Barry Humphries

Barry Humphries

Date of birth: 17-02-1934
Born in the Melbourne suburb of Kew, Humphries was educated at Melbourne Grammar School and Melbourne University, where he read law, philosophy and fine arts. There he staged anarchic Dadaist pranks and exhibitions, with exhibits such Pus In Boots – a pair of Wellingtons filled with custard.

He began his stage career in 1952, writing and performing songs and sketches in university revues. At the start, Humphries had ambitions for straight theatre and toured in Shakespeare plays and joined the newly formed Melbourne Theatre Company.

But the major turning point occurred in 1955, when he created Mrs Norm Everage, a suburban Melbourne housewife who has over the years evolved into the glamorous gladioli-wielding 'gigastar' Dame Edna that has made his fortune.

In Sydney, in the late Fifties, Humphries joined the Philip Street Revue Theatre, Australia's first home for intimate revue and satirical comedy which allowed him to develop a cast of character such as grandfatherly Sandy Stone, sleazy trade union official Lance Boyle and socialist academic Neil Singleton.

In 1959 he moved to London and became part of the so-called Satire Boom, working alongside the likes of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook – performing at Cook's club The Establishment and starring in their film Bedazzled as Envy. He also worked with Joan Littlewood's groundbreaking Stratford East theatre company, and played Long John Silver at the Mermaid Theatre.

While in the UK he developed the cartoon strip about rugged Outback adventurer Barry (Bazza) McKenzie, who predated Crocodile Dundee and real-life Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. The character started life in Private Eye, but his exploits were also made into a film.

Humphries also appeared in numerous West End stage productions including the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! and Spike Milligan's The Bed Sitting Room.

Since this first foray into London, he has split his time between England, Australia and sometimes the USA – which he only really cracked with his 2000 Broadway show, one of innumerable solo shows he's performed around the world, usually as Dame Edna with other characters in a supporting role.

But his first London show, in 1962, was slated by the critics, and it took him seven years to return to the West End stage - eventually cracking it with his 1976 production Housewife, Superstar! The only other actor ever to appear on stage with Humphries in his stage shows has been Emily Perry, who played Edna's put-upon sidekick Madge.

Dame Edna has also made numerous TV appearance, including her own LWT chat show The Dame Edna Experience and a recurring guest role in Ally McBeal.

Humprhies' most famous creation after Dame Edna is slobbish Australian cultural attache Sir Les Paterson, who made his debut in 1974. The character was a hopeless drunk, and in reality Humphries too has battled a drink problem. In the early Seventies he was found unconscious in a gutter after a binge, and his parents checked him into a drying-out clinic. Since then, he has abstained.

He was awarded a CBE in the 2007 Birthday Honours, and among his other accolades are an Order of Australia in 1982, an honorary Doctorate of Law at Melbourne University in 2003, a Montreaux Golden Rose for his 1991 show A Night On Mount Edna, and a Tony award in 2000. His autobiography More Please won the J.R. Ackerley prize for biography in 1993

Humphries has been married four times; his fourth wife Lizzie Spender is the daughter of British poet Sir Stephen Spender. He has two daughters and two sons.

At the end of 2007, he underwent appendix surgery in Sydney, but developed complications that forced him to quit work for six months.

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Barry Humphries: The Man Behind The Mask

Review of the comedy legend's 'audience with'-style tour

As Covid masks are widely discarded, Barry Humphries offers a reflective peek at the ‘recovering comedian’ behind the metaphorical masks he dons for his characters in this intimate ‘audience with…’ show.

A decade after his so-called ‘farewell tour’, the Australian comedy legend says he’s been drawn back to the stage as its the only place he feels truly at home. Given that he’s in his 89th year, he can be forgiven for slowing down, so this ‘stumbling attempt at an honest self-portrait’ is understandably a more subdued affair than witnessing Dame Edna Everage or Sir Les Patterson in their outlandish pomp.

Humphries never quite offers the deep analysis his preamble promises, although some of his personality and what makes him tick inevitably shines through two hours in his delightful, urbane company, sharing just some of the anecdotes from his eventful life.

Part one takes us back to the suburban Melbourne of the 1940s and 1950s, a Little England transplanted to the other side of the planet where he grew up in relative wealth – the family home even had a separate tradesman’s entrance.  Some tales from his childhood reveal a slight cruel streak, which persevered into his comedy work, where it was softened with mischief.

Humphries’s first stage role came in 1955, as the romantic lead Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night. After the director told him ‘you’re naturally ridiculous’, he decided he was more suited to comedy than drama. And on forgetting his lines so badly in a Noel Coward play, he vowed never again to perform other people’s words.

While touring in regional theatres he would meet petty, pretentious mayoresses, haughty queens of their own tiny worlds, and the seeds of Edna were planted. Another influence was his mother, described here as a ‘mistress of the vocabulary of discouragement’. He always could turn a phrase, could Barry.

Before he found a success in Australia that he wouldn’t be able to leave behind, he travelled to London, taking a job on the raspberry ripple line in the Wall’s ice cream factory in Acton, West London, as he tried to make his name.

Humphries says he’s been told (presumably by director Nikki Woolaston) not to lose his thread, as going off-topic is an irresistible instinct. Yet the show sparkles with the frisson of unpredictability whenever he starts interrogating the front row – although another diversion into various types of soap proves as dull as it sounds.

After the interval, the show focuses on his post-fame years, leaning heavily on some hugely entertaining clips. We see Dame Edna ‘singing’ at the Albert Hall, reducing Prince Charles to giggles and encountering Hollywood’s A-list for her chat show parody. Who else could get a legend like Charlton Heston to be a stooge in a prop comedy stunt?

Humphries’s great life overlaps with so many others: Gloria Swanson, Elton John, Salvador Dali, Elizabeth Taylor, The Queen. Some of these encounters are recorded only in the nostalgic images in the programme, others are the topics of on-stage anecdotes.

Edna shared a sofa with Donald Trump, and predicted he’d be President decades before he was. And there’s a telling interview with a youthful Boris Johnson, which could be accused of burnishing his public image had she not given him a rougher ride than some heavyweight interviewers.

However, probably the best anecdote is not about celebrity, but on picking on the wrong punter at the Broadway premiere of his Tony-winning show Edna: The Spectacle.

This entertaining affair is tempered by an occasional sombre note, including an affecting section in which he speaks frankly about overcoming alcoholism more than half a century ago. But mostly the tone remains light and playful.

Although he makes a few quips about being ‘cancelled’, Humphries sidesteps any controversies he’s sparked over a lifetime’s iconoclastic pursuit of what he once called his ‘right to give deep and profound offence’.

Even with omissions, Behind The Mask is a charming, relatively cosy, celebration of a life that deserves to be celebrated. And of course he can’t help but slip into the Butterfly specs of Melbourne’s favourite housewife superstar, just for a moment – and even suggests another farewell tour could be in the offing.

• Barry Humphries: The Man Behind The Mask is on UK tour, including three dates at the Gielgud Theatre in London. Barry Humphries tour dates. See also manbehindthemask.co.uk

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Published: 26 Apr 2022

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