(17 February 1934 – 22 April 2023)
On Saturday night (22/4/23) TVC went to see the very funny Jimmy Carr. Later on, we saw his tweet: “A bit bittersweet doing gigs in Australia this evening, Barry Humphries has passed and no one will ever be as good at crowd work again.”
Whilst something of a polymath, Humphries’ great legacy was established on the boards. His one-man, multi-character work in the theatre is unmatched.
Most famous is his Housewife Gigastar, Dame Edna Everage. Caroline Overington, in the Sydney Morning Herald, described Dame Edna as “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).” We remember her on a gigantic swing out above the crowd at Festival Theatre, Adelaide in 1975, throwing gladioli like spears. In the same show, At Least You Can Say You’ve Seen it, she made a point of ‘explaining’ references to a ‘new Australian’ in a forward row, and when SA Premier Don Dunstan and his then-wife Adele Koh, entered the theatre late (always a big risk) Edna commented “Here’s a treat possums – the Premier, along with a dusky little friend!” Remember folks, her hair is not blue – it’s Wisteria!
Humphries was always a high-risk act. From early avant garde to his glorious shows and TV appearances, he managed to both shock and encourage one to think. Sandy Stone’s gentle late night ruminations are an example of the second. Of course, the shock came from a salad of archetypes that included Sir Leslie Colin Patterson:
…as well as the acrid Lance Boyle, General Secretary of the A.C.U.N.T, telephoning from a Thai hotel room, demanding that management give him a Holden Statesman rather than “a bloody Belmont!” and Craig Steppenwolf, a noxious leftie high school teacher: “I’m here to tell you that from now on the Education Department’s new across-the-board grassroots de-educational strategy will be fully operational throughout the state. Do you read me?” And we well-remember Humphries as Margaret Whitlam, up on a trolley several metres high, extemporising to “Send in the Clowns.”
He was always a conservative contrarian, but also a wistful one. Having come close to death through alcoholism, he recognised his avidity in his auto-biography, More Please: “I always wanted more. I never had enough milk or money or socks or sex or holidays or first editions or solitude or gramophone records or free meals or real friends or guiltless pleasure or neckties or applause or unquestioning love or persimmons.”
Barry Humphries’ poem, The Price of Fame, runs thus:
“Better to love us from afar
Let distance tint your overview,
Up close you’ll see how crass we are;
How disappointingly like you.”