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Defining Dame Edna: The Trouble with Barry Humphries

“Barry Humphries played the character of Dame Edna Everage, but was never called a drag act because he’s a heterosexual male. But I’m called one because I’m a gay man. It’s homophobic and it’s wrong as there is nothing remotely sexual about what I do. I dress up as a woman for financial purposes, nothing else.” — Paul O’Grady aka Lily Savage

When acerbic Australian entertainer Barry Humphries died in April 2023 it was less than a month after another erstwhile financial…sorry, female impersonator, Paul O’Grady, strapped his stillies on for the last time. 

While it was certainly sad to see such a comedy stalwart exit this life, taking his merry band of sub-personalities such as Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson with him, lest we forget Humphries did enjoy a long and very full life — 22 years O’Grady’s senior, in fact, having been born in Melbourne 90 years ago, on 17 February 1934.

From Dada to Oliver!, and Sandy Stone to Patsy Stone’s ex in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, the roles Barry Humphries inhabited were an incorrigible part of popular culture for almost 70 years. Yet, in a funny way, the disconcerting thing is finding out the eccentric Aussie was ‘only’ 89 when he took his last breath in beautiful Sydney, one of my favourite cities in the world.

Because of the grandma and granddad element of his best-known characters — Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson, naturally — he always seemed older than he actually was. This means that when Eds first took British telly by storm, Barry Humphries was still a relatively ‘young’ man. 

Alright, let’s get this out of the way then. I’m slightly conflicted because a) I loved the character of Dame Edna from an early age. From memory, right back to a television commercial screened in Britain circa 1985, which depicted Edna sitting on an aeroplane, and ended, I think, with the catchphrase “Love it!”, though not enough for me to remember what the product being advertised was. Job half done then.

Being British, I was immediately drawn to the kitsch charisma of the grotesque granny from Moonee Ponds, and thirty years later I’d even find myself living five minutes from the very same Victorian state suburb popular with swarthy “wog” Mediterranean types. (With little coincidendence, Melbourne has often been called the third largest “Greek city” in the world, after Athens and Thessaloniki, where my maternal family hail from.)

Happily, there is even a short residential road in Moonee Ponds named Everage Street in Edna’s honour. Though I wonder if that would have happened without the international success spurred by the UK, because in many ways, the mid 1980s was when Britain, and to a lesser extent the world, put Australia on the map.

Think Mel Gibson, Neighbours and Crocodile Dundee. Because before that televisual triumvirate, in screen terms us Brits knew little of life Down Under other than the occasional Skippy, Rolf Harris (oo-er) and slightly stereotypical music videos from Men At Work and, to a more valiant extent, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. 

So it seemed like a foregone conclusion that, in a year when even stadium draws like Madonna seemed to be paying tribute to the queen of kitsch, UK TV in 1987 would be the natural home for The Dame Edna Experience. The series took a cross-dressing cult and beamed it gaudily into homes up and down the land in a prime-time Saturday evening slot on the nation’s main commercial broadcaster, ITV. 

Everyone’s favourite parody of a pantomime dame being given her own chat show in the grey isle that basically invented panto in the first place? Of course, it was essential viewing — so much so that when the still-living-with-the-‘rents young me returned home from an evening out I was mortified to find out from my mother that Dusty Springfield had been one of the star turns and that — argh! — I’d forgotten to set the video recorder. What a primitive pre-YouTube existence in strange archaic little world we lived in.

Rather like Mrs Slocombe on steroids, the premise of the shrill-voiced “housewife megastar” was fantastically funny. And with Humphries’ gifts of quick-wit and razor-sharp timing, using the mask of an egocentric but harmless old biddy to say genuinely outrageous and provocative things on a prime slice of weekend telly was kinda groundbreaking. 

I still howl at Edna dry-heaving at Grace Jones talking about her nipples, or at sour-faced “bridesmaid” Madge finding a pair of crusty tights behind a radiator on Neighbourhood Watch. A certain junior O’Grady from Merseyside was definitely watching and learning.

Much like gatecrashing an episode of Lily Savage’s Blankety Blank at BBC Television Centre on an inexplicable evening in the late nineties, in 2007 I found myself at London Southbank attending an episode of The Dame Edna Treatment. After a sabbatical, this was essentially ITV’s rebranding of the Saturday night chat show but vaguely set in Edna’s health-spa, where her celebrity guests have come for a “treatment”. Either way, be it a hyaluronic or a colonic it’s not to be sniffed at.

Some of the big cheeses getting in on the act included Shirley Bassey, Debbie Harry and k.d. lang, though the show Emma, Glenn and I caught boasted no one from my record collection, though it did feature Sophie Ellis-Bextor (thin), Shane Warne (fat) and Mr M*A*S*H himself, Alan Alda, who entered in the spirit of the occasion far less self-consciously than the other couch potatoes and genuinely had a “ripper” of a time. Classic quip, to “scallywag” cricketeer Shane, now also recently deceased: 

“Lots of sports stars let themselves go when they retire. Not you, because you were never in great shape to begin with.”

Talking of rolling out the barrels, the other guest I guess I’m duty bound to mention was, in Edna’s spot-on assessment, “a man that refuses to learn from his mistakes”. Remember, this was a decade and a half ago. The story of his life, of course, but the last one on was Boris Johnson — the hideous heifer who had by 2007 got into a spot of bother for lambasting the city of Portsmouth for its collective “obesity”, among other things. This Conservative cretin was then a humble yet not-in-any-way humble backbench MP, the first rung on the political pole he was sliming his way up. 

With increasing incredulity, the horrid member for Henley used his latest vanity appearance to bore on about some typically hair-brained scheme where he advocated relieving overcrowding in southern England by allowing Brits “more freely to travel and inhabit their former territories in Northern France.” Gosh, coming from the same bloody buggery Brexiteer who chose to deny freedom of movement to French residents such as myself that’s almost amusing. 

Second rung? Mayor of London the following year.

Third rung? “And this is the future Prime Minister talking,” exclaims Edna.

The spooky thing is, Humphries inadvertently predicted the rise of BoJo’s opposite number Donald Trump too. In a 1988 appearance on Terry Wogan’s sofa, Dame Edna announced she was a “little bit psychic” and proclaimed that Ivana Trump was “First Lady material” as the orange ogre sat between them, lapping up with narcissistic glee any suggestion that, by inference, he was presidential material.

Politics eh? 

Let’s get this out of the way first. A biographer described Barry Humphries as a “conservative contrarian”, and that’s pretty accurate so far. 

Even if there is something deeply disturbing about the fact he was chums with Rupert Murdoch and the convicted criminal Jeffrey Archer, being Tory is no reason to “cancel” someone. If it were I would have to wave adieu to many friends, family and colleagues over the decades. No, the thing that was a tad surprising — disappointing even — was that in real life Humphries was an arch conservative/Republican/Liberal (in the Aussie sense, ie right-wing) and yet he’d made his name by dressing up as a woman. Yes, people have been dragging up since Shakespeare, but the grim truth is that the creator of Dame Edna also made some ill-advised remarks in later life that could be construed as transphobic and/or racist.

Whether he was hiding behind yet another mask, it seemed such a far cry from the young anarchic Barry Humphries, because as a foppish effete artist in the post-war period he was a genuine radical. A risk-taker, an experimenter, well-versed in Dadaist and Situationist pranks. Humphries was friends with Spike Milligan. 

I like to think of Humphries as the Aussie Milligan, with all the good and the bad that entails. A true comedy genius with a sharp and sparkling mind, but not the nicest of fellas in real life. This is a massive cliché I know, but anyone who feels the need to make a career out of making other people laugh is surely slightly psychologically suspect.

There is more though, and I’ve saved the most controversial to last, and I don‘t mean Wogan‘s wig.

The curious thing is, in preparation for writing this, I checked some dates and realised the very last live show I attended before I emigrated from Britain to Australia was, appropriately enough, the Barry Humphries’ Farewell Tour: Eat, Pray, Laugh!, which had opened down the road from my parents at the Milton Keynes Theatre but entertained my posse of four — and the rest of the capacity crowd, I’m sure — a few weeks later at the London Palladium on December 3, 2013. 

Not that the old boy was going quietly. His Sinatra-like “farewell” (it lasted for six years, making a brief return in 2019) was a raucous, lewd, politically incorrect affair that confirmed just what a rare bird Humphries was: a brilliant comedic character actor armed with endless off-the-cuff quips, and a social satirist with a gift for outrage, most effectively as the vulgarian Edna, obviously. 

Humphries himself may have been 79, but inside the Everage ballgown he was as sharp and acidic as ever. “You’ve aged,” his glitzy alter-ego told the assembled “plebs”. “But I’ve stayed the same.” How true.

In the words of Caroline Overington from the Sydney Morning Herald, here was “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).”

It’s the latter that offended the militant feminist in my party, during the second half when the legendary Dame and her outsized specs achieved a moment of “tantric intimacy” between two slightly reluctant strangers pulled up on stage. And when the old dear got bored with sharing the spotlight she started “interacting” with audience members still in their seats. You know the drill — mock their hairstyle, their clothes and where they probably live too. 

I was enjoying a jolly good belly laugh when my ginger guest turned to me and barked, “Notice how the people she picks on are all female?”

Actually, that wasn’t totally true. All but one were female.

“What’s your point?,” I whispered, conspiratorially.

“Well, it’s all looking a bit tired, this routine. He’s a massive misogynist in real life. And there’s more too, but I don’t want to spoil the show. I’ll tell you after.”

These were characteristic Edna-isms, though, and ever the more spooky when it sounded like she had a secret microphone wired to our whispers: “I don’t pick on people, I empower them,” the gladioli granny announced, and then dropped an aside that her son Kenny “lectures in flower arrangements… he’s a man’s man”. 

Naturally, I couldn’t let it lie.

“You’ve started, so you may as well get it out,” I told the ginger whinger in hushed tones.

“I’ve been reading up on him online. If you know where to look, there are several stories that his daughter was subjected to sexual abuse when she was growing up.” 

I have absolutely no idea if stories of latent paedophilia are indeed true, but after Humphries’ passing was announced I did a spot of sleuthing myself and did discover an explosive article. However, it’s not his own offspring making the allegations — I’m led to believe the story I was told is not about his eldest Tessa (who started her own acting career playing Pat The Rat’s long-lost daughter Mary in Sons And Daughters) but Emily, Barry’s second-born from whom he was estranged for over 20 years.

Barry Humphries, pedophilia and Bell Street Preston was written by a person going under the pen name of Polly’s Pages aka Donna Williams, who claims in 1970s Melbourne Humphries was a family friend with a drink problem and a propensity for young girls. Very young girls such as herself, of which she details in quite excruciating detail. 

That tellybox episode I attended in 2007? There’s an uncomfortable moment at 19:30 where Sophie Ellis-Bextor is recalling her school days, and in particular, “attention from men a little older than me.” Quick as a flash, Edna is on the case:

“You’re a father’s nightmare and an uncle’s dream.”

Possibly a sly clue to his past proclivities? 

One of Humphries’ oldest friends, Professor Ian Donaldson, told the probing documentary The Man Inside Dame Edna (at the 32:00 mark) that 

“There was a period when he was drinking so heavily that… um, it looked as if he might not be able to get himself together as a human being let alone as an entertainer ever again.”

I could be reading into that statement too much. Whatever the truth, one thing that is undeniable is that, after everything, I still kinda love the character of Dame Edna. 

There’ll never be another like her. I mean him.

Good day pussums.

Steve Pafford

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