By Mick Le Moignan
BARRY Humphries, who died in Sydney on Saturday at 89, was our brightest star, the most brilliant, original entertainer Australia has produced.
Humphries was uniquely gifted, writing his own material, creating his own larger-than-life comic characters and performing them around the world, on stage, television and film, across seven decades.
He ambushed his audiences, constantly surprising them by taking his jokes further than they imagined possible, testing limits of acceptability. He embodied the self-deprecating, shockingly honest Australian sense of humour and took it to daring new levels.
At heart, he was an iconoclast, a surrealist and satirist, testing the boundaries of taste and respectability and inviting us to question conventional standards of middle-class behaviour.
At a Royal Performance in 2013, as Dame Edna Everage, he invaded the Royal Box and reduced then-Prince Charles and Camilla to tears of laughter with outrageous ad-libbing, before departing apologetically, saying ‘I’m sorry, they’ve found me a better seat!’
In later life, I got to know him slightly through mutual friends, although I’d first come across his work as a pupil at Victoria College. We loved the vulgarity of his 1960s comic strip for Private Eye, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and sang with gusto ‘Bazza’s’ chorus, ending with ‘And I chundered in the old Pacific sea!’ I can remember only the last line of another scatological anecdote: ‘Throw up? Yer lucky I hit the plate!’
Humphries adopted or invented a hilarious array of ‘euphemisms’ for bodily functions which, as he intended, accentuated their grossness, such as ‘pointing Percy at the porcelain’ or ‘giving a technicolor yawn’.
His Dadaist practical jokes were legendary: on a plane, he pretended to vomit copiously into a sick-bag, while secretly emptying a tin of fruit salad into it. Then, apparently revived, he horrified his fellow-passengers when he took a teaspoon from his pocket and consumed the contents of the bag with relish.
As an arts reviewer in Sydney in the 1980s, I attended several of his sold-out one-man-shows. Patrons were advised to be on time, because when Dame Edna detected latecomers trying to sidle discreetly into their seats, she would have all the house lights switched on ‘to help them find their way’. This maximised both the embarrassment of the victims and the schadenfreude of the rest of the audience.
The torment didn’t end when they took their seats, as he would ask their names and demand to know what had delayed them:
‘And where are you from? Coogee. Well, Doug and Denise from Coogee, Fay over here has come all the way from Perth, and she got here on time!’ Sometimes ‘she’ would start the whole show all over again for the benefit of the latecomers.
If they admitted to coming from Melbourne or (even worse) England, he would return to them with helpful asides, later in the show: ‘A bathroom – Tim and Sarah, that’s an extra room we have in Australian houses, you probably haven’t come across one.’ And then, confiding in the rest of the audience: ‘You know where to hide money from a Pom? – under the soap!’
I once had the temerity to write that one of his shows, memorably titled ‘An Evening’s Intercourse with the Widely Liked Barry Humphries’, was not quite as sparkling as earlier ones, noting that he was re-using material I had heard before. This prompted an acerbic letter to the editor in which Humphries sniffed ‘it’s hard to remember who the theatre critic for The National Times is, because they change so often!’
The joy of Humphries’ panorama of caricatures was that they kept on coming back, show after show, becoming larger than life and ever more fantastical in the process. Edna first appeared in 1955 as a dowdy Melbourne housewife and grew ever more pretentious, giving her third ‘farewell tour’ in 2019 ennobled, no longer ‘Superstar’ or ‘Megastar’, but ‘Gigastar’, the trusted confidante of Queens, Presidents and film stars.
Sir Les Patterson, Australia’s ‘cultural attaché’, was truly disgusting, shambolic, drunk and dribbling into his whisky glass, fondling himself and spraying unfortunate patrons in the front rows with spittle.
Even death itself did not prevent sad Sandy Stone from returning to sit, pale and wraith-like in his old rocking-chair on the verandah, soberly realising that his wife and friends had barely noticed his absence.
Humphries’ friends and admirers will miss him very much indeed: he will leave a large gap in our lives, a place he filled with so much laughter.
The cruelty of his caricatures was never matched in his private life, where he was notably kind and caring, always remembering people’s names and keen to right injustices. His knowledge was wide-ranging and encyclopaedic: he collected over a quarter of a million books, many of them rare first editions, thousands of obscure gramophone records and many favourite paintings, some of which he claimed to have bought four times over, thanks to his three divorces.
He knew so much about a startling number of topics: the last live performance I saw was in London, where he recreated the brilliant Berlin cabarets of the 1930s Weimar republic with chanteuse Meow Meow and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Much of the wonderful music had been preserved only by his own assiduous record collecting and, although an octogenarian, he celebrated the very special occasion by singing and dancing his way through the entire show.
Beyond compare in his own country, as a writer and storyteller Humphries was on the level of Peter Ustinov and Robin Williams. As a performer he ranked with Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers and John Cleese. His death is a sad loss, but his many brilliant alter egos will live on.
So thank you, Barry, Edna, Bazza, Sir Les, Sandy: you lived many lives and brightened millions more. We’ll miss you all.