Vale Barry Humphries AO CBE (OM 1951)

Barry Humphries in 2011 and, in back image, playing 'Mrs Pengard’ in a School production in 1949.

World entertainer Barry Humphries AO CBE (OM 1951) first stepped into the spotlight on a Melbourne Grammar School stage.

After commencing in Senior School in 1947, he performed in School productions almost every year, making the virtuosity of playing the older female lead his own. His roles included ‘Mrs Brash’ in A Safety Match in 1948 and, more notably, ‘Mrs Pengard’, played with ‘magnificent aplomb’ in Ambrose Applejohn’s Adventures in 1949.

An outstanding scholar, Barry was a Humanities specialist. Obtaining one of the thirty highest aggregate scores (in four Matriculation subjects) across the State in his final year at the School (known as a General Exhibition award), Barry also achieved one of two Special Exhibition awards offered in British History that year– the highest score in the State – and a First Class result for English Literature.

The School commemorates his academic prowess through The Barry Humphries Prize for Liberal Arts awarded to the best Year 12 student in that area each year.

Barry’s intellect and fine wit were also on display at the rostrum. An esteemed member of the Senior Debating Society, he was awarded the Senior Debating Society Prize (the A O Henty Memorial) in 1951.

But it was in Art where his passion and talent shone through. A member of the Art Club throughout his enrolment at Melbourne Grammar, Barry consistently won awards for his artwork in oils, water colour and drawing. Of note, he was awarded the Art (Hon. William Cain) Prize in 1951.

The School’s bluestone architecture also captured his visually attuned eye. “…the (first) thing I did enjoy at the School was the architecture,” he said in 2011, appreciating being “…educated in … a rather handsome old building, and a beautiful Chapel…”

And if Barry found enjoyment in intellectual endeavours, he had little time for Sport, or those that pursued it. “My years at Melbourne Grammar School are mostly memorable for the pleasures of reading, painting and conversing with my friends during the hours in which I avoided sport,” he said when recording a recollection for the School’s Sesquicentenary project in 2008.

He continually searched for opportunities to rebel while at the School, with his nonchalant provocations making law-enforcing prefects (and, one wonders, Headmasters) ‘boil’. The Cadets Corp caught his attention, and he became a ‘conscientious objector’ to that group.

Barry’s connections to the School continued throughout his lifetime.  Barry’s two brothers, Chris Humphries (OM 1961) and Michael Humphries (Dec) (OM 1964) attended the School as did, and do, various members of their families.

Barry attended various Old Melburnian functions over the years, and, in 2011, he reported ‘making friends which remain with me today’.

Of course, Barry would go on to become an unsurpassed interpreter of iconic Australian characters, most notably, Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson. Known for his comedic genius, finely tuned satire and acerbic wit, Barry Humphries was an internationally renowned actor, comedian and author who frequently used the stage to comment on the issues of human life.

Barry Humphries is a fine example of an Old Melburnian who stepped up, spoke out and changed the world around him.