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The Inimitable Barry Humphries

Farewell to Australia’s best-known comic and social satirist.

· 8 min read
The Inimitable Barry Humphries
Barry Humphries at the Oldie of the Year awards, at Simpsons-in-the-Strand, London, 2016.

If you asked even most Australians to name their nation’s most important entertainment export, they might say Nicole Kidman or Russell Crowe or Olivia Newton-John or Mel Gibson or the Bee Gees, or some other singer or movie star. And if “important” here means simply “famous,” they would be right. The people I’ve just listed are global figures, even though none of them was actually born in Australia. But for many Australians of my generation, if “important” means something closer to talented or even touched by genius, these celebrities are put in the shade by a native-born comic performer whose fame never reached much beyond his homeland and that of his forebears. Indeed, his own fictional creations transcended and eclipsed his own reputation, so that those who might immediately recognize the names Dame Edna Everage and Les Patterson may struggle to recall Barry Humphries, who died last week in Sydney at the age of 89.

Humphries belonged to a batch of Australian wunderkinds who took Britain by storm in the 1960s. They included art critic and historian Robert Hughes, feminist writer Germaine Greer, and poet, critic, entertainer, and all-round polymath Clive James. It has become a journalistic cliché—and unfair to others less well-known—to celebrate this now nearly extinct group (only Greer survives), but there is a valid reason to do so. Their generation was the last in a fading tradition of the widely educated public thinker; men—and woman—of letters, able to operate in journalism and publishing by serving a popular audience outside the asphyxiating specialisms of the academy or the pandering and hype of popular media. (This tradition is, perhaps, enjoying a revival in the new era of online forums, where those outside the closed shop can contribute to public discussion.) In addition to their books and journalism, they also appeared on the then-new medium of television, which gave them an appropriately Australian democratic air. One suspects that went down well in the Britain of the 1960s, which was eager to shed its geriatric class distinctions.

With the exception of Hughes, who moved to the United States, this group’s fame was largely confined to Australia and the UK, which maintained close historic links and a regular two-way shuttle of talent, both elite and popular. The connection from Australia’s colonial past was reinforced by a wave of British emigration in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s (“ten pound poms,” that being the price per passenger of the emigration fee) who settled in the new outer suburbs of the nation’s large cities. It seemed perfectly normal then—it would be very odd now—for the national broadcasters of both countries to transmit a radio show, on which the letters and messages of family members in one country to relatives in the other were read out on air.

If you grew up in this atmosphere (as I did), it was equally natural, when you reached your later teenage years, to throw a pack on your back, make your way up South-East Asia, and then fly to London, where you were entitled to work (Earls Court in West London was so packed with young Australian travellers that it was called “Kangaroo Court”). This was the cultural environment that shaped an Australian national pride in the success of its brilliant sons and daughters in the “mother country” (a term then not quite archaic) as well as British receptivity to their exotic antipodean-ness.

All this became a subject of joking as well as recrimination, but it is important to the story of Barry Humphries because, while no less cosmopolitan and learned than his peers, he made the most of his Australian-ness. He was born in Melbourne, after all, a city of free settlers known (in those days) as staid and conservative. Sydney, on the other hand, was the convict settlement with a reputation for larrikinism and loose morals (in the ’60s it was home to “the push,” a loose collection of hard-drinking, free-loving artists and anarchists). Humphries grew up in a respectable family in the seemly middle-class suburb of Camberwell, attending a posh private school and then Melbourne University. Nothing in this lineage would have suggested his outrageous career and eccentric persona, but it provided him with the raw material for all his characters, including his most well-known and beloved, Dame Edna Everage.

Edna was a housewife in the quintessential Melbourne suburb of Moonee Ponds, where (as the satire sees it) she lived a typically drab and vapid life. Germaine Greer called the world she occupied “utterly bleak” and, at least when he first created Edna, Humphries likely shared this attitude. Anyway, we may suppose that Edna, in the manner of Walter Mitty, dreamed of something more, and voilà, she was plucked from obscurity by Humphries and elevated to international mega-stardom based on… well, as far as anyone can tell, nothing more than on being an international mega-star.

This was Humphries’s comment on the nature of fame even then. Dressed in elaborately sheened and sequined drag, wearing a pair of glasses that were mega in their own right, Edna was a combination of matriarchal dowager, uncouth philistine, and celebrity narcissist. She combined the social snobbery and rudeness of Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh with the ambition and vulgarity of Madonna and the self-obsession of Dylan Mulvaney. Apart from her pretence of respectability, she belonged to a type Australians call a “bogan”—a working-class or lower-middle-class person suddenly elevated to fame and money, a strain in the Australian character Humphries discerned well before the word existed.

Humphries was primarily a stage performer. Edna would erupt in a dazzling song and dance show and then harangue the audience with a stand-up monologue about her own brilliance and importance. She did this for over 60 years, since Humphries first introduced an early version of her in Melbourne amateur theatre in the mid-1950s. Edna was always at pains to distance herself from those of her original social station. She had her long-suffering husband Norm institutionalised. Upon his death from prostate issues, she was “absolutely distraught with grief” but “too busy to attend the funeral” because she did not want to interrupt a tour and disappoint her fans (as I recall her telling a Brisbane audience). At the other end of the social scale, Edna mixed with royalty. She spoke on the phone regularly with the late Queen and taped these calls, describing them as “the regina monologues.”

Most people today probably know of Edna from her many television appearances, mainly on UK talk shows (many are readily found on YouTube). Here she would dominate, talking over everyone else and patronising the other guests. She told Helen Mirren that she (Edna) turned down an offer of the title role in The Queen (she was too young for the role) and recommended Mirren. She had a penchant for practical jokes, which included throwing gladioli stalks into the audience, whose members she always called “possums.” More recently, she entered the Royal Box at the theatre to take a seat next to (then) Prince Charles and Camilla (much to their amusement, though I suspect they were in on the joke). As Edna was escorted away, she apologised, explaining that the theatre had “found me a better seat.” Humphries liked this kind of gag. In the 1950s, he caused a stir by pretending to vomit a can of baked beans into an aircraft sick bag then proceeding to eat from the bag in front of other passengers.

This taste for the crude and disgusting was taken to its extreme with Humphries’s second most famous, but certainly his most outrageous, alter ego, Sir Les Patterson. Sir Les was also in the bogan vein. After a shady origin in the Sydney nightclub scene, he rose to public prominence through the patronage of the Australian Labor Party, which appointed him to such esteemed positions as Chairman of the Australian Cheese Board and Minister for the Arts (or as Les would say “the Yarts”). His gross and obese figure would waddle on to the stage or screen in a dishevelled suit covered with alcohol and tobacco stains, a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a beer in his hand. The numerous anecdotes of his life and public service invariably tended to be lewd. These stories would be punctuated by occasional farts and grasps at his crotch to rearrange things for his comfort. The apex of his distinguished career came when he was made Cultural Attaché at Australia’s High Commission to the United Kingdom, a short-lived appointment after he was discovered urinating in the street just outside the Commission entrance.

Humphries’s third enduring character was most definitely not a bogan but was arguably his most important. Alexander Horace “Sandy” Stone lived at 36 Gallipoli Crescent, Glen Iris, Melbourne with his wife Beryl. (It is hard to imagine a more Australian address. The Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey was where Australian troops were blooded in the First World War and the event is still commemorated as the nation’s day of mourning for its war dead.) In contrast to the brash, bombastic Edna and Les, Sandy was an elderly and infirm but dignified and self-effacing gentleman, who would sit in his pyjamas and dressing gown clutching a water bottle and intone, in a diffident murmur, recollections and reveries about his earlier life.

Stone was a vestige of a vanished world—the Australia of Humphries’s own childhood in the 1930s and ’40s, to which he now gave voice. This was a world in which the radio was still called the “wireless,” where you listened to the scratchy broadcasts of the test cricket instead of watching “the big bash” (my fellow countrymen will get the reference; my apologies to others), where the family gathered around the pianola for an evening’s entertainment instead of peering intently into their smartphones, and where a phone had a cord and an operator, if indeed you had a phone. The generation of this world—the generation of two wars and a depression—shunned publicity and limelight and lived quiet, unadvertised and unextolled lives.

In later performances, Sandy—who never seemed far removed from dementia and death, even at his most vigorous—appeared as a ghost, lamenting this lost era. On one occasion, he described the transfer of his old Gallipoli Crescent home to a family of “New Australians” from Vietnam. Though lampoonery of that lacklustre suburban universe remained the chief theme, the tone was more appreciative and sometimes as much tribute as satire. Sandy became not just a counterpoint to Edna and Les, but also a kind of apology for them to the Sandys of that lost world.

This was an expression, at a personal level, of Humphries’s own somewhat patrician and dandy-esque social conservatism, which courted the bohemian but also acknowledged the indispensable role of those solid, hard-working, un-glamorous citizens like Humphries’s own parents, who keep society going—those Australians whom the long-serving prime minister of the 1950s and ’60s, Sir Robert Menzies, called “the forgotten people.” It may be that Sandy’s humility will outlast the stridency of Edna and Les to become Humphries’s most enduring contribution to comedy. And with his passing, the last brilliant flare illuminating that world has been extinguished.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Barry Humphries died in Melbourne. Quillette apologises for the error.

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