Emily Perry: Dame Edna's foil Madge Allsop

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The Independent Online

At the age of 80, Emily Perry found fame as Madge Allsop, the sour-faced, roundly abused companion and one-time bridesmaid of the "housewife superstar" Dame Edna Everage, Barry Humphries' gladioli-waving alter ego. For almost 20 years she took the role of the silent foil, sitting at the side of the stage and never saying a word while Humphries drew laughs with an act that had begun in Melbourne revues and was first performed in Britain at Peter Cook's satirical Establishment club.

Perry was, in fact, the third Madge Allsop, following in the footsteps of the Australian actresses Madeleine Orr, who died in 1979, and Connie Hobbs, who played her in the film Les Patterson Saves the World (1987). But, through many television series and stage shows around the world, Perry's was the glum face remembered by most fans.

She first joined Humphries for his LWT chat-show The Dame Edna Experience! (1987-89), beckoned on to the stage by Edna, who implored her to use the "staff stairs", not the stars' staircase, and described Madge as her "constant travelling companion", adding:

Madge has been with me for many, many years. She was my bridesmaid. She caught my bouquet – on the back of the neck, unfortunately. And she's been hanging around my neck like an albatross for many, many years. Makes me feel like the ancient mariner. Come on, Allsop – this way, darling.

Perry erected a fold-up seat in the wings, parked her large handbag on the floor next to her and sat down, unsmiling, for the rest of the show, simply having gifts from guests thrown into her lap and pinning name-badges on their lapels ("The badge, Madge, the badge," Dame Edna would yell).

At the end of the programme, as Humphries, Sean Connery, Cliff Richard and Mary Whitehouse took a bow at the front of the stage, Perry dropped the deadpan expression and broke into a smile as she danced with Connery – previously described by Dame Edna as "Madge's pin-up".

In his second volume of memoirs, My Life as Me (2002), Humphries contrasted Perry's "talkative, informed and amusing" real-life persona with her performance as Madge, writing: "Miss Perry had the rare gift of being able to do nothing in the face of overwhelming provocation." Perry herself described the problems of keeping a straight face. "It is very, very difficult, because nearly everything is ad lib and you have no idea what's coming next," she explained.

What I try to do is completely black everything out of what's going on around me. I start thinking of visiting my grandparents when I was a child. I think of walking through the woods to their place and all the scenery on the way. I just try to concentrate on something else.

Born Patricia Emily Perry in Torquay, Devon, in 1907, she began her stage career aged four, at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham. She went on to act, sing and dance in music hall and pantomime, as well as touring in The Student Prince, The Desert Song (as Susan) and The Belle of New York (as Sister Kitty) and, during the Second World War, with the forces entertainment organisation Ensa.

Giving up show business to look after her mother, she opened the Patricia Perry Academy of Dancing, in a south London church hall, which she ran for 25 years. In 1984, she decided to return to acting but, on approaching the union Equity, discovered there was another Patricia Perry, so switched to using her middle name, Emily.

After playing the New Zealander Madge in The Dame Edna Experience! – scraping back her blonde hair and spraying it grey for the frumpy role – Perry appeared alongside Barry Humphries in an American version of the chat-show, Dame Edna's Hollywood (1991-93), with guests such as Burt Reynolds, Cher and Mel Gibson, but a subsequent one-hour pilot supposedly based in the character's Malibu home, Edna Time (1993), failed to make a series.

In Britain, Perry joined Humphries for both series of Dame Edna's Neighbourhood Watch (1992-93), Night of a Thousand Faces (2001), a programme celebrating impressionists, and Dame Edna Live at the Palace (2003), while touring the world with him on stage.

She also had bit-parts in Dempsey and Makepeace, A Perfect Spy and The Bill, before appearing in a 1995 episode of the gentle sitcom Last of the Summer Wine, as Mrs Broadbent, one of the worldly possessions that her husband (played by Geoffrey Bayldon) tells the regular Summer Wine trio he wants to dispose of while searching for "the wilderness".

In 2004, Perry retired and moved to Brinsworth House, a home for actors and entertainers in Twickenham, Middlesex. When Humphries made a new ITV show, The Dame Edna Treatment, last year, Madge was gone, replaced by Edna's daughter Valmai (Imogen Bain).

Anthony Hayward

Patricia Emily Perry, actress, singer and dancer: born Torquay, Devon 28 June 1907; died Twickenham, Middlesex 19 February 2008.