna Everage and the sleazy Australian statesman Sir Les Patterson.

He died on Saturday at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney surrounded by his immediate family, including his wife of 30 years Lizzie Spender, his children Tessa, Emily, Oscar and Rupert, and 10 beloved grandchildren.

"He was completely himself until the very end, never losing his brilliant mind, his unique wit and generosity of spirit," his family said in a statement on Saturday night.

" 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."

Humphries lived in London for decades and returned to Sydney in December for Christmas. He subsequently suffered a fall and ended up having to have a hip replacement.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Humphries was a great wit, satirist, writer and one-of-a-kind.

"He was both gifted and a gift," Mr Albanese said.

Tributes flowed from all corners of the world and, unsurprisingly, many came from Humphries' fellow travellers in the world of entertainment, including British comedians Ricky Gervais and Matt Lucas and Australians Adam Hills, Rove McManus, Marty Fields and Jason Donovon.

Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was one of the "greatest ever Australians."

All praised his genius, intelligence and generosity.

Humphries delighted and outraged audiences for more than half a century with his cavalcade of grotesques, presented in a unique blend of old-style music hall and contemporary satire.

Among them were the gross Sir Les Patterson, Australia's cultural attache to the Court of St James; the melancholy and rambling Sandy Stone; and, in comic strip and film, the chundering Ocker in Pommyland Barry McKenzie.

The multi-talented Humphries was also a respected character actor with many stage and screen credits, an author of novels and autobiography, and an accomplished landscape painter.

But the real Humphries - beyond his four marriages, reformed alcoholism and immense hard work and constant movement as he took his shows around Australia and the world - remained elusive.

John Barry Humphries was born in Melbourne on February 17, 1934.

His parents were comfortable, loving and strait-laced. They must have wondered about their eldest son, whom they called Sunny Sam. His mother used to tell him to stop drawing attention to himself.

Before he'd finished at Melbourne Grammar, Humphries was more interested in art and secondhand bookshops than football or cadets. At 16 his favourite author was Kafka and he "felt a little foreign".

He spent two years at Melbourne University, where he embraced Dadaism - the subversive, anarchic and absurdist European art movement.

His contributions included "Pus In Boots", Wellington boots filled with custard; and, on the performance art side, getting on a tram with an apparently blind accomplice whom Humphries would kick in the shins while yelling "Get out of my way, you disgusting blind person."

Humphries joined the Melbourne Theatre Company and while touring Victoria created Edna Everage as a dowdy, complacent Moonee Ponds housewife. That Edna was a long way from the internationally feted, egomaniacal superstar she was to become.

He moved to Sydney, joining the Philip Street Revue. He was in Around the Loop with Gordon Chater before playing Estragon in the Australian premiere of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

In 1959 he settled in London and was soon working in Peter Cook's comedy venue The Establishment. He played Sowerberry in the original London production of Oliver in 1960 and repeated the role on Broadway. He appeared with Spike Milligan and William Rushton in Treasure Island.

Humphries, with New Zealand artist Nicholas Garland, created the Barry McKenzie comic strip for the satirical magazine Private Eye in 1964.

Bazza was a boozy parody of the ugly Australian abroad, full of phrases like the "technicolour yawn", "siphon the python" and "the one-eyed trouser snake", but also a foil for the pompous, devious and hypocritical Poms.

When the strips came out as a book, the Australian government banned it because it "relied on indecency for its humour". Humphries professed delight at the publicity and implored authorities not to lift the ban.

By then Humphries' drinking was out of control. In Melbourne in late 1970, he was charged with being drunk and disorderly and was rolled in a city gutter. He finally admitted himself to a hospital specialising in alcoholism for the treatment that would turn him into a lifelong abstainer.

In 1972 came the first Barry McKenzie film - financially supported by the Australian government, despite the earlier ban. It was savaged by the critics, largely because they trembled at what the world's first film to feature full frontal vomiting would do to Australia's image overseas.

But it was a popular success that sparked a renaissance in the moribund Australian film industry.

A sequel two years later included Gough Whitlam knighting Edna, who was McKenzie's aunt.

By then the Dame was morphing from her original Mrs Norm Everage persona into the exotically-dressed, possum-greeting, gladioli-tossing, globetrotting celebrity.

Outside Australia, she struggled for a while, with her early London appearances being panned.

Beloved entertainer Barry Humphries has died at the age of 89 surrounded by his immediate family. (Lloyd Jones/AAP PHOTOS) (AAP)

Subsequent shows and television appearances gained her a cult following - and accusations that Humphries must hate Australia.

The breakthrough was Housewife, Superstar! at London's Apollo Theatre in 1976. The lobby had signs like "Paraplegic Toilets 8th Floor. Please use the stairs." Dame Edna was introduced by, on debut, Sir Les ("I'm as full as a bull's bum") Patterson. Humphries has said that Sir Les was the part of him that never stopped drinking.

The Dame picked out "possums" from the audience and make them squirm - the "Senior" drugged for his evening leave from the twilight home; or for an exchange of confidences, like "My husband has never seen me naked, nor has he expressed the least desire to do so." It ended in a blizzard of gladdies.

It was a huge critical and popular success. The Dame had arrived.

But the show bombed in New York. Humphries said: "When the New York Times tells you to close, you close."

Show after show followed triumphantly in London, Australia and many other parts of the world as the Dame became ever more celebrated, Sir Les ever more outrageous and new characters appeared - like corrupt union leader Lance Boyle, who plotted industrial action because Qantas hadn't upgraded him.

It wasn't until 2000 that New York was conquered with Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, which won a special Tony award and two National Broadway Theatre awards.

Dame Edna was more than Humphries in drag. She was a fully formed character, with family and background, memories and tastes. She always denied she was a fiction, and spoke of Humphries as her manager.

Humphries has said: "When Edna's on stage I sometimes get that rather spooky thing where Edna speaks something that I couldn't have written."

Part of her success was Humphries' genius for ad-libbing. Another was his constant rewriting to keep in touch with the latest tastes and manners.

Critics have fallen over themselves. A sample: Among the top creations of the century, up there with Charlie Chaplin's tramp; the greatest music hall artist of modern times; a vaudeville Swift, using disgust as a comic weapon; a moralist sternly using laughter as a purgative.

On her official website, the Dame told us (in 2009): "Edna Everage is probably the most popular and gifted woman in the world today: housewife, investigative journalist, social anthropologist, talk show host, swami, children's book illustrator, spin doctor, Megastar and Icon...

"She spends her time visiting world leaders and jet-setting between her homes in Los Angeles, London, Sydney, Switzerland and Martha's Vineyard. She is the Founder and Governor of Friends of the Prostate and the creator of The World Prostate Olympics."

But it wasn't just the Dame and her retinue of pseuds and grotesques.

Humphries appeared in many films, from The Getting of Wisdom to Finding Nemo, where he voiced Bruce the shark, and the Kath and Kim telemovie. In the mini-series Selling Hitler, he had a cameo role as Rupert Murdoch. A rare flop was Les Patterson Saves the World, where he played the title role.

His books, apart from spin-offs from his shows, included the novel Women in the Background, and two memoirs.

In 2015, aged 81, he was artistic director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

Humphries remained wedded to the stage until the very end, even as his health deteriorated.

In March this year, he reassured the Sydney Morning Herald he would not abandon his upcoming Australian tour, despite the "agony" he was experiencing after having hip replacement surgery the month before.

Humphries married four times. The first, to Melbourne actress Brenda Wright when he was 21, was brief. Just before he left Australia he married New Zealand dancer Rosalind Tong, with whom he had two daughters.

In 1979 he married artist Diane Millstead, with whom he had two sons. His fourth wife was Spender, daughter of the poet Stephen Spender.

Peter Coleman, in his biography, titled his opening chapter The Real Barry Humphries? He couldn't answer his own question satisfactorily.

With journalists, Coleman said, Humphries could assume many masks. The aim of the interview, the master obscurantist once declared, was to shed shadow where once there was light.

"The style is the man. Barry Humphries is his masks," Coleman, retreating to the obscure, concluded.

Andrew Barrow wrote in The (London) Independent in 2009 that when he arrived at Humphries' home for an interview, he was greeted with "I'm not really here. I don't really exist." And the farewell was a wicked "You haven't really got what you wanted, have you."

"He is certainly a master of disguises," Barrow wrote.

Rosalind Tong recognised his elusiveness.

"Giving an impression of Barry as a man is a very difficult one," she said long after their marriage ended.

"...You know that wonderful Japanese film where a murder is committed and four people witness it and each person gives a totally different account. When asked who is the real Barry, I always think of that."

Some of his books built more mazes, like Edna's autobiographical My Gorgeous Life and Humphries' account of his megastar, Handling Edna: The Unauthorised Biography.

In 2018, five years after Dame Edna's final world tour, Humphries, at 84, toured Australia as himself in a show called The Man Behind the Mask. It didn't reveal much.

Underneath his provocative zaniness was a sense of the clown's traditional melancholy.

He ended his second memoir, the 2002 My Life as Me: "And so I set these things down before the onset of the first of a thousand small physical degradations as, in a still-distant suburb, Death strides whistling towards me."

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