Guest Column

Dame Edna’s Last Laugh

So did Barry Humphries actually say that he didn’t want to have his state memorial service in Melbourne because he was so appalled by the Dan Andrews Labor government? That was the story that crashed into the headlines and over the airwaves in early May last year, a fortnight after Barry passed away. I first heard it after the Herald Sun reported that Barry’s family—meaning, presumably, his widow Lizzie Spender and Barry’s four children from previous marriages—had “declined the Victorian government’s offer to host a state funeral”. The tabloid’s entertainment reporter had apparently told a Melbourne radio station that Mr Humphries’s family was “greatly distressed” because they had “said from the beginning they did not want the Victorian government involved”.

It was an intriguing and captivating story. Quoting the Herald Sun, I mentioned on my Outsiders show on Sky News the following Sunday that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the claim were true. I based that on the fact that Barry had never held back in his scathing comments about woke culture, about progressive Melbourne (“getting used to Federation Square is like getting used to leprosy”) and, more importantly, only a week before he died Barry was still railing against some of the ghastlier individuals responsible for “cancelling” him and his name from the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. 

The topic had come up when I took my Spectator boss Andrew Neil to visit Barry at St Vincent’s Hospital on the morning of April 7, Good Friday. Andrew and Barry had known each other for many years, their paths crossing as they tripped over cables in BBC television studios, Barry in his Edna stilettos, Andrew grumpily tearing strips off some hapless politician. We spent over an hour by Barry’s bedside and were treated to our own one-man show. Topics of our conversation—well, not so much conversation as biting sarcasm, hilarious sexual innuendo, outrageous banter, classic one-liners and so on—included in no particular order Rupert Murdoch, Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Brexit, Albanese and co, the past, present and future of the Spectator (“Do you know who came up with the nickname ‘The Speccie’? I did. Me and Graham Greene. It seems to have stuck”) as well as the comedy festival cancelling. (Barry Humphries, Peter Cook and John Pinder established the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 1987. In 2018, following perfectly normal comments Barry made about transgenderism, the festival removed all association with him, including ditching his name from its major award, The Barry.)

Barry was merciless, mocking the gender-fluid comedienne most connected with his cancelling: “You know, she’s about as funny as an orphanage on fire.” On another occasion, Barry had quipped that she “identifies as a comedian”.

A fortnight later, on a Saturday evening, just as I was walking out to dinner, I learned that Barry had died. We had been chatting on the phone only two days before and he had invited me to pop in on Monday to the hospital. The next day, after frantically changing the content, we devoted a large segment of the Outsiders to the life and times of Barry Humphries. I concluded my remarks by calling for Prime Minister Albanese to ensure a state funeral. This call was picked up by others, and, according to one of Barry’s friends, was almost certainly a key factor in the later decision to do so. Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that the extraordinary outpouring of grief from the public came as a surprise to many in the media, and presumably in politics, too. For those on the left side of politics, including many in the Labor government, Barry Humphries was a bit of an embarrassment; an anachronism from the nasty, unenlightened days before the creed of Woke took hold among the Yartz community. Indeed, it’s hard to know which of Humphries’s characters was more objectionable to the left: Sir Les, with his overt sexism, racism and giant appendage, or Dame Edna, with her unmistakeable Thatcherite overtones. 

Barry had, of course, committed the cardinal sin as far as the Left is concerned. Strongly identified with Whitlam-era Labor—it was Gough, after all, who in 1974, with Bruce Beresford’s blessing, bequeathed Edna her dame-hood in the final scenes of Barry McKenzie Holds His Own—Barry had moved with a somewhat Lathamesque lurch to the right in the intervening years. One of those with whom Barry had become firm friends, and with whom he would frequently discuss politics, was 2GB’s Alan Jones. One of those with whom Barry had apparently fallen out with over politics was the ABC’s Phillip Adams.

Within a week of Barry’s death, I had put together a half-hour television special as a tribute on Sky News, featuring interviews with some of Barry’s closest friends, admirers and family as well as classic clips from his television and stage shows. Unsurprisingly, with such material, it was a hit, and received favourable comments from around the world. That in turn led me to write The Many Lives of Barry Humphries, combining my own recollections of time spent with Barry, many wonderful interviews, and of course loads of Bazza-isms. In the book I also explore Barry’s politics, and suspect that like many older Australians, he was firmly of the belief that he hadn’t deserted his political affiliations, they had deserted him.

Writing the book was an absolute joy. I was able to chat to many of Barry’s closest friends in all walks of life—painting, music, book collecting, acting, writing and family—and hear first-hand so many stories of Barry’s extraordinary intellect and the depths of his affection and friendship. 

I contacted Lizzie Spender hoping that she might be prepared to be interviewed, as well as Oscar Humphries, whom I had met at one of several highly entertaining lunches and dinners with Barry in Bowral at the home of Tim and Janet Storrier. Alas, neither Lizzie nor Oscar was prepared to join me in my literary endeavour. And it appeared that the vexed question about the Victorian state funeral may have been at the heart of the matter. 

When I sent an email to Lizzie informing her that Barry’s last piece of creative “doggerel” had appeared in the Spectator Australia, I was somewhat taken aback to receive an angry email rebuking me for “report[ing] misinformation regarding Barry’s relationship with the state of his birth, Victoria”. She went on, “You are not in a position to report his ‘innermost thoughts’ which quite frankly, you made up or entirely misinterpreted some joke.” And then this: “He had no axe to grind with the state of Victoria, and would have been hugely distressed by this being suggested.” 

I swiftly replied to Lizzie that the story had not originated from me and I had nothing to do with it, other than commenting on air about the story after it had already received national and international publicity thanks to the Daily Mail. Lizzie kindly responded soon after with an apology: “Sorry if it wasn’t you spreading the rumours! I apologise. Feel free to set the record straight! Yes, he was very upset about the Melbourne comedy festival, the betrayal—but apart from that regarded Melbourne as his hometown and loved it and the Mornington peninsula.” I promised I would set the record straight, which I did, pointing out (again on Sky) that Barry’s widow denied the Herald Sun story.

But the plot thickened. In August 2023 I was honoured to attend a celebration of Barry’s life in Camberwell, his home suburb. The event, attended by around a thousand people, was beautifully put together by the family of Barry’s sister, Barbara, and involved wonderful anecdotes, music, memories, laughter and film clips. Many Melbourne celebrities were there, including Geoffrey Rush, who gave a superb speech, and Steve Vizard, who had been Barry’s favourite Melbourne comedian, and who starred in the inaugural Melbourne Comedy Festival. I was able to include many of the speeches in my book, including the intriguing comment from Barbara, who said, “When I heard Barry’s funeral was to be in Sydney, it didn’t seem quite right.” As she pointed out, so many of her brother’s most beloved creations were clearly of and from Melbourne. Except, of course, the obnoxious and vulgar Sir Les. 

I also attended the Sydney memorial at the Opera House in December. Although both were very moving send-offs, if he had to choose between them, I suspect Barry would nominate the Melbourne event.

Or would he? Only a couple of weeks ago, visiting Melbourne, I stumbled across a scruffy back alley behind Little Collins Street, full of recycling bins, litter and little else. Dame Edna Place. So that’s how Victoria, so far, has celebrated its most famous son. Perhaps it was best that Sydney did it after all. 

Rowan Dean’s The Many Lives of Barry Humphries was recently published by Wilkinson Publishing.


3 thoughts on “Dame Edna’s Last Laugh

  • Brian Boru says:

    Maybe it’s because I’m a Melbourner but I love Melbourne town. At least I did when I lived there over 50 years ago. Edna with her references to the “little man” and Moonee Ponds used to take me back there.
    If I wasn’t such a polite person on this website, I could tell you all what Les Patterson would probably say about the Melbourne Comedy? Festival. Suffice to say the comment would include a refusal to urinate even if the Festival was on fire.
    Thank you Rowan for this article and we mourn.

  • David Isaac says:

    I always foget that Mr Humphries was not as, the pretensions of his alter egos, would have suggested, Sir Barry. CBE sounds like it must have been pretty close.

  • ianl says:

    With regard to which stage personality that Barry H created would most offend the left, from my experience in observing audience reactions in two live shows I attended with my wife in Sydney, I would hazard the Sandy Stone one.

    Sure, Les and Edna caused giggling amongst the middle class ladies in the audience, although those personalities are considered to be too low in couth for the middle class left really to approve of. Sandy Stone though, the hypocrisy in that personality was so accurately portrayed that the segments of audience who tittered at Les and Edna showed reactions of stone (pun intended). We were split between laughing at the Sandy persona and laughing at the discomfit of those audience segments.

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