Barry Humphries AO CBE b1934

Barry Humphries

Barry Humphries

Born in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell in 1934.

He presented his first one-man show, A Nice Night’s Entertainment, in 1962.

Humphries has appeared in numerous British and Australian films, and has created many TV series.

Humphries’ ‘Services to Theatre’ were recognised with when he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1982.

The last of the vaudevillians

‘Barry Humphries is the most important entertainer-artist Australia as produced, rivalled only by those formidable Dames, Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland,’ wrote Keith Dunstan. ‘Barry stands out because he has talent in all directions. He is a one-man show. He does everything. He treads a path which almost no-one has taken before. He has studied suburbia as if under a microscope, identifying all sorts of mores which originally belonged to Melbourne, but are truly universal. He has a versatility which is amazing. He really is the perfect music-hall entertainer, a type which is virtually extinct. He is the last of the vaudevillians.’

Born in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell in 1934, John Barry Humphries grew up in a ‘clean, tasteful and modern home’. He matriculated from Melbourne Grammar School with brilliant results in English and Art.

His two years at the University of Melbourne, where he studied law, philosophy and fine arts, were notable for his forays into Dadaist art, his provocative public pranks, and for the songs and sketches he wrote and performed in university revues.

Humphries joined the fledgling Union Theatre Repertory Company, and it was during a UTRC country tour that he created what has become his best-known character, the gloriously garrulous Moonee Ponds housewife, Edna Everage. Edna made her public debut in the UTRC revue Return Fare on 13 December 1955.

In 1957, after a spell in Sydney in the warmly-remembered Phillip Street revues, Humphries appeared in the first Australian production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and in The Bunyip and the Satellite, a children’s musical that he co-wrote. The following year he featured Edna in the revue Rock ’n’ Reel at the New Theatre in Melbourne.

In 1959 Humphries settled in London. He returned home to present his first one-man show, A Nice Night’s Entertainment, in 1962. Back in London he performed at Peter Cook’s comedy venue The Establishment, appeared in the musicals Oliver! and Maggie May, and with Spike Milligan in The Bed-Sitting Room. He contributed the ‘Barry McKenzie’ cartoon strip to the satirical magazine Private Eye; the McKenzie character, played by Barry Crocker, was later seen in two enormously successful Australian films. Humphries’ own film debut came in 1967: he was ‘Envy’ in Bedazzled with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

Humphries has gone on to present a succession of hugely successful one-man shows in Britain, the United States and Australia. In these the ubiquitous Edna appears with a motley range of other Humphries characters, most notably and consistently the nostalgic, rambling ‘senior’, Sandy Stone, and the appallingly crude Sir Les Patterson, ‘Australian Cultural Attaché to the Court of St James’. The longevity of Humphries’ career – and the characters he created – is unique. For more than fifty years, neither he nor they showed signs of flagging: Edna’s adoring ‘possums’ still crowded theatres, still waved their ‘gladdies’ in joyous unison, and still eagerly submitted to her barbed but good humoured humiliation.

Humphries has appeared in numerous British and Australian films, and has created many TV series, mostly starring Edna, who through the years has progressed from the dowdy winner of a ‘Lovely mother’ contest, to ‘Housewife-Superstar’, then Dame, and now International Megastar.

In 2012 Humphries announced that he – and Edna – were ready to retire. A marathon farewell tour of Eat, Pray, Laugh! filled Australian theatres in 2012 and 2013 and, despite his ‘retirement’, Humphries continues to accept a variety of engagements in Australia, the UK and the US.

Humphries’ literary efforts stretch from the appropriately titled scrapbook Bizarre (1965) to two volumes of autobiography, More Please (1992) and My Life as Me (2002). His other titles include Barry Humphries’ Book of Innocent Austral Verse, A Treasury of Australian Kitsch, Les Patterson’s Australia, The Dame Edna Bedside Companion, Barry Humphries’ Flashbacks (the book version of one of his TV series), Handling Edna, and a novel, Women in the Background.

Humphries’ ‘Services to Theatre’ were recognised with when he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1982. Subsequent awards include the J.R. Ackerley prize for More Please (1993), a Special Tony Award for Dame Edna: The Royal Tour (2000) and an Honorary Doctorate of Law from the University of Melbourne (2003). In the 2007 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Barry Humphries was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Barry Humphries received Live Performance Australia’s James Cassius Williamson Award in 2008.

- Frank Van Straten, 2008, 2013.


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Biographical references

Keith Dunstan: Moonee Ponds to Broadway. Australia Post, 2006.
John Lahr: Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilisation. Bloomsbury, 1991.
Anne Pender: One Man Show – The Stages of Barry Humphries. ABC Books, 2010.
Paul Matthew St. Pierre: A Portrait of the Artist as an Australian. MQUP, Brisbane, 2004.