Australian TV icon Tony Barber is donning his infamous tuxedo and hitting the road.
The Gold Logie winner has joined the cast of Senior Moments 2, a senior comedy revue that’s set to tour the nation throughout February and March. The 79-year-old Barber will join master satirist Max Gillies and rock legend Normie Rowe for 90 minutes of comedy sketches and songs about ageing disgracefully.
Best known as the host of Sale of the Century from 1980 to 1991, as well as stints at the helm of The $25,000 Great Temptation, Family Feud, Wheel of Fortune and the Australian version of Jeopardy!, Barber is also a skilled song-and-dance man.
Senior Moments 2 is the perfect comeback vehicle for the showbiz legend — but, as Barber told Grey Matters in our Q&A, he had his hesitations about returning to the stage.
You had some trepidation about doing the show initially. Why was that?
Oh, just because I hung up the microphone and the tux some years ago. I’ve been leading a relatively sedentary life on the Mornington Peninsula. I do a quiz night for the local CFA once a month, but outside of that, the most active I get is stopping the grandchildren from falling under my feet. So I was out of practice.
Of course, now that we’ve had a couple of days in rehearsal, I’m getting right into the swing of it. It’s just like riding a bike, you know?
And the cast is terrific. I’m having so much fun. Max Gillies is a hoot… he’s just wonderful. I knew him through the business, of course, but this is the first time we’ve worked together, and he’s so good. We’re having a great time.
How would you describe Senior Moments 2?
It takes slices of senior life and expands on them, and it picks out the amusing moments that we all have as seniors. When the script turned up, I couldn’t stop laughing. It’s right on the money. Many of our senior patrons will find it right up their alley, because they will recognise themselves in the show.
Was there a particular moment that really connected with you? Something that made you say, ‘Oh, I’ve done that, I’ve been there?’
Oh, of course, yes. My favourite story in the show is about taking the dog food down to the chooks and giving the dogs the chook food. It’s the carelessness that we develop as we grow slightly older, that’s what speaks to me about it.
This show is aimed squarely at senior audiences. Older people often talk about feeling ‘invisible’; that they don’t feel seen by society. As an older person with a public profile, do you ever feel invisible?
Well, that public profile helps. Owing to 35 years of day-and-night television exposure, I find I’m actually only ‘invisible’ to people under the age of, say, 38. But the people who are over 38 make up for it! They’ll say, ‘Oh, I grew up with you’, ‘Granny made me watch you’, ‘You were in our living room for all those years’… It’s good, I love it.
You were in people’s living rooms every night, but did you ever feel limited by the game show format? Did you feel like you had other sides of yourself that you wanted to show people?
Oh no, not at all, because I always did other things. I kept my hand in with the vocalising; I made a couple of albums.
But, you know, the business changes constantly. I often say to people of my vintage from the television years, ‘God, we had it so good’, because television has changed so much. Everybody was watching commercial television back then. Sale of the Century, at its zenith, was all over the country, five nights a week, and five days a week. They’d play a different version through the day.
Television has changed so much…
If a program rates 20 per cent now, they all scream and shout about how wonderful it is. We used to have 50 per cent of the population watching us. Not 50 per cent of the people with a television, but 50 per cent of the actual population. Especially when contestants hit the big money. People would always tune in for that.
Why do you think that’s changed?
Well, that’s easy. First came cable television, and then came the absolute penetration of digital. The audience has been dispersed.
In the heyday of commercial television, you could launch a product with three spots on a high-rating program. Three spots, and you were in business. But now, if you want to get that same penetration, you have to spend an absolute fortune. You have to go all over the place. So the commercial aspect has changed dramatically.
But that’s a good thing for audiences, right? It’s good that there’s more content out there for them to watch.
Oh, yes, absolutely. I just think it’s bad for entertainers. Ha!
For the public, I think it’s fantastic. You can watch anything. I’ve developed quite an interest in American Football over the years, and you can watch it live now. If there’s some obscure movie you’ve always wanted to watch, you can go to Netflix and it’s there. From the consumer’s point of view, I think it’s wonderful.
You mentioned the huge audiences that Sale of the Century used to pull. You were everywhere, including the tabloids. What’s the craziest rumour about yourself that you ever saw in print?
Oh, I don’t know, I think I got off very lightly. I don’t think I got that sort of scurrilous press. I remember there was a story at one stage that [co-presenter] Delvene [Delaney] and I weren’t getting on too well, but actually, nothing could have been further from the truth. That’s not to say we were getting on too well, of course.
But that was always my experience with those game shows. I was always so well supported by those lovely ladies, from Victoria Nicolls and Alyce Platt to Delvene Delaney, the lot. They were all terrific.
Do you ever miss it? Do you ever get the itch to get back into television?
No, I don’t. Actually, I think my bank manager and my accountant miss the television work. They’ll say, ‘Oh, let’s look at these past decades… my goodness, it’s a bit different now, isn’t it?’ But fortunately, I lived carefully. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been very lucky in my life.
When you step out on stage now, does it feel any different to when you were hosting Sale of the Century? Do you still get the same nerves? Does that ever go away?
Well, an old pro told me a long time ago that if you don’t get that nervous feeling, there’s something wrong. But you’ve got to control it. There’s nervous excitement, which you can work off, but the debilitating one is nervous fear. That fear can leave you standing there, looking dumbstruck. But that hasn’t happened to me for a long time, actually.
You always seemed calm, cool and collected on TV, but the contestants had that nervous fear. Are there any particularly unfortunate answers that stick with you?
People would often press the buzzer without knowing the answer, and then they’d try to think it up on the spot, and they wouldn’t get anywhere near it. A lot of the best stuff ended up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately. People said the most outrageous things, and we’d yell, ‘Stop tape! Stop tape!’ That was the advantage of the pre-record.
One night we had a big winner. I think his name was Bill. I said, ‘Congratulations, Bill, now let’s stand in front of the prize setting with the luxury cars behind us’. Now, for some reason, he didn’t realise that we were rolling tape. I said, ‘Well done, Bill! What do you think you might do now?’ And he said, ‘Well, Tony, I’ll think I’ll go and get well and truly pi**ed!’ Stop tape!
A lot of the best stuff ended up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately…
What’s one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you were younger?
I think the thing you learn is that every audience you stand in front of is different. The audience can be animalistic. They can devour you, or they can come along for the ride, and it can be a wonderful thing.
The other lesson I’d pass on is one that my dear, late mother always used to say to me. She’d say, ‘Tony, always clean your fingernails. And no cursing or swearing.’ I don’t know how she’d put up with about 80 per cent of the television that’s on nowadays. You have to send the kids out of the room!
Tony Barber will appear in Senior Moments 2 with Max Gillies, Normie Rowe, Kim Lewis, David Callan, Dave Gibson and Mitchell Price-Norgaard on the following dates:
31 January – 1 February — The Art House, Wyong
4-8 February — Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide
12-16 February — Concourse Theatre, Chatswood
18-19 February — Civic Theatre, Newcastle
21-22 February — Playhouse Theatre, Canberra
26 February — Sutherland Entertainment Centre, Sutherland
28-29 February — Glasshouse Theatre, Port Macquarie
4-8 March — QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane
10-11 March — Riverside Theatre, Parramatta
18-21 March — Comedy Theatre, Melbourne
25-29 March — Heath Ledger Centre, Perth
For more information and tickets, visit www.seniormmentsshow.com.au.