Sunday, December 17, 2023

May our gladioli bloom in celebration’: Barry Humphries farewelled


May our gladioli bloom in celebration’: Barry Humphries farewelled

King Charles, Rupert Murdoch, Elton John and Andrew Lloyd-Webber led tributes at a state memorial at Sydney’s Opera House for the man who ‘invented a language’ for Australia and took it to the world.

Samantha HutchinsonNational reporter

It began with a pink carpet. For the state funeral and celebration of the life of Australian satirist Barry Humphries, the striking fuchsia pile carpeting the stairs leading into the Sydney Opera House was the perfect overture to the event honouring the drama, pageantry and frivolity of the country’s greatest theatrical exports.

Just eight months after the father of four died at the age of 89 in Sydney from complications from hip surgery, more than 2000 turned out on Friday to honour the showman who introduced Australian comedy to the world.

Oscar winner Jackie Weaver and director Bruce Beresford led a roll call of Australia’s performing arts, political and film royalty, gliding up the fuchsia stairs ahead of the event that drew tributes from international arts and media luminaries including Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
British-born performer Leo Sayer was among early arrivals at the memorial for his friend of 50 years, whom he met in the 1960s in London at the British satirical and current affairs mag, Private Eye. Sayer was a graphic designer, while Humphries was producing his now iconic Barry McKenzie comic strip.
“He invented a language,” Sayer said. “The language of the dockers and the guys off the Sydney Harbour Bridge and turned it into a whole lingo, and introduced it to the world.”
Born in Melbourne in 1934 and educated at Melbourne Grammar School, Humphries achieved national and international fame delighting audiences with a menagerie of Australian characters, most famously the Moonee Ponds housewife-turned-global megastar Dame Edna Everage.
In the foyer dotted with opulent displays of hydrangeas and gardenias – and yes, pink gladioli – it was the expatriate reunion that dominated early proceedings, as a slew of Australia’s most feted exports honoured the performer who captured a generation of British and Australian audiences.
“Geoffrey, I’m so glad you’re here!” an ebullient “Little Nell” Campbell chimed to human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson. Author and long-time expat Kathy Lette followed soon after, stopping to chat to former husband Robertson and the Rocky Horror Show actress.
There were more tributes from the old world to come.
Inside a packed auditorium, Arts Minister Tony Burke, representing Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, opened with a tribute from King Charles III, who reflected on the indelible mark Humphries’ legendary characters Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson had made on the British psyche.
“May our gladioli bloom in celebration,” the King said.
Albanese, in a pre-recorded message, followed in passionate tribute to Everage and Patterson, who “ultimately answered to a higher power: Barry”.
“He had a … power he exercised with a glee that knew no bounds. He brought such joy to everyone, and like a never-ending bunch of gladioli, he showered it on the world.”
The real firepower came as giants of the international performing and visual arts, film, television and media each gave their own heartfelt tribute to the man remembered on the day as a genius, polymath, gourmand, committed teetotaller, ardent family man and deeply dedicated friend.
Author Kathy Lette was a friend of Barry Humphries for 45 years. Getty
Bruce Beresford led the reflections, describing a friendship forged in Britain in the 1960s that lasted more than 50 years, followed by Little Britain creator David Walliams; Elton John (“he was a raconteur of incredible importance and genius”); gallerist Philip Bacon; and Welsh actor Rob Bryden, who reflected on Humphries’ legendary skills as improv performer.
“Asking someone to improvise a comedy show is like asking a magician to perform real magic, and Barry Humphries was pure magic,” Bryden said. “He leaves the world a happier place, he was a genius.”
Chef Rick Stein, also appeared via video link to honour Humphries – an avowed gourmand – followed by legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh.
Rupert Murdoch spoke via videolink. Dominic Lorrimer
News Corporation’s newly retired chairman Rupert Murdoch declared Humphries a “role model … sometimes in ways you never intended” and a part of so many lives in Australia and around the world.
“You’re an intellect and you’re still a beacon,” he said.
“Sir Les Patterson is a living lesson for every Australian abroad on how not to behave. Dame Edna put Moonee Ponds on the map and the glad in Gladioli.
“Your friendship still resides deeply in my heart.”
The most touching moments of the day came from Humphries’ children. For the father of four and multi-faceted performer whose oeuvre spanned the full breadth of the performing arts to literature and poetry, daughter Tessa honoured her father’s abilities as a poet and passionate collector of the art form, reading Humphries’ Wattle Park Blues.
Sons Oscar and Rupert reflected on their father (“we used to joke he was glued to the business class seat of a jumbo jet”) and their experience growing up in the wings and backstage performance spaces of one of the world’s most feted performers.
Bianca and Allegra Spender arriving at the Opera House for the memorial. Janie Barrett
They drew laughs recalling how, as young boys, they would stare wide-eyed as their father donned Dame Edna’s sequinned frocks or a “totally disturbing fat suit” with a “monstrous appendage” that was vital to his metamorphosis into Sir Les Patterson.
“It was a brilliant and kaleidoscopic life,” Oscar said.
Oscar, a curator and publisher, also acknowledged the step change his father made in the early 1970s when he sought help for alcoholism and embraced sobriety, to which he remained committed for the rest of his life.
“It was a life of two acts: the chaos of addiction and then from the 1970s onwards, sobriety. He was immensely proud of it ... he wanted to be an example to others to get and to stay sober.”
Oscar Humphries (left) and his brother Rupert. Dominic Lorrimer
Humphries’ triumph over alcoholism and the Herculean effort of shunning drinks for the rest of his life with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous was a recurrent theme throughout the service, as guests reflected on how the performer helped them and others address addiction.
“I’d had five sambucas before dinner, and he took me aside and said that I had a drinking problem,” former barrister Charles Waterstreet told AFR Weekend. “One thing led to another, and he led me down sobriety’s way, and he must have done tens of thousands of times.”
Another prominent guest said: “We were going through a program together and he was very, very supportive.”