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The night Barry Humphries stormed Cambridge

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Barry Humphries, who died today (Saturday, April 22) appeared at Cambridge Arts Theatre last June and said he was planning another tour for this year. He was 89.

In last year’s show, called The Man behind the Mask he explained how his famous creation, Edna Everage came about.

In Australia, he said, they think Edna is making fun of the English. And of course, she was.

Where else would the inspiration come from for the Housewife and Superstar but the English women who migrated to Australia and set up committees?

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Barry Humphries February 17, 1934 – April 22, 2023. Last year he wowed a packed theatre in Cambridge and had planned a return visit to the city.

Barry Humphries February 17, 1934 – April 22, 2023. Last year he wowed a packed theatre in Cambridge and had planned a return visit to the city.

Barry grew up in a town called Kew. As he points out, so many towns and cities in Australia are named after English places. Going to England was known as going home.

“We didn’t learn Australian history at school,” he said. “We learned about England. I knew all the products of Huddersfield.”

Moonee Ponds, Melbourne

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Edna, his stage character from the real-life town of Moonee Ponds in Melbourne, was dreamt up in 1955. That was when the young actor created a sketch featuring Mrs Norm Everage, called Olympic Hostess.

She came to mind when he was on a bus touring in Twelfth Night.

As a youth, as he might say, he tried his best at straight acting performances – but he couldn’t stop audiences roaring at his Orlando.

Barry Humphries February 17, 1934 – April 22, 2023. Last year he wowed a packed theatre in Cambridge and had planned a return visit to the city.

Barry Humphries February 17, 1934 – April 22, 2023. Last year he wowed a packed theatre in Cambridge and had planned a return visit to the city.

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He thought they were laughing at his legs and tried to hide them behind stage furniture.

Someone wise told him that his legs were fine – it was the rest of him that was funny.

He was born for comedy. Two years later, he moved into revue.

It was on that Shakespeare tour, he told an absolutely adoring, packed audience at Cambridge Arts Theatre, that he noted that everywhere they stopped, the lady mayor of the town would give a thank you speech to the women on a committee who had put on a splendid tea.

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The speeches were irresistible.  “A special thank you to Muriel for her sausage fingers and her sponge pineapple rings, so beloved by the menfolk.”

Man Behind the Mask included film clips of Edna.

His inspired creation was loved by the world – she became a megastar and then a gigastar.

The movies were shown on a screen at the back of the stage with a gilded picture frame border. Edna was prescient.

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Long ago, she interviewed both Trump and Boris (calling the latter a man who “never learned from his mistakes”) and predicted them both for political roles.

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Edna was incisive. She was also so convincing as a woman that men (celebrities not known to be inclusive) happily kissed her.

Growing up in conventional middle class family

The show told us endearingly about Barry the man.

He and his sister grew up in a conventional, middle-class family. His father was a builder who built most of their street with houses inspired by eclectic architectural styles – Tudor to Art Deco.

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When visiting family, his mother would say resignedly: “We don’t know where Barry came from.” And urged people to not take any notice of him. “He just does that to call attention to himself.” A trait he chuckled that led to a global career.

Edna or Barry, they could both tell a story and have the audience gripped.

In the West End in the 1970s the warmth towards him from West End audiences, weeping with laughter was almost tangible.

At 88, last June it was the same.

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He had on stage a comfortable, leather armchair but he hardly sat on it. He was on his feet for his two-hour performance.

We got a turn too from the Australian cultural attaché, Les Patterson. “Culture – who says Australia has no culture – we’re up to our arse holes in culture.”

Four times married

Barry Humphries was married four times, first to Brenda Wright who he married aged 21 in 1955.

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They were divorced in 1957, then Rosalind Tong, who he married in 1959. They were divorced in 1970.

Then Diane Millstead, to whom he was married for 10 years from 1979 till their divorce in 1989.

And lastingly to the actress Elizabeth “Lizzie” Spender who he married in 1990.

He had four children, two daughters, Tessa, and Emily and two sons Oscar and Rupert from his second and third marriages. He and Lizzie Spender lived in Hampstead in a house which was his home for 40 years.

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Barry died after complications with hip surgery at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. He had suffered a fall in February.

Barry Humphries February 17, 1934 – April 22, 2023

 

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