Although Barry Humphries, who has died at 89, liked to play the consummate Australian, both on-stage and off, he was also a much-loved honorary Englishman. He first came to London in 1959, at the age of 25, and found himself swiftly taken up by the then-booming satire industry, led by Peter Cook and headquartered at Cook’s Soho nightclub, The Establishment, where Humphries performed to great acclaim. He already had considerable success in comedy in Melbourne and Sydney – where he had also played Beckett’s tramp Estragon in one of the first international productions of Waiting for Godot in 1957 – but it was London where Humphries became both a comic legend and one of the best-known men-around-town in the Sixties and beyond.
Although he returned to Australia, which he has jokingly dubbed “the most boring country in the world”, for lengthy periods throughout his life, Britain has been both Humphries’ second home and, as time went on, the greatest source of his comedic inspiration.
While such indelible characters of his as Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and his self-confessed alter ego, the deliberately unexceptional Sandy Stone, delighted international audiences for decades, Humphries drew much of his humour from observing the vagaries of British life, and, of course, its people. It was his friends, acquaintances and, on occasion, nemeses who provided endless fuel for his genius, and, Zelig-like, he made the acquaintance of several figures who defined the 20th century – although, Humphries being Humphries, they were never allowed to get away with resting on their reputations.
1. Spike Milligan destroyed his inflatable sofa
The former Goon Spike Milligan – the man who referred to the then-Prince of Wales as a “little grovelling b------” on national television – was someone whose humour came with a side-order of unpredictability, even danger, courtesy of his bipolar disorder. Milligan and Humphries first worked together on stage in a 1968 production of Treasure Island, in which Milligan played Ben Gunn and Humphries played Long John Silver; the latter referred to working with one of his comedic heroes as “one of the strangest and most exhilarating experiences of my career”.
Milligan was a hilarious and hugely talented man, but his wit often had a destructive, malicious streak to it. On one occasion when Humphries was an emerging comedian living in West London, he spent a large amount of money on a then-modish white inflatable sofa. When Milligan called to visit the day after, he took one look at the item, lit a cigarette, and then with what Humphries called “a look of triumph on his face”, stubbed out the cigarette on the sofa, reducing it to a shrivelled, useless mess. Humphries subsequently quipped “from that day on, I knew that two comedians in a room was a dangerous thing.”
2. He knew to not to bother John Betjeman during Coronation Street
At a gala given in 2006 to celebrate the centenary of one of Britain’s best-loved poets Sir John Betjeman, in the presence of the-then Prince Charles, the presence of Humphries compering a bill that was stuffed with ‘proper’ actors – everyone from Bill Nighy to Joanna Lumley – might have seemed surprising and incongruous. Yet the advantage that Humphries had over many of the others present is that he had been a close friend of Betjeman’s during the poet’s lifetime. The two men had met in the late Fifties and had bonded over shared interests in everything from Victorian architecture to music-hall routines; Humphries was a frequent, grateful recipient of Betjeman’s largesse over dinner, delivered with the words: “Thanks to the telly, I'm as rich as Croesus!”
Although the Poet Laureate once said to the comedian that “To be popular is to always be distrusted”, both men made a notable public success of being liked and trusted by the British public, becoming much-beloved household names. The only time that Humphries would ever tread lightly around his friend was when Betjeman was watching Coronation Street in the evenings, a sacrosanct ritual which could not be interrupted. As Humphries later wrote: “‘It’s the modern Dickens,’ he would exclaim rapturously, which made a few of his highbrow friends feel he was pulling their legs. But he wasn’t.”
3. He accidentally hung up on Princess Margaret
In addition to his ongoing acquaintance with Prince Charles – a noted admirer of his Les Patterson character – Humphries’s friendship with Betjeman once led him into an unusual and near-compromising position.
While appearing in Treasure Island, Humphries was drinking after the show with Milligan and their co-star Willie Rushton in a nearby pub, when he was surprised to be handed a telephone by the barman with the words “Call for you, Barry. Says she’s Princess Margaret.” Humphries then heard a well-spoken voice say “Hello, it's Princess Margaret. I have Sir John Betjeman here. We want you to come over now and have some supper with us.” Assuming it was a hoax being played on him by Betjeman, Humphries laughed and put the phone down, but it was no joke: as he later recounted, “I could tell by a certain froideur when I was presented to [Margaret] in a line-up [that] it was clear she hadn't been best pleased.”
He had happier experiences performing for her older sister at various Royal Variety Performances – usually but not exclusively as Dame Edna – and Humphries’ award of a CBE in 2007 might be taken as proof that the Queen – unlike Victoria – was, indeed, amused by his antics.
4. He was too big for The Hobbit
Humphries was never a film star, nor did he wish to be. However, during the course of his career, he appeared in everything from comic cameos in the likes of the Spice Girls’ film Spice World and the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore Faust comedy Bedazzled to more serious acting roles in Gary Oldman’s Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved (in which he played the Austrian statesman von Metternich) and the Goblin King in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.
Humphries said of his appearance in the latter at a press conference, with typical self-effacement, that “it was thrilling to work on this film and when you see my extraordinary interpretation you realise why I immediately fell into the arms of [American weight-loss guru] Jenny Craig and minor cosmetic surgery.” He also had a typically irreverent attitude towards Jackson’s career-long obsession with special effects, saying of his CGI-assisted performance that “I always thought motion capture was something you did when you were taking a specimen at the doctor.”
5. He talked nonsense with Salvador Dali – and resisted his wife
Humphries’ son Oscar is a former editor of the art magazine Apollo and a noted curator, and he inherited his love of art from his father, who has both exhibited his own work and has known many of the greatest artists of the past century.
Whether he was being painted by David Hockney in 2015 – an experience that he described as “rather awe-inspiring”, especially because “he rarely spoke when painting… sometimes he gave a short grunt of satisfaction or looked up at his subject with a smile that told me it was going well” – or escaping the advances of Salvador Dali’s wife Gala (“a predatory creature who took a shine to me”) in New York in the Sixties, Humphries retained a charming air of bewilderment when it came to the eccentricities of the art world.
In the case of Dali, with whom he invented a nonsense language, loosely based on Australian Aboriginal, in which the two men earnestly conversed while they had, in Humphries’ dry recollection, “a few adventures”, there was an even stranger aspect to their friendship. “He didn’t have the smallest idea who I was”, Humphries recalled last year.
6. He was nothing like his Sir Les Patterson character... really
Humphries always delighted in mixing the highbrow and the lowbrow, often at the same time. A noted aficionado of the artistic movement Dadaism and a bibliophile with a library of over 30,000 books, he also created the determinedly imbecilic Les Patterson, who was – intentionally – one of the most repellent figures in comedy, an obese, flatulent and lecherous roué who initially horrified Humphries’s audiences, as they sincerely believed that he was an Australian cultural attaché (to say nothing of Minister for Inland Drainage and Rodent Control). As Humphries said, “I enjoy playing Les more than any other character because it releases my inner vulgarity. It liberates my repressed ribaldry.”
Yet his creator could not have been further from the boorish, buffoonish image that he portrayed on stage. Latterly married to the poet Stephen Spender’s daughter Lizzie, he moved in British and American artistic and literary circles with ease, alternately charming and(politely) scandalising the company that he kept. He wrote a poem for his close friend and compatriot Clive James, which he proudly recited (twice) in an interview: “Poor old Clive / Is still alive. / We know he is not dead / Because he keeps telling us / About all the books he’s read.”
7. He had an unusual friendship with Jeffrey Archer
Of all the many friends in Humphries’s well-stocked address book, one of the strangest on paper was Lord Archer: bestselling novelist, Conservative peer and convicted perjurer. Archer seems more like the kind of man who Humphries made his career out of mocking, rather than collaborating with. Yet the two were friends for nearly half a century, and Archer even bankrolled Humphries’ 1990s musical Edna – the Spectacle Returns.
Humphries later returned the favour by visiting the disgraced politician after his imprisonment and has continued to associate with him both personally and professionally, most recently appearing on Archer’s podcast Unputdownable in 2021. Humphries has spoken warmly of his irrepressible, unfathomable colleague, saying: “Jeffrey has been such a good friend. There's something rather engaging about him that's hard to describe. I always say that we all invent ourselves. It's just that Jeffrey goes to more trouble. He's a one-off.” Yet it was in his Dame Edna guise that Humphries most memorably roasted his friend and collaborator, saying “If you can’t laugh at yourself you might be missing the joke of the century.”
8. He was controversial to the end
Humphries first played his best-known alter ego Dame Edna Everage in Australia in the Fifties, and honed the character to perfection at The Establishment the following decade (although Bamber Gascoigne, then acting as a drama critic for The Spectator, disagreed, and called his act “soporific”, which Dame Edna subsequently cited as “syphilitic”.)
Perhaps Dame Edna’s strangest appearance came in the 1972 comedy The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, which Humphries co-wrote, about the bawdy exploits of a young Australian man in England: ‘Aunt Edna’, as the character was called, was played almost naturalistically, in stark contrast to her usual high-camp persona (“Hello, possums!”) and the absurdity of the rest of the film. Although Humphries pioneered a comic cross-dressing act decades before RuPaul’s Drag Race and its ilk – albeit one that owed a good deal to Arthur Lucan’s music-hall character Old Mother Riley – he flirted with outrage throughout his career before finally going for broke in 2016 by calling gender realignment surgery “self-mutilation” and Caitlyn Jenner “a publicity-seeking ratbag”.
He claimed that he had been speaking in character, not as himself, but the resulting hoo-ha saw an award named after him at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival – ‘the Barry’ – have its name changed to the altogether less catchy Melbourne International Comedy Festival Award. Humphries remained unrepentant until the end of his life, saying in 2018 “how many different kinds of lavatory can you have?” and calling transgenderism “a fashion”.