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Last laugh: The many unforgettable, irreplaceable lives of Barry Humphries

Rowan Dean’s book about the late great Barry Humphries is as edifying as it is entertaining

Mar 05, 2024, updated Mar 06, 2024
Barry Humphries and Ross Fitzgerald lunching in Sydney - a photo from The Many Lives of Barry Humphries by Rowan Dean.

Barry Humphries and Ross Fitzgerald lunching in Sydney - a photo from The Many Lives of Barry Humphries by Rowan Dean.

It’s still hard to believe that Barry Humphries has left the building (a euphemism for the planet) for good. Mind you, he had a pretty good innings. An incredible innings, actually.

Barry Humphries died on April 22 in 2023 in Sydney at the age of 89 and was saluted by the nation at a State Memorial at the Sydney Opera House on December 15.

Tributes poured in from all over the world upon his death and around the time of his memorial (at which his close friend, Brisbane art dealer Philip Bacon, spoke so eloquently) and afterwards there were programs about him and tributes in print, none more fitting than Rowan Dean’s hugely entertaining and edifying book The Many Lives of Barry Humphries, which is suitably subtitled: A treasury of reminiscences.

Treasury is a good word because this is a book to treasure and it is full of valuables – things we know and things we never knew about a creative genius who was loved the world over in many guises and in particular for his creation for the ages, Dame Edna Everage, the self-confessed housewife superstar.

Dean is an author and media commentator and political satirist, a contrarian on the show Outsiders on Sky News Australia. He is also, among other things, editor-in-chief of The Spectator Australia. Humphries was a long-time contributor to that conservative journal here and in the UK.

It’s no secret that Humphries was a conservative thinker and that makes him a bit of a poster boy for a fellow conservative such as Dean. There is a tendency for those in the arts to be more left-leaning, so in that sense you could say Humphries was refreshing for swimming against the tide in his own way.

But mostly he was a genius – an actor, comedian, raconteur, writer, poet, painter, songwriter, music lover and one of the most gifted artists of the last century. Humphries was an Australian global superstar.

In this affectionate tribute, Dean – one of the last people to spend time alone with his friend – reminisces the many lives of Barry Humphries with a plethora of Humphries’ closest colleagues and associates who talk about their unique and untold personal relationships with the extraordinary creator of Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson.

There are poignant interviews with family members, too, including Barbara Johnson, Humphries’ little sister, who recalls growing up with Barry “as her very own entertainer, her friend, protector and hero”.

Dean interviewed her at Camberwell in Melbourne where she lives just a few streets from the house where she and Humphries grew up. It’s fascinating to get an insight into his childhood, when he was already developing a love of cabaret and music.

Dean describes Humphries as “the greatest creative talent to ever emerge from the antipodes”. I’m not sure anyone could mount a successful argument against that statement.

Those of us who came into contact with Humphries, as I was lucky enough to do on many occasions, knew him as a very smart, funny man but also as a kind, courteous human being who listened carefully. He had a prodigious memory for people he met and liked.

Some of the people Dean interviewed for the book include Bruce Beresford, who famously directed the film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie; the artist Tim Storrier who was a close friend and the creator of the most wonderful portrait of Humphries’ character Sir Les Patterson; author Kathy Lette who was a London neighbour; journalist and commentator Piers Ackerman; TV personality Ray Martin; comedian Steve Vizard and many others, all of whom paint a picture of a unique individual.

There’s a lovely chapter featuring historian Professor Ross Fitzgerald, a close friend. He and Humphries got sober together and Fitzgerald has the wonderful memory of playing a small role in the film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.

“I was one of Bazza’s mates farewelling him at Sydney Airport on his first visit to England,” Fitzgerald recalls. In the end, it was a small role that was part of Australian entertainment history.

Fitzgerald was also at ground zero to witness the emergence of Sir Les. He accompanied Humphries to an RSL club in Sydney where Humphries was performing and recalls that Humphries disappeared for a few minutes.

“A little while later a nondescript bloke in a crumpled suit stumbled on stage and said, ‘Gidday, name’s Leslie Colin Patterson. Manager, Rooty Hill’.”

That was the prototype for the “dribbling dipsomaniacal Minister for the Yartz, with his huge appendage”.

There’s a lovely photo of Fitzgerald and Humphries lunching together in Sydney and they both have their napkins tucked into their shirt collars, which is funny. The book is full of wonderful photos (including a lovely one of Humphries and wife Lizzie Spender looking happy and relaxed on holiday) and artworks and other reminiscences.

The interviews are mixed with smatterings of Humphries’ history and part of the finale is a poem Humphries wrote for The Spectator Australia which, according to Dean, is “the last piece of creative writing from Australia’s greatest-ever comedic talent”. As usual it is clever and hilarious.

The last words of the book sum up how a lot of us feel.

“Throughout his life, Barry Humphries created some of the most exhilarating, confounding, hilarious and outrageous characters,” Dean writes. “From the sublime Edna to the surreal Sandy Stone to the grotesque Sir Les, and all those other hits and misses in between.

“But perhaps Barry Humphries’ final and most endearing creation was, simply, Barry Humphries. And he left the stage way too soon.”

The Many Lives of Barry Humphries by Rowan Dean, Wilkinson Publishing, $34.99

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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