Emily Perry, R.I.P.

This past week has been crazy for me – some of it amazingly good, some of it heart-breakingly bad. One bit of news I was unaware of was the passing of Emily Perry, better known as Dame Edna Everidge’s foil, the long-suffering Madge. Barry Humphries, Dame Edna’s alter-ego, wrote a beautiful piece for the The Sunday Times about his long relationship with the aged performer.

Possums, the Madge I knew was a darling with an eye for young men
Emily Perry, the silent foil to Dame Edna Everage, died last week at 101. Barry Humphries reveals her hidden other life

She never even cracked so much as a smile, no matter how hard I tried to make her laugh. “Don’t you even feel a bit like laughing?” I once asked Emily Perry after she’d been playing Madge, loyal friend and former bridesmaid of my character Dame Edna Everage, for several years. “Oh no, dear,” she replied. “I always think of something else.”

When I first met Emily, who died last week aged 101, I realised at once that she was a star. I had decided to create the character Madge Allsop for a Dame Edna series. She would be like Ed McMahon from the Johnny Carson show on America’s NBC channel – the figure at the end of the couch. The trouble was: I didn’t quite know what sort of figure I was looking for.

The first actress who played her was good but camp. Then I saw Emily. She had no idea who I was and had never heard of Dame Edna. But I spotted straight away that she could be very good at doing nothing. Not many people can manage that.

Emily was already 75. In a sense, her career was over. She’d had a little ballet school in Crystal Palace, south London, and had done a lot of theatre in the 1930s and during the war. It seemed she’d always been the bridesmaid, never the blushing bride. But she was perfect as Madge: she never once answered back, or said anything, and she made Dame Edna seem a lot more unpleasant. Come to think of it, there was one occasion when I did make Madge say something. It brought the house down. I only wish I could remember what it was.

The last thing she ever did with me was a couple of years ago, when Edna burst in and found Madge sharing a bed with the rock star Ozzy Osbourne. Emily had no idea who Ozzy was.

She retained a kind of innocence and the audience was always on Madge’s side. In fact, she became hugely popular. Even I, a hard-bitten old comic, got a bit tired of people asking: “How’s Madge?”

Perhaps Madge’s finest hour was the time I got Vivienne Westwood to design her a dress. Usually Emily appeared in the same moth-coloured clothing, looking very pale and drab. But when she came down the staircase in Vivienne’s dress, the audience rose to their feet.

Emily was well read, amusing and good company. We spent a lot of time together, travelling round the world, and I was devoted to her. She had interesting reminiscences about prewar comedies and entertaining troops with ENSA, the wartime entertainment service. She also had an eye for young, sun-tanned men.

When we flew to Los Angeles I was worried about how she would react to such an alien landscape. Then I spotted her by the pool in a pink bathing-suit, holding a glass full of cocktail umbrellas and reading the autobiography of Errol Flynn.

In later years Emily ended up in a horrible nursing home in south London. I visited her once and found her sitting in a line with demented old ladies, watching the television with the sound turned off. I leant over to give her a kiss and she said: “I’m in hell, Barry, hell.”

Eventually I found a place for her at a home for retired theatrical people, where old chorus girls sat around with their hair and make-up done, while old chaps lounged about in houndstooth jackets and cravats. Emily was in the Frankie Vaughan suite. By then her memory was going. The last thing she said to me was: “Darling Barry, we had such wonderful times. If only I could remember them.”

Barry Humphries

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~ by seangstm on March 3, 2008.

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