History repeated

Getting a well-deserved repeat on 7TWO starting tonight is the 1999 series Barry Humphries’ Flashbacks. Part documentary, part social history, part comedy, this is one of those rare cross-genre programmes which succeeds in all the genres to which it can be assigned. It’s also significant because it’s Humphries’ only Australian-made TV series, and probably his most personal.

…Flashbacks is principally about how both Humphries and Australia came of age, from the post-war “niceness” of the 50’s, through the great liberations of the 60’s, the increasingly high-profile 70’s, and finally the excesses of the 80’s, climaxing with the Bicentennial celebrations and the recession. Humphries may not have been present at all of the great events of the period – it was Norman Gunston not Les Patterson who was there on the day of the Whitlam dismissal – but he seems to have been there for everything else.

The famous early footage of Mrs Norm Everage discussing the 1956 Melbourne Olympics on Startime is in the programme, as is Sir Les Patterson’s not so famous but still pretty legendary disruption of a pasta machine demonstration on the Adelaide morning show A Touch of Elegance. And if you’d forgotten that Dame Edna co-commentated on the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson with Ray Martin and Maggie Tabberer, prepare to be reminded.

Comedy is not always credited with being an important artform, but if you want to argue that it is, you could do worse than to cite this series; it is both a fascinating social document and a thoroughly entertaining programme.

Barry Humphries Flashbacks was also probably the first Australian show to try the “celebrity talking heads” format, although don’t think you can blame it for influencing shows like 20 to 1 – it was British television that popularised that horror of TV formats – and in Australia only the makers of …Flashbacks had the sense to realise that it is only if all your talking heads are funny (Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson, Sandy Stone), that you’ll have a watchable show.

If you can’t tune in tonight, Barry Humphries’ Flashbacks is available on DVD (extras include more of that legendary appearance by Sir Les on A Touch of Elegance), and the spin-off book and CD soundtrack (featuring great hits from the 50’s to 80’s) can probably be picked-up fairly easily second hand – the book in particular is highly recommended. And if you want to know more about Sir Les on A Touch of Elegance, I’m working on a big article on that topic…so stay tuned.

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