Subscriber OnlyTV & Radio

Barry Humphries obituary: Outrageous caricatures Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson took the one-man show to new heights

Australian was never a genial humorist. There was always a whiff of sulphur in his comedy

Born: February 17th, 1934.

Died: April 22nd, 2023.

In a spoof obituary written while he was still in his 40s, Barry Humphries, who has died aged 89, described himself as “an ancient comic” who had long since become “a self-indulgent and inaudible has-been” with no sense of progressive social relevance.

The Republic of Australia’s Art Squad had, he said, banned Humphries’ work in his native land. He had endured his last years of “exile and obloquy” in the tarnished splendour of “a Lusitanian spa”, where he occasionally gave clandestine performances to his dwindling, reactionary and hard-of-hearing followers. He was survived, the obituary concluded, “by innumerable wives, great-grandchildren and creditors”. It was a generally appropriate death notice of a satirist who delighted in guying both himself and his critics.


Never a genial humorist, there was always a whiff of sulphur in his comedy. “What is there to say about me?” he would gull his interviewers. “I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I am Church of England – I wash my car on Sundays. There must be some way you can jazz me up.” This was Humphries disguised as a candid interviewee. Being oneself, he would add, is a form of disguise.

There were many other disguises. One minute he would be a monocled Edwardian dandy or a mad scientist or a sad, sexless suburbanite. The next he would assume the mask of a beach bum or a shady art dealer or an embittered intellectual. But the most famous masks of all were his hellcat, the housewife megastar Dame Edna Everage, and his alcoholic political freeloader, professional adulterer and family man Sir Les Patterson.

Humphries grew up in suburban Melbourne, the son of Louisa (née Brown) and Eric Humphries, a prosperous builder. He was an old boy of an exclusive school (or as he put it: “self-educated; attended Melbourne grammar”) and was briefly a student at Melbourne University. He began his extraordinary career on the back of an arts council bus touring the country towns of Victoria state in 1954. It was his first professional role – the lovesick Duke Orsino to Zoe Caldwell’s Viola in Twelfth Night.

At each town, a patron of the arts, often the lady mayoress, would welcome the company over refreshments. Later, to help pass the time on the bus, Humphries invented a character to lampoon these municipal occasions. She was a drab, mousy and relentless hostess, simply named Edna.

The character was thought amusing enough to try out on stage in a Christmas revue in Melbourne. So it came about, on December 13th, 1955, that Mrs (as she then was) Edna Everage made her stage debut – a volunteer hostess for the Melbourne Olympics, six feet tall, with brown basilisk eyes and a large chartreuse cabbage rose pinned on her charcoal suit. Her family – husband Norm, son Kenny, daughter Valmai, and mother (in a twilight home) – were given honourable mention, although their miserable fates in Edna’s triumphal backwash were not yet evident. Humphries, then as always, wrote the script.

The sketch was only a moderate success, but enough to point Humphries away from dramatic acting and towards the revue, music hall or cabaret. Also in 1955 he married Brenda Wright, and the following year they moved to Sydney to join a London-inspired theatre of “intimate revue”. He had found his métier, although Sydney satire was still too bland and self-congratulatory to satisfy his dandiacal rage. What Australia still needed, he said, was not mild satire, but a heroic act of espionage.

He finally found it playing the anguished Estragon in a 1958 production of Waiting for Godot. Humphries tramped the streets of Sydney in a sandwich board advertising the play, stuck Godot stickers on posts and windows, and scoured the scrap yards for trash with which he designed the stage sets. The audiences received the play with overwhelming indifference, but Humphries said it changed his life.

When he returned to revue, it was a new Humphries and a new Edna. She became at last a fully ad-libbing monologuist, teasing if not insulting her audience. This was Edna’s breakthrough. She never looked back.

Australian theatre, however, remained in the doldrums. One critic said there was better theatre in a march-past of lifesavers on Bondi beach. In London, meanwhile, Beckett, Brecht, Osborne and Pinter were leading “the great uprising” from Sloane Square to Stratford East. Humphries found it irresistible.

His first marriage having come to an end after a couple of years, in 1959 Humphries married the ballet dancer Rosalind Tong, took a steamer to London – and into a decade of obscurity (and deepening alcoholism). He found some small parts, notably the undertaker in the original production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (1960). But his future fame lay with the one-man shows which at that point only his faithful Australian audiences would even contemplate. Three years after arriving in London, he returned to Melbourne and staged, in mid-1962, A Nice Night’s Entertainment, in which he again paraded Edna and her family, along with some of his other creations, from a tortured, expatriate-hating journalist to a nose-picking, guitar-toting beatnik.

The popular success of the show emboldened Humphries to try out his characters in London – at the Establishment Club in May 1963. It was a flop (or as he put it, “a highly successful five-minute season”). He returned to small roles, notably in Frank Norman’s A Kayf Up West, at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal, Stratford East (1964). He also created for Private Eye the randy hobbledehoy Barry (“Bazza”) McKenzie, whose boozing, vomiting, urinating adventures, narrated in comic-strip form in a largely invented vernacular, reflected and mocked Humphries’s life in the swinging sixties. A film based on the character, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, was released in 1972, and a sequel, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, two years later, with Humphries taking several small roles in each; in the latter, the Australian prime minister of the time, Gough Whitlam, apparently invests Edna as a dame.

Humphries did two more Australian tours before testing the water in London again. The first – in 1965 – was the triumphant Excuse I, which filled huge Australian theatres for weeks on end. No one-man show had ever done such business in Australia. It was on this tour that Humphries introduced the gladioli-hurling finale. The next tour – the 1968 Just a Show – introduced further variations. Edna now abandoned her dowdy appearance and came on stage smiling like a shark in a red Thai silk coat over a green dress. (“Am I overdressed?” she asked, looking around. “No, I don’t think so.”) She also began entering from the stalls chatting to her “possums”.

The enormous success of Just a Show encouraged him to try again in London – at the Fortune theatre. Once again the show was a flop. Harold Hobson dismissed it in one devastating sentence: “Most of Barry Humphries’s Just a Show will give pleasure to most Australians in London.”

The great turning point in Humphries’s career came in 1970 when he collapsed, an alcoholic wreck. That June, he was arrested in the streets of Melbourne’s leafy, affluent Camberwell and charged with being drunk and disorderly. A sensible magistrate adjourned the case for six months, ordering that charges be withdrawn if there were no further “incidents”. Humphries booked into a private hospital specialising in alcoholism. The man who for more than 10 years had started the day with a “grappling hook” (brandy and port) became an abstainer – and one of the great comedians of his age.

Still he had not yet conquered London. His Australian shows of the early 1970s (A Load of Old Stuffe, in 1971, and At Least You Can Say You’ve Seen It, in 1974) further refined Edna. She was now a name-dropping predator of radical views and treacly-trendy sentimentality, wearing glittering scarlet hot pants split to the groin. Soon critics were ransacking the dictionary for adjectives to describe her: psychotic, hysteric, Dionysiac, Amazonian, crypto-fascist, anally obsessed, a piranha, a hectoring Medusa, a blue-rinsed beast of Belsen, the Australian daughter of Torquemada.

As her curtain raiser, and to incarnate his disgust with alcoholism, Humphries also created a new character, half Sir Toby Belch, half Apeneck Sweeney – exuberant clown and revolting drunk, the cultural attache Sir Les Patterson. Staggering down the aisle, whiskey in hand, he would invite his audience to give Edna the clap she so richly deserved.

In 1976 had come yet another assault on the West End, this time succeeding sensationally when Housewife-Superstar opened at the Apollo. It ran to packed houses for four months and almost 500,000 people saw it.

This was the first of Humphries’ enormously popular one-man shows in London, which included A Night With Dame Edna (1978-79) and Back With a Vengeance (for a number of seasons 1987-89 and 2005-07). Critics now acclaimed him as the greatest one-man showman since Charles Dickens and perhaps in the history of theatre.

He reached an even wider audience on British television, including two series of The Dame Edna Experience (1987-89) for LWT, a highly successful comedy chatshow in which Dame Edna interviewed celebrities – or delivered monologues interrupted by total strangers, as she herself described it. On both stage and screen a silent, doleful background presence was provided by her “New Zealand bridesmaid” Madge Allsop, played from 1987 to 2003 by Emily Perry.

The US took longer to conquer. In 1977, Humphries presented Housewife-Superstar at West 55th Street, off Broadway, where the critics dismissed it as “abysmal”, “pointless” and “like the litter on 42nd Street, something worth missing”. It was to be 20 years before the New York critics submitted to the Humphriesian tornado. In 2000, he was awarded a special Tony for the “theatrical event” of the year – a category invented for the occasion since his show, Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, was neither play nor musical. His success led to subsequent US tours, and a role in the TV comedy drama Ally McBeal in 2002.

In March 2012, Humphries announced a farewell stage show, Eat Pray Laugh!, which toured Australia, the UK and the US. It featured his best-known characters – Dame Edna, the stoic old convalescent Sandy Stone, and Sir Les Patterson (with a bit part for his brother, Gerard, a paedophile priest). But in an eerie finale, there were glimpses of other unforgettable creations: among them Lance Boyle, the trade union racketeer; Brian Graham, the 1960s Sydney executive and closet homosexual in navy blue shorts and long white socks; and Phil Philby, the lefty experimental film-maker.

Before the final curtain, Humphries himself took the stage, thanked the packed house, and ambiguously urged them to come to his final “farewell”. In a wave of emotion while the band belted out “Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye”, his tearful fans delivered a standing ovation.

In 2015, Humphries was artistic director of the Adelaide Cabaret festival, where, with characteristic panache, he announced that he had banned the use of the word “fuck”, which too many comedians, including some good ones, use in a desperate attempt to get a laugh. (Humphries himself had often done so.) The patrons, he said, would be relieved and delighted by his new espousal of censorship.

As intended, the resulting controversy generated enormous publicity for the festival, but nonetheless he continued “to defend to the ultimate my right to give deep and profound offence”. Remarks of his on transgenderism – including dismissing it as a fashion – led in 2019 to the Melbourne international comedy festival dropping his name from its big prize, the Barry award.

Perceptions of what was considered either cutting edge or decadent in the jazz-infused music of Germany of the 1920s and 30s had fascinated him since finding a bundle of sheet music in Melbourne. In Australia in 2013 and in London seasons in 2016 and 2018, he explored it in the show Weimar Cabaret, with the chanteuse Meow Meow.

Humphries was based permanently in London from the late 1960s, although he visited Australia frequently, maintaining good relations with fans, friends and family. “To live permanently in Australia,” he would say, “is rather like going to a party and dancing all night with one’s mother.” He collected art and books, describing himself as a “compulsive bibliomaniac”, and owned 25,000 volumes.

Over the years, he made recordings, wrote books, a novel and a volume of verse, and in 2007 he held an exhibition of his paintings in Melbourne. He had roles in several films, including Finding Nemo (2003) and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). He dismissed most his books as trifles and promotions, but not his autobiography More Please (1992), which is less a comic story of an actor’s life than a de profundis or an alcoholic’s almanac; it is also noteworthy for its piety towards his family. It won the JR Ackerley prize for autobiography in 1993. Humphries was the subject of several biographies, including John Lahr’s Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of western Civilisation (1991), One Man Show (2010), by Anne Pender, and my own book, published in 1991, The Real Barry Humphries.

He was appointed OA in 1982 and CBE in 2007.

From his marriage to Rosalind, Humphries had two daughters, Tessa and Emily. In 1979, he married the artist Diane Millstead, and they had two sons, Rupert and Oscar. Following his third divorce, in 1990 he married Lizzie Spender, daughter of the poet Stephen Spender. She survives him, along with his four children. – Guardian