Barry Humphries

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John Barry Humphries, AO, CBE (born 17 February 1934) is an Australian comedian, satirist, Dadaist, artist, author and character actor. He is best known for his on-stage and television alter egos Dame Edna Everage, a Melbourne housewife and “gigastar”, and Sir Les Patterson, Australia’s foul-mouthed cultural attaché to the Court of St. James. He is a film producer and script writer, a star of London’s West End musical theatre, an award-winning writer and an accomplished landscape painter. For his delivery of dadaist and absurdist humour to millions, biographer Anne Pender described Humphries in 2010 as not only “the most significant theatrical figure of our time … [but] the most significant comedian to emerge since Charlie Chaplin”.

Humphries’ characters, especially Dame Edna Everage, have brought him international renown, and he has appeared in numerous films, stage productions and television shows. Originally conceived as a dowdy Moonee Ponds housewife who caricatured Australian suburban complacency and insularity, Edna has evolved over four decades to become a satire of stardom, the gaudily dressed, acid-tongued, egomaniacal, internationally feted Housewife Gigastar, Dame Edna Everage. Humphries’ other major satirical character creation was the archetypal Australian bloke Barry McKenzie, who originated as the hero of a comic strip about Australians in London (with drawings by Nicholas Garland) which was first published in Private Eye magazine. The stories about “Bazza” (Humphries’ nickname, as well as an Australian term of endearment for the name Barry) gave wide circulation to Australian slang, particularly jokes about drinking and its consequences (much of which was invented by Humphries), and the character went on to feature in two Australian films, in which he was portrayed by Barry Crocker.

Humphries’ other satirical characters include 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 1960s 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.

Early Life

Humphries was born in the suburb of Kew in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, the son of Louisa and Eric Humphries, a construction manager. His grandfather was an immigrant to Australia from Manchester, England. His father was well-to-do and Barry grew up in a “clean, tasteful and modern home” in Camberwell which was at this time, one of Melbourne’s new ‘garden suburbs’. His early home life set the pattern for his eventual stage career—his 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, 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 if they were laughing.”

His parents nicknamed him “Sunny Sam”, and his early childhood was happy and uneventful, but in his teens Humphries 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 explaining: “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 heavily mascaraed eyes, he invented his first sustained character, “Dr Aaron Azimuth”, agent provocateur, dandy and Dadaist.

Later Life

Humphries has been married four times. His first marriage, to Brenda Wright, took place when he was twenty one and lasted less than two years. He has two daughters, Tess and Emily, and two sons, Oscar and Rupert, from his second and third marriages, to Rosalind Tong and Diane Millstead respectively. His eldest son Oscar is editor of the art magazine Apollo and a contributing editor at The Spectator. His fourth wife, Lizzie Spender, is the daughter of British poet Sir Stephen Spender.

In the 1960s, throughout his sojourn in London, Humphries became increasingly dependent on alcohol and by the last years of the decade his friends and family began to fear that his addiction might cost him his career or even his life. His status as ‘a dissolute, guilt-ridden, self-pitying boozer’ was undoubtedly one of the main reasons for the failure of his first marriage and was a contributing factor to the collapse of the second.

Humphries’ alcoholism reached a crisis point during a visit home to Australia in the early 1970s. 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 from alcohol completely and still regularly attends AA meetings. He was one of the many friends who tried vainly to help Peter Cook, who himself eventually died from alcohol-related illnesses.

Humphries was good friends with the English poet John Betjeman until Betjeman’s death in 1984. Their friendship began in 1960 after Betjeman, while visiting Australia, heard some of Humphries’ early recordings and wrote very favourably of them in an Australian newspaper. Their friendship was, in part, based around numerous mutual interests, including Victorian architecture, Cornwall and the music hall.

Other notable friends of Humphries include the Australian painter Arthur Boyd, the author and former politician Jeffrey Archer, whom Humphries visited during Archer’s stay in prison, and the Irish comedian Spike Milligan.

Humphries has spent much of his life immersed in music, literature and the arts. A self-proclaimed ‘bibliomaniac’, his house in West Hampstead, London supposedly contains some 25,000 books, many of them first editions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the more arcane and rare items in this collection include the telephone book of Oscar Wilde Memoirs of a Public Baby by Philip O’Connor, an autographed copy of Humdrum by Harold Acton, the complete works of Wilfred Childe and several volumes of the pre-war surrealist poetry of Herbert Read.

He is a prominent art collector who has, as a result of his three divorces, bought many of his favourite paintings four times. He at one time had the largest private collection of the paintings of Charles Conder in the world and he is a notorious fan of the Flemish symbolist painter Jan Frans De Boever, relishing his role as ‘President for Life’ of the De Boever Society. He himself is regarded as one of Australia’s best landscape artists and his pictures are in private and public collections both in his homeland and abroad. Humphries has also been the subject of numerous portraits by artist friends, including Clifton Pugh (1958, National Portrait Gallery) and John Brack (in the character of Edna Everage, 1969, Art Gallery of New South Wales).

He is a lover of avant-garde music and a patron of, amongst others, the French composer Jean-Michel Damase and the Melba Foundation in Australia. In terms of his personal politics, cultural historian Tony Moore, author of “The Barry McKenzie Movies”, writes of Humphries as: “A conservative contrarian while many in his generation were moving left, Humphries nevertheless retained a bohemian delight in transgression that makes him a radical”.