I have a very distant memory of being present in someone's flat in North Melbourne when the host put on a 33 LP of what was Barry Humphries’ first recording, Wildlife in Suburbia. (Heavens, recorded in 1958!) We all sat in silence, absolutely transfixed, as we first met the prim Edna Everage – her mouth zipped as a purse – as ‘The Migrant Hostess’, and the enfeebled Sandy Stone telling of his ‘Days of the Week’.

These monologues became a reflection of the Australia we knew so well, or didn't want to know, from a satirist – one wielding criticism through humour – who was to become our greatest comic and most fervent social critic. 

Then, like many others, I never missed a Humphries’ performance, all of which were named after common sayings of the satirist’s mother: ‘A Nice Night’s Entertainment’, ‘Excuse I’, ‘Just a Show’, ‘At Least You Can Say You've Seen It’. Here was an entertainer totally in command of his material – and his audience –  and pity help anyone who came in late when acid-tongued Edna was wielding a gladioli.

In the 1980s, I came to write The Humour of Barry Humphries for Currency Press, Sydney, a collection of sketches, monologues, and poems. The master humorist had been playing to packed houses for 25 years but his work had not been available in printed form to students of the Australian language and literature. Hence, Barry and I worked on this connection for some time, as many of the sketches (Rex Lear and Colin Cartwright, for instance) had never been performed – and they were gems! As there were no photos of these characters, Barry drew wonderful pen drawings for me. 

As a result of our collaborative work on the text, Barry and I became friends. Thus I came to know an immeasurably complex person: on stage, the master satirist who could make us laugh and squirm at the same time. The aged and brittle Sandy Stone, undoubtedly my favourite Humphries’ creation, could leave the audience in tears, while the vulgar Lance Boyle and Sir Les Patterson, or the monstrous yet mesmerising Dame Edna, would engender tears of laughter. 

Yet these stage figures were the very antithesis of the private man. Barry Humphries was a splendid painter who exhibited; a discerning aesthete and art collector, who possessed what many thought to be the finest collection of Edwardian lithographs in the world;  author of some 25 books, including two autobiographies, My Life as Me and More Please, and he possessed a library of some 50,000 volumes. In every sense a public intellectual, he was, as his work reveals, a keen observer of the human condition and an astute Listener. 

I will remember having lunch in Paddington with Barry on the occasion of his 50th birthday. ‘It's all going to be downhill from now on, John’, he forlornly mused. Yet how wrong he was! The stage performances, especially of Edna, became more riotous after the scene in Bruce Beresford’s The Adventures of Bazza McKenzie, when Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, wittily dubbed her a ‘Dame’, and the Americans came to love the shows and television specials. Indeed, Barry continued to perform up to his death at the age of 89. 

The back cover of The Humour of Barry Humphries reads:

John Allen is Senior English master at Camberwell Grammar School, Melbourne, of which Barry Humphries has said; ‘I was educated at Camberwell Grammar and attended Melbourne Grammar’.

Barry loved his time at Camberwell Grammar. He revered Stan Brown, who became his guide and mentor, and through his adult life whenever he came to visit his family in Camberwell, Barry would always call upon his retired English teacher.

So many tributes have been written of late, and it is good to see that our nation has appropriately acknowledged this astonishingly talented entertainer. 

As the pretext to my little book I wrote:

To our children.

May they laugh – and wonder.

…for that is what Barry Humphries gave to all of us – laughter and a sense of wonder, so as Camberwell Grammarians we justly honour the life of this most distinguished alum of the School.

Mr John Allen

English Literature Teacher