Goodbye Possums: Humphries farewell’ to Dame Edna

Barry Humphries. Pic: Ian Rutherford
Barry Humphries. Pic: Ian Rutherford
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EDNA May Beazley was born in Wagga Wagga, Australia, and made her showbiz debut as Mrs Norm Everage on 19 December 1955. An ‘average Australian housewife’ from the Melbourne suburb of Moonee Ponds, it wasn’t long before she became a superstar.

In the 1974 movie Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, Edna received a Damehood and by the 1980s she was a megastar, thanks in no small part to prime-time TV shows like The Dame Edna Experience and The Dame Edna Treatment.

Today, Dame Edna Everage is the world’s first gigastar, known the world-over for her signature greeting “Hello Possums...”, which is set to reverberate around the Festival Theatre next week, no doubt accompanied by the throwing of gladioli, one last time.

Oh, and in case you weren’t sure, she’s not real. In Eat, Pray, Laugh! Edna’s alter-ego and creator, Barry Humphries, returns to the Capital to say goodbye.

Chatting in the George Hotel, ahead of his farewell tour, the comedian and actor is gregarious, a mischievous twinkle never far from his eyes. However, the youthful 79-year-old, himself a CBE, goes into reflective mood as he recounts the origins of a character he has now played for 58 years.

“In 1955, we were very excited because the Olympic Games were coming to put Melbourne on the map the following year,” he says.

“But all the authorities were worried about was that Melbourne might look old-fashioned. So they started pulling down the old buildings. When the Olympic visitors began to arrive they realised that, in their hurry, they had pulled down all the hotels too.

“So urgent appeals for housewives to offer accommodation to athletes and visitors went out. Housewives were queueing up saying, ‘I have a lovely spare room.’ So I wrote a character for a revue - Edna, a housewife offering her lovely home. All she did was describe it in exact detail.”

Perhaps the most important part of the story is that initially, there was no prospect of Humphries himself playing the role.

“I wrote it for an actress, but the director said, ‘You play it. She’s busy in Act 2.’ So I went to a thrift shop, bought an oversize frock, a twin-set, plastic pearls and a silly hat. She was really more like a pantomime dame, but the audience wanted to believe in this woman - Edna was born.

“I put her in a box after that, but a year later I opened the box and Edna had changed in a subtle way. She’d become a little better dressed. Her voice had was a bit more flutey, her interests were a little more wide-ranging, her prejudices a little deeper. And so it has gone, until 2013, when Edna knows everyone; the Obamas consult her and she has created a special stretch-mark cream for Kate Middleton. She is a friend of all these people, but underneath, still the same Melbourne housewife... except she wears dresses far more expensive than anyone in the audience could ever afford.”

Eat, Pray, Laugh!, which opens on Tuesday and runs until Saturday, also features another two of Humphries’ most famous creations, the lecherous Sir Les Patterson, and the ghostly Sandy.

“Les is now a celebrity chef,” reveals Humphries. “He opens the show with some beautiful girls; it’s a good curtain raiser. He’s followed by a surprise character - all I will say is it’s his brother, who is a very different person. After he has appeared, there’s a seance and in a puff of smoke, Sandy appears.”

Not as well known to British audiences, Sandy first appeared in the 1950s. Humphries’ favourite character, the performer has a secret to share.

“I wanted to write a sketch about an old man who was really a bore. I wanted to see how much an audience could tolerate. His name was Alexander ‘Sandy’ Stone and he’s been in every show I’ve done in Australia, but not in the UK. I actually killed him off 20 years ago, but people demanded he reappear, so now he comes back as a ghost.

“Sandy is my favourite character for two reasons; I do him sitting down, and I’m clutching a hot water bottle.”

He laughs, the twinkle back in his eyes, as he asks, “Do you know why having a hot water bottle is a great advantage? Because you can write the words on it. So, every now and then Sandy looks down at the hot water bottle, which is where I have the cues written. That’s a trade secret and an exclusive,” he laughs.

Like Dame Edna, Sir Les Patterson has his origins in a short sketch. In this case, Humphries created him to introduce Edna as he moved from theatre to club circuit.

“In the early 1970s, my manager Clive Packer said, ‘You’ve been performing in theatres to the middle classes but the big shows, the places where Sammy Davis, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland go, are not the theatres but the clubs, and the big one is in South Sydney.’

“Now to give you an idea, South Sydney is not a middle class area, it’s a working class area, and these clubs are frightening,” the star explains.

“They are very big and they pay very well because they make a lot of money on gambling machines. So he negotiated a fee for me to do a show there.

“I was very nervous about it. I thought I might be booed off the stage, particularly when I appeared as Edna. They had never met her, only their grander relations in the eastern suburbs had met Edna, and there was no such thing as the suspension of disbelief in these clubs at the time.

“I thought, I’ll get the club secretary to introduce Edna, but it didn’t feel right. So I invented a club secretary to come and apologise that the real artist couldn’t make it... ‘Olivia Newton John has missed her plane...’ and that a housewife from Melbourne has agreed to step in to save the evening.

“I had some padding I used for another character, a powder blue suit that I had used when I did a used car salesman character and stacked shoes. Later, false teeth I had for yet another character were also added. With a bit of alcohol in my voice I allowed Les Patterson to make the announcement...

“It was a very successful gig, as was Les Patterson.”

Each of his characters allows Humphries to express different aspects of himself, he admits.

“With Edna, it’s my impatience with suburban Melbourne’s snobbish view of life.

“Les, represents my genteel, middle-class background, where a little bit of prosperity allows people to give themselves airs. Vulgarity was the last thing Australians wanted to admit, so Les expressed my latent grossness, my latent Australian-ness. He was liberating for me.”

So will he miss that liberation when his farewell tour comes to an end? Fear not, the chances are that we have not yet seen the last of Humphries’ legendary creations.

“I will do occasional appearance, but not touring,” he says. “No big shows, so in a sense I will miss it, but I do lots of other things. I paint and I’m writing a novel. I do a lot of things.”

You have been warned, catch this Dame while you still can.

Barry Humphries’ Farewell Tour: Eat, Pray, Laugh!, Festival theatre, Nicolson Street, Tuesday-Saturday, 7.30pm, (matinees 2.30pm), £15-£75, 0131-529 6000