MILESAGO - Profiles

BARRY HUMPHRIES
Satirist, actor, author, artist


Barry Humphries, 2002 - photo by Kris Snibbe, Harvard University Gazette

NOTES

Dr. Barry Humphries is one of the most famous and successful Australians of his era, and a man of many and impressive accomplishments. Besides his well-known and hugely succesful career as a comedian, satirist and character actor, he is also a film producer and script writer, a star of London's West End musical theatre, an award-winning author and an accomplished landscape painter.

Barry Humphries was born on 17 February 1934 in Kew, Melbourne. His father was a well-to-do construction manager and Barry grew up in a "clean, tasteful and modern home" in Camberwell, then one of Melbourne’s new ‘garden suburbs’. His early home life set the pattern for his eventual stage career -- Barry's parents bought him everything he wanted, but his father in particular spent little time with him, so he spent hours playing dress-ups in the back garden.

"Disguising myself as different characters and I had a whole box of dressing up clothes ... Red Indian, sailor suit, Chinese costume and I was very spoiled in that way ... I also found that entertaining people gave me a great feeling of release, making people laugh was a very good way of befriending them. People couldn't hit you could they if they were laughing."

His parents nicknamed him 'Sunny Sam', and his early childhood was happy and uneventful, but in his teens Barry began to rebel against the strictures of conventional suburban life by becoming 'artistic' – much to the dismay of his parents who, despite their affluence, distrusted "art". A key event took place when he was nine -- his mother gave all his books to the Salvation Army, cheerfully saying: "But you've read them, Barry."

Humphries responded by becoming a voracious reader, a collector of rare books, a painter, a theatre fan and a surrealist. Dressing up in a black cloak, black homburg and mascara'd eyes, he became his first incarnation,  "Dr Aaron Azimuth", dandy and Dadaist.

This tension -- craving attention and approval, yet simultaneously wanting to shock and flout convention -- echoes through Humphries' work, which is also "haunted by the voice of his mum", whose best lines – "Stop drawing attention to yourself", "You used to be so nice", "Remember you're out", "Isn't it pathetic at his age" and "At least you can say you've seen him" – echo down the years.

His father’s building business prospered, and Barry was sent to Melbourne Grammar School, where he spurned sport, detested mathematics, shirked cadets "on the basis of conscientious objection" and matriculated with brilliant results in English and Art.

He spent two years at Melbourne University, where he studied studied law, philosophy and fine arts. During this time he became Australia’s leading exponent of the deconstructive and absurd art movement, Dada. The Dadaist pranks and performances he mounted in Melbourne were experiments in anarchy and visual satire which have become part of Australian folklore. One famous exhibit entitled "Pus In Boots" consisted of a pair of Wellington boots filled with custard. He was also legendary for his notorious "sick bag" prank. This involved carrying a tin of condensed soup onto an aircraft, which he would then surreptitiously empty into an air-sickness bag. At an appropriate juncture, he would pretend to vomit loudly and violently into the bag and then, to the horror of the passengers and crew, he would proceed to eat the contents. Such stunts were the early manifestations of a lifelong interest in the bizarre, discomfiting and subversive.

After writing and performing songs and sketches in university revues, Barry joined the newly formed Melbourne Theatre Company. It was at this point that he created the first incarnation of what became his most famous character, Edna Everage. The first stage sketch featuring Mrs Everage, "Olympic Hostess", premiered at Melbourne University's Union Theatre on December 12, 1955. In his award-winning autobiography More Please (1992) Humphries relates that he created a character similar to Edna in the back of a bus while touring country Victoria in Twelfth Night with the MTC at the age of twenty. The dowdy Moonee Ponds housewife, originally created as a caricature of Australian suburban complacency and insularity, has evolved over four decades to become the acid-tongued, egomaniacal, internationally celebrated Housewife Megastar, Dame Edna.

Humphries' other satirical characters include the legendary comic strip hero, nephew of Dame Edna (and progenitor of Crocodile Dundee) Barry McKenzie; the "priapic and inebriated cultural attaché" Sir Les Patterson, who has "continued to bring worldwide discredit upon Australian arts and culture, while contributing as much to the Australian vernacular as he has borrowed from it"; gentle, grandfatherly "returned gentleman" Sandy Stone; iconoclastic '60s underground film-maker Martin Agrippa, Paddington socialist academic Neil Singleton, sleazy trade union official Lance Boyle, high-pressure art salesman Morrie O’Connor and failed tycoon Owen Steele.

Later, Barry moved to Sydney and joined Sydney's famous Philip Street Revue Theatre, Australia's first home for intimate revue and satirical comedy. After a long season in revue, he appeared as Estragon in Waiting for Godot, Australia's first ever production of a Samuel Beckett play.

In 1959 Humphries, now in his early twenties, sailed to Venice and then settled in London where he lived and worked throughout the Sixties. He became friends with leading members of the British comedy scene including Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Jonathon Miller, Spike Milligan, Dick Bentley, Will Rushton and fellow Aussie expatriate John Bluthal. Humphries performed at Cook's comedy venue The Establishment Club, where he also became friends with and was photographed by leading photographer Lewis Morley, whose studio was located above the club. He contributed to the satirical magazine Private Eye, of which Cook was publisher, his most famous work being the famous cartoon strip The Wonderful World of Barry McKenzie, a bawdy satire of the worst aspects of Australians abroad, which was written by Barry and drawn by New Zealand cartoonist Nicholas Garland. The book version of the comic strip, published in the late 60s, was banned in Australia.

Humphries appeared in numerous West End stage productions including the musicals Oliver! and Maggie May, by Lionel Bart, and stage and radio productions by his friend Spike Milligan, in particular The Bed Sitting Room. Humphries got his first break on the British stage when he was cast in the role of the undertaker Mr Sowerberry for the original 1960 London stage production of Oliver! He recorded Sowerberry's feature number That's Your Funeral for the original London cast soundtrack album (released on Deram) and reprised the role when the production moved to Broadway in 1963, where it became the first London stage musical to be transplanted to Broadway with the same sensational reception it had received in Britain. In 1967 he starred as Fagin in the Piccadilly Theatre's revival of Oliver! which featured a young Phil Collins as The Artful Dodger. In 1997 Barry reprised the role of Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh's award winning revival at the London Palladium.

In 1967 his friendship with Cook and Moore led to his first film role, a cameo as "Envy" in the hit film BEDAZZLED starring Pete, Dud and Eleanor Bron, directed by Stanley Donen. The following year he appeared in THE BLISS OF MRS BLOSSOM with Shirley MacLaine. In the late '60s he contributed to BBC-TV's popular THE LATE SHOW (which also featured Oz editor Richard Neville) but Barry he found his true calling with his one-man satirical stage revues, in which he performed as Edna Everage and other character creations including Les Patterson and Sandy Stone. He gained considerable notoriety with his first one-man revue Just A Show at London's Fortune Theatre in 1969. It polarized British critics but was successful enough to lead to a short-lived BBC television series The Barry Humphries Scandals, one of the precursors to the famous Monty Python series.

In 1970 Barry returned to Australia, where Edna Everage made her movie debut in John B. Murray's THE NAKED BUNYIP. In 1971-72 he teamed up with producer Philip Adams and writer-director Bruce Beresford to create a film version of the Barry McKenzie cartoons. THE ADVENTURES OF BARRY McKENZIE starred singer Barry Crocker as McKenzie and featured Humphries -- who co-wrote the script with Beresford -- in three different roles. It was filmed in England and Australia with an all-star cast including Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Dennis Price, Dick Bentley, Will Rushton, Julie Covington, Clive James and broadcaster Joan Bakewell. Although savaged by Australian critics, it was a huge hit and became the most successful feature ever made in Australia up to that time, paving the way for the subsequent success of films like ALVIN PURPLE and PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK.

Throughout his sojourn in London, Humphries became increasingly dependent on alcohol and by the late Sixties his friends and family began to fear that his addiction might cost him his career and possibly even his life. It certainly wrecked his first marriage and was a contributing factor to the collapse of his second. His drinking reached crisis point during a visit home in the early Seventies, and his parents finally had him admitted to a private hospital to 'dry out' when, after a particularly heavy binge, he was found unconscious in a gutter. Since then he has abstained form alcohol completely and was one of the many who tried vainly to help his old friend Peter Cook, who eventually died from alcohol-related illnesses. Although Humphries himself downplays it, many have speculated that the excesses of his perpetually sozzled Les Patterson are to some extent reflective by his own battles with the bottle.

Since the '70s Humphries has appeared in numerous films, mostly in supporting or cameo roles. His credits include the UK sex comedy PERCY'S PROGRESS (1974), David Baker's THE GREAT McCARTHY and Beresford's Beresford's BARRY McKENZIE HOLDS HIS OWN (1974) -- in which Edna was made a Dame by PM Gough Whitlam -- SIDE BY SIDE (1975) and THE GETTING OF WISDOM (1977). In 1977 he had a cameo as Edna in the infamous mega-flop SGT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, followed in 1981 by a part in SHOCK TREATMENT, the unsuccessful sequel to The Rocky Horror Show.

He was more successful with his featured role as Richard Deane in DR FISCHER OF GENEVA (1985), which was followed by THE HOWLING III (1987), a terrific cameo as Rupert Murdoch in the miniseries SELLING HITLER (1991) with Alexei Sayle, a three-role cameo in Phillipe Mora's horror satire PTERODACTYL WOMAN FROM BEVERLY HILLS (1994), Count Metternich in IMMORTAL BELOVED (1994), THE LEADING MAN (1996), the Spice Girls' promo-flick SPICE WORLD and WELCOME TO WOOP WOOP (1997) and most recently NICHOLAS NICKELBY (2002).

Barry has also featured in various roles in comedy performance films including THE SECRET POLICEMAN'S OTHER BALL (1982) and A NIGHT OF COMIC RELIEF 2 (1989). In 1987 he starred as Les Patterson in one of his few major failures, the disastrous LES PATTERSON SAVES THE WORLD, directed by George "Mad Max" Miller and co-written by Barry with his third wife, Diane Millstead.

Film roles aside, Humphries' forté has always been his one-man satirical stage revues, in which he appears as Edna Everage and a host of other character creations, including Les Patterson and Sandy Stone. There can be few (if any) comedians who can boast the career longevity he has enjoyed. His success is also a tribute to the tremendous skill, style and insight -- and the sheer hard work -- involved in performing two-and-a-half hour shows of entirely original material, laced with ad-libbing, improvisation and the famous audience participation segments.

Humphries has had many successful stage productions in London, most of which he subsequently toured internationally to great success. But he encountered stiff resistance in the beginning -- his first London one-man show A Nice Night's Entertainment, staged in 1962, received scathing reviews and it was several years before he made a second attempt. He gained considerable notoriety with his first one-man revue Just A Show at London's Fortune Theatre in 1969. It polarized the critics but was a hit with audiences and became the basis of a growing cult following in the UK. He continued to gain popularity with his early '70s shows including A Load Of Olde Stuffe (1971) and At Least You Can Say That You've Seen It (1974-75).

He finally broke through to widespread critical and audience acclaim with his 1976 London production Housewife, Superstar! at the Apollo Theatre. Its success in Britain and Australia led Humphries to try his luck with the show in New York in 1977, but it proved to be a disastrous repeat of his experience with Just A Show. Humphries later summed up his negative reception by saying: "When the New York Times tells you to close, you close."

His next show was Isn't It Pathetic At His Age (1978); the title (like At Least You Can Say That You've Seen It) was one of the remarks his mother often made when she took Barry to the theatre to see superannuated overseas actors touring in Australia during his youth. His subsequent one-man shows included A Night With Dame Edna (1979), which won the Society of West End Theatres Award, An Evening's Intercourse (1982), two seasons of Back with a Vengeance (1987/1988), Look at Me When I'm Talking to You (1996), Edna, The Spectacle (1998) at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where he holds the record as the only solo act to fill the theatre since it opened in 1663. His next show Remember Your'e Out toured Australia in 1999. He has made numerous theatrical tours in Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and in the Far and Middle East. In 2003 he toured Australia with his latest show, Getting Back To My Roots (And Other Suckers).

Edna Everage has long since transcended her modest origins as a satire of Australian suburbia to become one of the most successful, best-known and best loved comedy characters of all time. She has grown over the years to become, as Herald writer Caroline Overington puts it:

"a perfect parody of a modern, vainglorious celebrity with a rampant ego and a strong aversion to the audience (whom celebrities pretend to love but actually, as Edna so boldly makes transparent, they actually loathe for their cheap shoes and suburban values).

Like the ever-present gladioli, a popular and inimitable feature of many of Edna's stage and TV appearances has been her extravagant wardrobe (much of it created for her by Australian designer Bill Goodwin) which have elevated Aussie kitsch icons such as the flag, Australian native animals and flowers, the opera house and the boxing kangaroo, into a sartorial art form. As the character evolved, Edna's always unseen family  -- her invalid husband Norm, her daughter Valmai and her gay, window-dresser son Kenny -- became intrinsic elements of the act, as has her long-suffering best friend and bridesmaid, Madge Allsop (played by the octagenarian Emily Perry) -- the only other actor ever to appear regularly on stage with Humphries in his shows.

Humphries' numerous television appearances in Australia, the UK and the USA include THE BUNYIP, a children's comedy for Channel 7 in Melbourne, and two highly successful series of his talk show THE DAME EDNA EXPERIENCE for London Weekend Television with a host of superstar guests including Liza Minnelli, Robin Williams, Cher and Kim Basinger. These enormously popular programs have since been repeated worldwide and won him the Golden Rose of Montreux in 1991. He starred in the ABC's THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SANDY STONE (1991) and presented the ABC documentary series BARRY HUMPHRIES' FLASHBACKS in 1999.

His most recent television shows include DAME EDNA'S NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH, DAME EDNA'S WORK EXPERIENCE and DAME EDNA'S HOLLYWOOD, an occasional series filmed in the U.S. for the NBC and Fox networks. His most recent television special was DAME EDNA KISSES IT BETTER.

Barry finally achieved the long-held dream of "making it in America" when he took Dame Edna - The Royal Tour to Broadway, scoring a smash hit and winning rave reviews. As a result Humphries won the inaugural 'Special Tony Award for a Live Theatrical Event' in 2000 and the National Broadway Theatre Award for "Best Play" and for "Best Actor" in 2001.

Edna's new-found success in America led to many media opportunities, including a cameo appearance in the hit TV series Ally McBeal. Vanity Fair magazine invited her write an advice column but she created a storm of controversy with her advice in the February 2003 issue, when she told a reader who asked if she should learn Spanish:

"Forget Spanish. There's nothing in that language worth reading except Don Quixote, and a quick listen to the CD of Man of La Mancha will take care of that ... Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower?"

Predictably, Edna's comments (which satirised the attitudes of many wealthy Americans, who routinely hire low-waged Hispanic domestic workers) went over the heads of a lot of readers. Many seemed unaware of the fact that Dame Edna is a character and some don't even seem to know that 'she' is not really a woman. Members of the Hispanic community took joke totally out of context and complaints flooded in. Hollywood actress Selma Hayek responded angrily, penning a furious letter to the magazine. Death threats were received and Vanity Fair was forced to publish a full-page apology to the Hispanic community. "If you have to explain satire to someone, you might as well give up," Humphries commented later.

Questioned about the controversy on the eve of her 2003 Australian tour, Dame Edna was more candid, claiming that Hayek's denunciation was due to "professional jealousy" because the role of painter Frida Kahlo (for which Hayek received an Oscar nomination) had originally been offered to her:

"When I was offered the part of Frida I turned it down, and she was the second choice. I said I'm not playing the role of a women with a moustache and a monobrow, and I'm not having same-sex relations on the screen ... I'm not racist. I love all races, particularly white people. You know, I even like Roman Catholics."

Humphries is also the author of eighteen books including two autobiographies, two novels and a treatise on Chinese drama in the goldfields. He has also written plays and has made dozens of recordings. The first volume of his autobiography More Please won the J.R. Ackerley prize for biography in 1993. He was the subject of two critical and biographical studies: The Real Barry Humphries by Peter Coleman, and Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization by John Lahr. His second volume of autobiography, My Life As Me, was published in late 2002.

He was awarded the Order of Australia in 1982 and an Honorary Doctorate of Griffith University (Australia) in 1994. He has been married four times; his fourth wife Lizzie Spender is the daughter of British poet Sir Stephen Spender. He has two sons and two daughters from his third and fourth marriages to Diane Millstead and Lizzie Spender.

 

REFERENCES / LINKS

Barry Humphries Wired
http://users.aol.com/raregems/biography.htm

Dame Edna Everage: The Official Website
http://www.dame-edna.com/

Barry Humphries Discography
http://www.cyberonic.net/~atrain/comedy/humph.htm

National Portrait Gallery of Australia
"Barry Humphries - Rarely Everage" - exhibition biography
http://www.portrait.gov.au/content/exhibit/rarely_everage/biog.htm

IMDb
http://us.imdb.com/Name?Humphries,+Barry

Harvard University Gazette
http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2001/03.15/32-dameedna.html

Catherine Keenan
"Tickled Pink"
Sydney Morning Herald, 28 June 2003
http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/06/27/1056683895916.html

Liz Minchin
"Still Playing The Dame"
The Age, 1 May 2003
http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/04/30/1051381998838.html

Caroline Overington
"Secret life of a frock star"
Sydney Morning Herald, 9 November 2002
http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/11/08/1036308480418.html

 

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