In character, as Dame Edna Everage, international comedy icon Barry Humphries AO, CBE, would cajole and poke fun at the celebrity elite who would line up, time after time, to appear on Edna’s chat shows during prime time in the 1980s and 1990s; her guests, willing victims, all being reduced to mirth, like the audience around them.
Flashes of that comic genius were on display again, when, this time as interviewee, Barry Humphries took to the Allan Scott Auditorium for a special “In Conversation” event with UniSA Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd, ahead of being awarded an Honorary Doctorate from UniSA in May.
With the barest of prompts Humphries was off, recalling his childhood and education in suburban Melbourne, and the pivotal moment, when, as a young actor, he switched from Shakespeare to the subversive, upon realising his stage talents lay less with the classics and more with the burgeoning satirical scene of the 1960s.
This was the era of “Oz” magazine and the decade in which Humphries honed his skills, working with the likes of anti-establishment luminaries such as Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Spike Milligan and theatrical genius, Lionel Bart.
The Vice Chancellor deployed Michael Parkinson-levels of skill to keep the conversation from meandering too far off track, yet subtle digs at the lighting, the audience and even the Gladioli framing the stage proved that, even at 82, Humphries had lost little of the observational, acerbic magic that made him, Dame Edna and another of his comic creations: Sir Les Patterson, global household names.
Professor David Lloyd says Humphries has been one of Australia’s greatest global arts ambassadors over his long, diverse and brilliant career.
“There are not many artists or performers who manage to continue to contribute to the arts in such broad scope and at such a level of excellence for so many decades – Barry Humphries is that rare talent,” Prof Lloyd says.
“Through his wonderful satirical characters – the globetrotting housewife, Dame Edna Everage and the infamous cultural attaché, Sir Les Patterson, among others – he introduced the world to Australian life, its warmth, its unique personality and its evolution over the decades.
“Despite having built a body of work to be enormously proud of, Barry Humphries never stops looking for new challenges, such as his recent role as Artistic Director of the 2015 Adelaide Cabaret Festival.”
“His talent, creativity, invention and intellect have delivered incisive critiques of Australian culture, but at the same time helped to shape that culture for future generations.”
Barry Humphries received his honorary doctorate with customary style and wit; his questioning of whether the traditional gowning robes could ever be worn in a more domestic setting – a substitute bathrobe perhaps (?), prompting laughter all around.
“I have received a number of accolades in my life – a punishment for living a long time – but this one from South Australia is important to me,” Humphries says.
“I am deeply honoured to accept an Honorary Doctorate from the University of South Australia.
“I might even call myself a doctor should some young person require my services.”
Watch the full video here