By Muriel Cooper Photos Yanni

Tony Barber OAM, describes his house in Flinders as “God’s Half Acre.” During the change of seasons and especially in autumn the foliage contrasts with the pine forest behind, and a mist creates a mystical atmosphere. Even Tony’s dog, Maestro, a Lagotto Romagnolo, adds an otherworldly element with his piercing pale amber eyes.

Flinders is the third incarnation of Tony’s love affair with the Mornington Peninsula. The first was at the Royal Australian Naval College when it was at Crib Point on Western Port Bay.

“Our cross country runs were murder. We’d run out the back door of the base, through the piggery and into the bush and then stagger back. That’s about as far as we got. When we went on leave, we’d get on the Crib Point Flyer (the now defunct train service) in our uniforms, and we were so excited. Someone had discovered that even at the age of thirteen or fourteen, ‘No man in uniform can be denied a drink at any bar or hotel in his travels.’ It became a catch-cry in our group, ‘Three beers, please.’ The barman would say, ‘Piss off, you little buggers.’ It took six trains and three days to get to Perth.”

Tony’s second incarnation on the peninsula came in the early seventies. He and his first wife, Helen, were ready to buy a home of their own, and Tony says, “We decided to buy a place with some land. Coincidentally, someone wanted to sell their small farm in Red Hill, a place described by a friend as ‘up and coming,’ And it was. We looked at the property, a nice house, acreage, stables with horses already there, chook pens – I love chooks – and in the big shed was a little two-seater cart for the Shetland pony. We had two little girls… talk about fate. We said, ‘We’ll take it.’ And there we were. I was the number one Red Hill Football Club member – the Mountain Men!”

Tony’s wife Helen passed in 2009. “When Helen got sick, everything stopped,” Tony says. “I was her full-time carer – a dreadful time. God, she was so brave!” A friend who helped them through was Tony’s now wife, Kristine, whom Tony and Helen had helped with the death of her husband, Russ.

Tony was invited to a huge function, and he says, “It was the first invitation I’d had that said, ‘Tony Barber and partner.’ I was sad at the thought that I no longer had a partner anymore, but I didn’t want to be in this crowd of people on my own, so I thought I’d ask Kristine.”

Sometime later, the two were married.

Tony’s third peninsula incarnation came when he and Kristine were living on Main Ridge and decided to downsize. A friend at Kristine’s Pilates Class told them about their current residence in Flinders. Tony said, “We walked in, took one look at the place, and said, ‘We’ll have it’.”

Early in his career, before Sale of the Century, Tony was an advertising agency executive with the Cambridge cigarettes account. The actor who was to do the ad didn’t turn up, so Tony stepped in and became ‘The Cambridge Whistler.’ The client liked his performance so much that they kept him, and the commercial was a sensation. It made him a national star, with people asking him to whistle everywhere he went. “The awful thing was, I can’t whistle. I was miming in the ad, so I offered to sing instead, and that seemed to go over well.”

Tony’s education at Crib Point was instrumental in getting him the gig on Sale of the Century. As Tony recollects, Bruce Gyngell (head of the 7 Network at the time) said, “That bloke who did the cigarette commercial, he was at the naval college, he’s got a brain, he’s quite bright. Why don’t you use him?” “It was an absolute smash. Money… fame… I’m off! I was having a great time. I’ve always felt so lucky.”

Tony’s positive attitude and infectious energy earned him millions of fans. Tony always played himself, and the camera showed it.

“Television. That camera will peel you back layer by layer. You can’t get away with sham or pretence. Even football commentators, the really good ones, are always absolutely themselves.”

Asked to comment about on-screen entertainment today, Tony says, “I love Netflix, Foxtel, the privilege of pressing a button and the whole world is there. At the moment, I’m following the Trump saga live!” Tony scoffs at those who say things ain’t what they used to be. “They’re better,” he says emphatically.

Of all his talents, singing, acting, dancing, and quiz show hosting, when asked which one he’d prefer to do again, Tony chooses Jeopardy. “It’s a more cerebral format,” he says.

What does Tony love about Flinders? “I’ve always been a seaside person,” he says. “I think it’s the climate, especially at this end of the peninsula. I quite like four seasons, and that’s exemplified at this end of the peninsula. I like to be cold. Summer’s good, too; it doesn’t burn your back off. It’s like the Riviera. I also like the ‘villagey’ aspect. Sure, we get the tourists, but that’s good for local business, and we don’t get touristy in a ‘flashy’ way.”

Tony also loves local quiz nights and what he calls ‘The communality.’ “I’ll go for the papers, and I’ll have a conversation with three or four people. Everybody’s the same with everybody. It’s country life – as it used to be.”

Peninsula Essence – October 2023