Barry Humphries: Entertainer’s life celebrated at Sydney Opera House state memorial

people arrive
Image caption,People – some in costume – arriving for the event

By Tiffanie Turnbull and Phil Mercer

BBC News, Sydney

Hundreds of people have gathered to celebrate the life of Barry Humphries – the man behind Dame Edna Everage – at a Sydney Opera House state memorial.

The 89-year-old died in April of complications from hip surgery.

Over seven decades, the Australian entertainer built a global reputation as one of the greatest raconteurs and comedians of his age.

Among those who sent tributes were King Charles, Sir Elton John and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

In a message read out at the extravagant service, the King said “no-one was safe” from the wit of Humphries, who elicited both “fear and fun” in his subjects.

“Barry Humphries, through his creations, poked and prodded us, exposed pretensions, punctured pomposity, surfaced insecurities, but most of all, made us laugh at ourselves,” he wrote.

“Like so many, I have been deeply saddened by his passing. Life really won’t be the same without him.”

Mr Albanese called the performer a “comedy giant”, while Sir Elton remembered him as a great friend.

“Barry Humphries was one of the funniest people in the world… but he was also one of the kindest and most generous [people] to me,” Sir Elton said in a video message.

Watch: King Charles, Elton John pay tribute to Barry Humphries

Fans too turned out in droves, celebrating with laughs, tears and champagne. They spoke of how in Humphries and his creations, they caught glimpses of themselves.

One woman who had travelled in from out of town likened the performer to the late Queen. “He’s an icon… I’m so sad he’s gone,” she told the BBC, decked out in a pair of Edna’s signature glasses.

“He captured who were and took us to the world,” another man said.

Born in Melbourne in 1934, Humphries began inventing fictional characters from an early age.

He acted in the Australian theatre, but it was after moving to London in 1959 that he exploded onto the international art scene.

A gifted creative, he dabbled as a writer, painter, and scholar, but it was his comic caricatures – which played on Australian stereotypes – that brought him adoration.

There was the lecherous drunk Sir Les Patterson and the charmingly boring Sandy Stone, but no persona was as beloved as the shrill-toned and sequined Dame Edna Everage.

First debuted in 1955, she became more flamboyant as the years went on, and was famed for her lilac-rinsed hair, gaudy outfits and snappy catchphrase: “Hello possums!”

Humphries tested the limits of political correctness – he had revelled in being “outrageous”, according to his son Rupert.

“He loved to torment his audiences, but it was from a place of love,” he said.

His brand of humour was both an inspiration to and the envy of his peers, said comedians David Walliams and Jimmy Carr: “He was a genius,” the latter said.

The star’s other credits included voicing shark Bruce in the 2003 animated film Finding Nemo, and appearances in films such as Bedazzled, Spice World, The Hobbit and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.

He has been recognised as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) and Commander of the British Empire (CBE), but among his proudest achievements was his sobriety. After a near-death experience in 1970, he was treated for alcohol addiction at a hospital in Melbourne and swore off drinking.

However, Humphries’ life was not without controversy. His marriages often made headlines and, in his later years, he drew criticism for comments about transgender people, sexual harassment, and people of colour.

He is survived by his fourth wife Lizzie Spender, four children and 10 grandchildren. They say they’ve been moved by the outpouring of love.

“His was a brilliant and kaleidoscopic life… to see how much he meant to people has been a buffer against grief,” his eldest son Oscar said.

The service, which took place months after Humphries’ death at the request of his family, will culminate in the illumination of the Sydney Opera House sails in his honour on Friday night.

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