Barry Humphries, the celebrated Australian satirist and creator of the immortal television and stage comic characters Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson, has died, aged 89.
In addition to his stellar career as a writer, actor, and television performer and host, Humphries was a champion of museums, libraries and the arts in general, a collector of contemporary art, an enthusiastic amateur painter, the co-creator of the influential 1960s comic strip Barry McKenzie, and a prodigious connoisseur and acquirer of fin-de-siècle artists and authors. He was also a vivid memoirist and a serious bibliophile with a great knowledge of books of the 1890s.
Humphries found global fame through television appearances in the UK and later the US, and through the comic characters he created, and played, to lampoon the foibles of conservative Australians of his parents’ generations—the warm-hearted, fashion-loving and scurrilous Dame Edna Everage in increasingly baroque rhinestone-heavy spectacles; the grotesque and politically incorrect “cultural attaché” Sir Les Patterson, food spilling liberally from between his jutting, snaggled, teeth; and his most haunting creation, the mournful war veteran Sandy Stone “rambling on”, as Humphries put it, “about an Australia that no longer exists”.
Keeping his various comic personae in harmony for the past half-century became an act of performance art for Humphries. The Edna character was created for a Melbourne revue in 1955, and “broke” London in 1976 with the Housewife Superstar! stage show—calling her guest and audience “possums” and throwing gladioli into the auditorium—before (finally) repeating the magic in New York at the end of the century. Humphries used to refer to himself as Dame Edna’s “manager”, and Humphries as Edna had a running gag about how much money Humphries had made as her “impresario”—everything always in the third person.
In an early BBC mockumentary, La Dame aux Gladiolas (1979), Edna declares that Humphries had “trussed me up like a chicken in this contract”, likening their relationship to that of the Ballets Russes director Sergei Diaghilev and the star male dancer Nijinsky. “He’s got used to some of the little luxuries that my fame has brought… him.”
When interlocutors became (understandably) caught up in the complex interplay of his multiple professional personalities, Humphries reminded them that it was all an act, and that he had the great pleasure of being in the “cheering up” business.
Humphries was periodically subject to public campaigns back home that declared his satire to be “bad for Australia”—indeed the first two McKenzie compilation volumes, The Wonderful World of Barry McKenzie (1968), and Bazza Pulls It Off! (1971), were banned in Australia because they were considered, as Humphries put it, “demeaning to Australia’s national image as a nice country”—but he was latterly a venerated figure, regarded by many as the father of half a century of Aussie comedy. (In 2005 Humphries as Dame Edna featured in the hit comedy show Kath and Kim, whose most pointed characters—two Melbourne homeware store vendeuses with exaggerated vowels and aspirations to holiday in the smart Queensland resort of “Noooosa”—delivered a delicious lineal homage to Edna, half a century after Humphries first presented the character in Melbourne on 19 December 1955 in an “Olympic hostess” sketch in the revue Return Fare.)
Humphries was a friend and regular lunching partner of another formidable Australian dame, the late Elisabeth Murdoch, matriarch of the publishing dynasty, whose son Rupert Murdoch saw Humphries as “the original article”. To travel with Humphries in Australia in recent years was to witness the parting of crowds as if for a Commonwealth tour conducted by the late Queen Elizabeth II (a favourite fantasy foil in some of Dame Edna‘s more extravagant monologues). “It was only after long expatriation and several marriages,” Humphries wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2021, “that I began to really love Australia.” His death was a national event Down Under with talk of a day of national mourning and arts awards in his name.
One of the most striking elements of the social media reaction to his death was the evidence—with people recounting memorable first-meeting conversations with Humphries on subjects ranging from “Biedermeier glass” to “the ‘degenerate music’ suppressed by the Third Reich“—of how much he used his broad appreciation of the arts to connect with people from every creative walk of life.
From Beardsley to Barry McKenzie
The Barry McKenzie comic strip that Humphries created with the New Zealand artist Nicholas Garland for the satirical magazine Private Eye was one of the defining graphic art creations of the 1960s. Humphries had moved to London from his native Melbourne in 1959, to further his nascent acting career, and fell in with the Footlights generation of comedians, including Peter Cook, founder proprietor in 1961 of Private Eye, and Jonathan Miller. The title character, a lantern-jawed boorish Aussie visiting London and facing the condescension of the “home country” types, became the subject of a strip that ran from 1964 to the end of the decade, of three book compilations and two films directed in Australia by Bruce Beresford, another of the Australians of all the talents who had come to postwar London to further their careers—they included the writers Germaine Greer and Clive James, the art critic Robert Hughes, and their generational senior the artist Sidney Nolan.
Humphries’s knowledge of artists of the 1890s and 1900s bore fruit in BBC television documentaries of the late 1960s and 1970s. The first was on the English-born painter Charles Conder (1868-1909), who did his best en plein air work in his Australian Impressionist phase in Sydney and Melbourne. Humphries, who once owned the largest private collection of Conder’s work, described him as “an exquisitely insipid 1890s artist who passionately interested me”. The film included footage shot in a suburb of Manchester because, as Humphries remembered, “representative works by this artist” were “obscurely hung at… the Whitworth Gallery”.
The second documentary was A Summer Sideshow (1977) on artists—including Conder, Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, Walter Sickert and Ernest Dowson—who gathered in the Normandy sea port of Dieppe at the turn of the 20th century. During filming, Humphries—who suffered throughout his life from “an acquisitive streak”—spotted “a rather attractive art deco light-fitting by Daum [crystal] forlornly hanging in a desuetudinous bathroom” of an abandoned building in Dieppe. “A year later,” he remembered in a memoir of his friend Julian Jebb, who directed the Conder and Dieppe films, “I sent Julian a polaroid photograph of the ‘liberated’ lampshade with the eccentric roof of the Opera House visible in the background.”
The Dieppe glass lampshade anecdote captures some of the main markers of the Humphries style: the expatriate lexicon-ransacking aesthete who returned regularly to his homeland, never losing his connection to the Australian Zeitgeist (Humphries as Dame Edna once wore a Sydney Opera House hat to Royal Ascot); who thrived on finding rarities or absurdities in all genres; and whose often recondite literary and bibliographical passions (the inclusion of Wilde and Beardsley) were as strongly held as his abiding concern for art and artists, living and dead.
The Camberwell child prodigy
Humphries was born in 1934, and grew up in Camberwell, an affluent suburb of British-centric 1930s Melbourne. His father was a successful builder and architect and one of Barry’s grandfathers had emigrated to Australia from Lancashire. He was a precocious, intellectually inquisitive, schoolboy—”way beyond his age group” as one of his teachers at Camberwell Grammar remembered—whose talents were indulged by his parents. When he evinced a passion for shopkeeping his father built him a a miniature shop; when his eye turned to chemistry his father obliged with a child-sized laboratory. For his 12th birthday he elected to join the Post-Impressionists and describes in his memoir My Life as Me (2002) persuading his parents to buy him the Phaidon books on Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gaugin. Duly inspired, he graduated from painting his mother’s brightly coloured garden, to making easel paintings of the local coastline, heavy with pigment applied with a palette knife.
An early cloud over this domestic bliss came when his mother gave his prize illustrated books to a “nice man” from the Salvation Army to sell for charity. “But you’ve read them,” his mother countered when he objected. For the rest of his life, Humphries said on an Australian chat show in 2003, he had been trying to find them. (By the time of his death he had a collection of over 25,000 books in his London house, the library of a serious bibliophile strong in ghost stories and late 19th-century and early 20th-century British and Australian authors.)
Darker family clouds gathered after Humphries showed his first signs of rebellion when a pupil at the austere and hearty Melbourne Grammar—sporting for the first time his trademark floppy Wildean fringe—and when he neglected his studies first at school and then at Melbourne University (where he had won a scholarship) to devote himself to Dadaist pranks and acting. He had become stagestruck at the age of 14 after seeing Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth during the Old Vic Theatre Company’s 1948 tour of Australia.
Humphries was “shattered” by his once-adoring mother’s disapproval, and the genteel Philistinism of the Humphries parents and their Camberwell circle became an immediate and long-term source for his seven decades as a satirist.
Humphries first “met” his creation Edna Everage on 19 December 1955 after appearing in a touring Union Theatre repertory company production of Twelfth Night, as Orsino to Zoe Caldwell’s Viola. He had perfected Edna’s harsh, half-throttled falsetto by imagining the gushing thanks that they could anticipate from the lady mayoress, or local “culture vulture”, at the next small-town stop. At the succeeding Christmas 1955 revue this creation morphed into Edna, “probably the dullest [first] name we could think of”, a woman whose family name was a phonetic play on “Average”. The part had been intended for Caldwell, soon to become a global superstar herself, and when she could not take it on, it fell back into Humphries’s lap, and remained part of his professional dramatic persona for the next 68 years.
Humphries and his second wife, the dancer Rosalind Tong arrived in London by steamer, and via north Italy, in 1959. The succeeding decade was a challenging one. His Australian monologues did not “take” at the Establishment Club, in London, in 1963, with only Bamber Gascoigne, then theatre critic of The Spectator, staying until the end of his routine. He won the part of Mr Sowerberry in Lionel Bart’s smash-hit musical Oliver! (and later the lead character Fagin), but his own act had so far taken off only in Australia. He was beset at the time by personal demons: bouts of depression driven by his increasing dependence on alcohol. The nadir came in 1970 when, back in Melbourne for treatment for depression and drink, he woke up on a piece of wasteland, badly beaten up, and was arrested for public intoxication. He gave up drink—remaining sober for the rest of his life—and the post-drink Edna and, later, Les Patterson, became his passports to a half-century at the head of his profession.
“I put her in a box after a while,” he said to The Observer of Edna Everage. “And then later, when I took her out again, she seemed to have become a bit brighter. She started to wear diamanté glasses and her hair was an implausible mauve colour.” Humphries’s knowledge of art history shines through in some of Edna’s high-Philistine malapropisms. In La Dame aux Gladiolas, the 45-year-old Humphries portrays his diva in Norma Desmond mode, but with easel pictures in her hotel suite in the manner of an 1890s Paris saloniste, and a dazzling array of tongue-in-cheek absurdities. Edna brandishes a pamphlet on Siegmund Freud’s “forgotten years” in Melbourne. Edward Munch’s—Edna refers to him as “Edward Scream”—The Scream is, she says, set on the harbour bridge in Sydney, painted during the “artist’s two days in Australia” (on other occasions Edna was known to sport a “Scream” dress on stage). During filming, Humphries and his interviewer had frequently to switch off the recording while they collapsed into laughter at their own jokes.
A ‘cheerful amateur’ artist
Humphries grew up to be what he called a “cheerful amateur” landscapist, and painted to the end of his life. The pictures he painted were very different to those he collected, and If a dealer had offered him one of his own flamboyant works, he wrote in My Life of Me, “I would probably never speak to them again.” Despite that, examples of his own paintings, up to and including works made in the mid 2010s, are among the large bequests he made to the Barry Humphries Collection at Arts Centre Melbourne. (Other donations include costumes and memorabilia from the Humphries career including the 1981 Marsupial Dress, made for Dame Edna’s appearance on the Joan Rivers Show in the US and latterly exhibited in Dame Edna’s Frock-A-Thon: A Journey from Cardigan to Couture, at Melbourne’s Performing Arts Museum, April-June 1999.)
He was a convinced bibliophile by the time he arrived in London at the end of the 50s, after haunting the bookshops and record stores of downtown Melbourne. In London he found a rich and formidable cast of dealers and hunters of rarities. A privately published volume, At Century’s Ebb (2009), a “Selection of Unpublished and Unfamiliar English Prose and Verse from the Turn of the 19th Century” captures some of the Humphries book-collecting passions nicely. Much of the collection had not appeared in print but had been discovered by him “tipped into, or inscribed on the flyleaves of books in my own library”. They include a letter about Aubrey Beardsley’s becoming a Catholic, Beardsley on the Pope’s new encyclical, and the poet-diplomat Rennell Rodd to Oscar Wilde about watching the Boat Race from William Morris’s window. They convey he hopes, “the authentic sensibility of the period: a chaste classical demeanour, ill-concealing a smouldering eroticism”.
Humphries had been a member of the Roxburghe Club, the oldest society of bibliophiles, whose members are mostly heirs to the great aristocratic libraries of Britain, since 2011. He was a great supporter of libraries, speaking to the Friends of National Libraries, and Patron of Honour since 2013 of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB).
The last time I saw Humphries he came on a visit in 2015 to see some manuscript letters from one of his literary enthusiasms, the essayist and historian of aesthetics Vernon Lee (1856-1935, pen name of Violet Paget) to the novelist Maurice Baring (1874-1945)—both of whom had contributed in the 1890s to The Yellow Book, a prime Humphries interest. Lee—a prodigious talent known for flights of befuddling verbal exposition as extravagant as anything in the Humphries comic repertoire—scored on this occasion, in her supremely illegible hand, with a 1919 letter assessing Proust’s Du Côté de Chez Swann (1914). She allows the genius of Proust but finds the second, “jealousy”, section of the book “brings out… a certain insufficient motility and circulation, a sticky, sea-slug shiny slowness temperamental to the man … a lack of moving along—witness Swinburne, Wagner, d’Annunzio. These are the sensual tempers… the people who go on sucking & sucking, rolling things in their mouths; lolling, trailing, and when it comes to Proust leaving a not very appetising trail behind them.” Matter made, we thought, for the billowing Humphries lexicon.
Humphries was eyes ablaze at the time for his latest art historical enthusiasm, a documentary that he and Beresford were developing on the bequest of paintings left in the 1950s to the Mildura Arts Centre, in rural Victoria between Adelaide and Melbourne, by the newspaper proprietor Robert “R.D.” Elliott, a publishing rival of Keith Murdoch. While in England, Elliott had bought 50 works by one past master of the British art establishment, William Orpen, and a similar number by another, Frank Brangwyn. Funding for the documentary from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was ultimately not forthcoming, but Beresford and his daughter Cordelia Beresford held on to the dream, creating a 30-minute documentary on the subject in 2021.
Humphries produced numerous books under the guise of Dame Edna, Les Patterson and Sandy Shaw—a mix of monologues and mock memoirs. Under his own name he produced two beautifully written, uproarious and often heartbreaking, autobiographies, More Please (1992) and My Life as Me (2002). He also left sparkling descriptions of encounters with artists, including a bravura account of sitting for his portrait to David Hockney in California in 2015 who made two drawings and one painting of Humphries.
Humphries loved museums and on the Clive James Show in 1987 said that if the bottom fell out of show business he would like to be “a museum attendant in a remote suburb of Brussels dedicated to the works of a forgotten Belgian artist” in a museum that was never visited. “That would be a peaceful life.” Oscar Humphries, his elder son by his third wife, the artist Diane Millstead, is a gallerist in London, and the former editor of Apollo magazine.
Late in life, Humphries might turn up at a party, where he already knew half the guests, but would still “do his bit”, taking the trouble to doff his familiar fedora and announce “Barry Humphries”. He had an old-fashioned courtesy that noticed if someone, whoever they might be, was not included in the heart of a party. He was always in on the joke, and wanted others to join him in that pleasure. The precocious child whose parents called him “Sunny” remained in the “cheering up” business until the end.
Despite repeated promises of retirement, and final tours—especially from Dame Edna—Humphries was performing until the final year of his life, launching a new act, Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret, in London in 2018. At the conclusion of La Dame aux Gladiolias in 1979, Humphries as Dame Edna is asked if there were any regrets. The answer—”Je ne regrette reeen“—is followed by a loud chuckle and fade to black.
John Barry Humphries; born Melbourne, Australia 17 February 1934; Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) 1982; CBE 2007; married 1955 Brenda Wright (marriage dissolved 1957), 1959 Rosalind Tong (two daughters, marriage dissolved 1970), 1979 Diane Millstead (two sons, marriage dissolved 1989), 1990 Lizzie Spender; died Sydney, Australia 22 April 2023.