Photos of the meeting of Beryl Longuet with Barbara and Barry Gibb after many years.
2013, copyright David Longuet. 

The two lives of Colin Petersen

(Part 1)

(May 9, 2011, copyright: Hinterland Times)

The 1956 film character of Smiley, the young and loveable boy from the bush, has become an icon of the Australian personality. Colin Petersen was the nine year-old from Kingaroy who won the lead part and became an overnight film star. Within a few years he went from child screen sensation to international rock n’roll drummer with the Bee Gees. In this two part feature Colin, who lives at Reesville on the Blackall Range, told HT editor Michael Berry about the highlights of his remarkable career. Colin Petersen grew up like many a country boy in the 1950s, plenty of space, the odd scrape and many boyhood adventures. He lived in Kingaroy until the age of seven when he moved to Margate, close to Brisbane. Colin was loved by his parents, particularly his mother who was always quick to further the progress of her talented son.

Colin , complete in his Smiley costume designed by his mother, at the film premiere in London in 1956.

“Lots of boys had dancing lessons in those days,” says Colin. “We followed stars like Fred Astaire and Bo Jangles and I started tap dancing; just beating out a rhythm with my feet, and I think that’s why I started to play the drums. Dad found me an old drum on a stand and a cymbal. I had been playing the drums and tap dancing in concerts about three years before the Smiley film came along. It was in 1956, and I was nine. My mother read in the Courier Mail that auditions were being held all around Australia for the character of Smiley in this new feature film. She said to me: – there’s no reason why you couldn’t do this Colin- . I was so into the drums that it hadn’t occurred to me to be an actor. Her thinking was, you’ve been a tap dancer on the stage, you’ve done these concerts and you’re used to an audience. I think you can do this. So I went along with Mum on the tram to the audition at a New Farm cinema. There were hundreds and hundreds of kids. It was a big deal in those days. I went in all dressed up in a Terylene suit, long socks, shiny shoes and tie and my scrap book of concert performances”.

The director, Anthony Kimmins, looked at my scrapbook but kept going down the line of boys. I thought that’s it and I went outside to Mum. She said, ah well Colin, it wasn’t meant to be. We went on the tram to my grandmother’s house and I got out of my Sunday suit and put on a pair of shorts. I was in bare feet playing marbles on the dirt floor under the house. For some reason, later in the afternoon, I decided to go back to the cinema to see what was happening. So, I got back on the tram and then walked down the alleyway beside the cinema. Suddenly the director came out of a door and lit up a cigarette.

I stood there, dirty knees and old shorts and he didn’t recognise me from our first meeting. But he looked at me for a long time then asked if I would like to audition for the part of Smiley. I said yes and we sat down on the steps and he opened up the script and, for about half an hour, I read the Smiley part and he played the other parts. Then he asked me my name and phone number and he told me he would be flying me down to Sydney in a couple of weeks for a screen test. And that was it. I think he’d already made up his mind.

So, I got on the tram again and went back to my grandmother’s place and I told Mum where I had been and what was going to happen. She was surprised at first but then said to me: -well Colin it’s fate. It was meant to be-. My mother wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. She would present the character of Smiley at the screen test. She was a dress maker and she got an old pair of jeans and cut them off and carefully frayed the bottoms. The braces were her invention and the hat she bought from an old age pensioner for ten shillings and she put a hole in it. The only thing she didn’t get right was the shirt. Because the film was to be shot in technicolour. Smiley needed a colourful shirt and she had given me an old grey shirt to wear. Mum dressed me exactly as she thought Smiley should look and the shirt was the only thing they changed. So I flew down to Sydney for the screen test looking like an urchin, and Mum even made sure my feet were dirty”.

Colin portrait as Smiley

Mind you, there was no way my mother would allow me on the set unless I had thoroughly learnt my lines. At night time when we had finished going over the script for the following day, she’d say to me: -OK Colin now I will play Smiley and you play Mr Rankin-, and she would make sure that I could play the other role as well as my own. I just loved doing the job and was not thinking that I might be a star at the end of it. I just enjoyed it.”

The Smiley feature was a hit in the UK and Australia. Colin’s youth and natural performance won over audiences and the British media. With hindsight, Colin has come to appreciate the character of that young boy who was very much a reflection of himself. “Smiley is an iconic character in that he presents a mindset at a time and a cultural setting with people and values that will never be recaptured… a time of innocence… a bit of larrikin, a sense of fair go, avoidance of pomp and ceremony and a wariness of authority.” Colin and his mother set off for London to see if they could capitalise on the success of Smiley. They hired an agent and Colin started school.

Two films followed, The Scamp in 1957 with Richard Attenborough and A Cry from the Streets in 1958 with Max Bygraves and Dana Wilson, (the star of Shiralee with Peter Finch). “I was offered Tiger Bay, the film that Hayley Mills eventually did. But Mum thought I was entering a period of my life where that childlike appeal had gone. She told me I was going into my ‘awkward years’ and I wouldn’t be offered any more films. So she pulled the plug on my film career.

left: Colin with Max Bygraves   right: Colin the tap dancer

But it wasn’t a big deal for me. A lot of school mates would give you a hard time and I would get into fights because they resented me being an actor. We came back to Australia and I managed to get through my teenage years. I was really only a pseudo delinquent, but always trying to be one of the boys. My parents eventually sent me off to boarding school, Ipswich Grammar School. That’s when I took up the drums again and eventually met Maurice Gibb.”

(Part 2)

(June 5, 2011, copyright: Hinterland Times)

The Little Drummer Boy

Last month in the Hinterland Times we told the story of how nine year-old Queenslander, Colin Petersen became a child movie star as Smiley in the 1956 film of the same name. Before he became an actor, Colin was already familiar with performing in public, as a seven year old tap dancer in local variety shows. Colin switched the easy rhythm of his feet to his hands, and he started to tap-tap on a cheap snare drum bought by his father. Colin picks up the story …

Colin the young drummer

Eight year-old drum prodigy, Colin Petersen plays for world famous drummer Gene Krupa as he steps off the plane at Brisbane airport in 1954. The performance had been arranged by Colin’s drum tutor, Harry Lebler.

“I kept banging away on this drum and Mum thought I should have lessons. She also realised that I would need a proper set of drums. In those days a drum kit was very expensive. I had a very wealthy uncle who was a bookmaker on my mother’s side, Billy McLeod, one of Brisbane’s leading on-course bookmakers. He was already a pound millionaire in the early 1950s. Anyway Billy heard about my interest in the drums from my mum and he said to her, I want to surprise him. I went down to Billy’s house at New Farm and I got into his big Mark 7 Jaguar. He said I have a surprise for you Col, and we set off along Brunswick Street down into the Valley. It was just before Christmas, and there was a copper on duty, directing the traffic. As we approached the intersection, the copper stopped all the other cars, came up to Bill’s Jag and said gidday Bill how yer goin? Bill turns to me and says grab a tenner out of the glove box Col. Well, there were all these rolls of money that fell on my lap. I knew what a ten pound note looked like so I peeled one from a roll and handed it to Billy who handed it to the copper. He takes it smoothly, puts it in his pocket and Billy says Merry Christmas. As we drove off he turned to me and said, always remember to keep the coppers on side Col. We drive into the city and Billy pulls up on the pavement outside Parlings the music shop. We walk into the shop and Billy hands a pound to a boy at the counter and says, take care of the Jag son. As we walk down the stairs I suddenly realise that he is going to buy me a kit of drums. He said, whatever you want Col just pick them out. I was seven and it’s a moment I still cherish to this day. I started doing concerts, pre rock n’roll concerts, big jazz bands touring Australia and it was really popular with the dances of the period. So I became a bit of a novelty, this little boy playing the drums for a big jazz band. They even had me bursting out of a base drum at one stage before I started playing”.

Colin Petersen interrupted his childhood stage career when he won the lead in the feature film Smiley. Guided by his mother, Colin went to England and made two more films before returning to Brisbane and attending Ipswich Grammar School.

“The Gibb family came out to Australia in the same year that I finished making my third film in 1958. Much later Maurice Gibb said to me that he had seen Smiley in England with his brothers, and from then on he was constantly at his parents to come to live in Australia. Maurice said he was captivated by Australia by watching Smiley. By the early sixties I was listening to the Beatles and I started to write songs with a friend from Ipswich Grammar. We formed a band and decided to go to Sydney. For two years we battled on in Sydney, living practically on nothing. We played R & B,The Animals, The Pretty Things, The Who, The Stones. I first met Maurice at a Sydney gig and I became friendly with the family. The Gibbs were recording at that time but they were doing RSL gigs, for the mums and dads mainly because the twins, Maurice and Robin, were really too young to appeal to the teenage audience that we were playing to. They simply couldn’t break into that teenage audience. But we weren’t making any money at all. I was sleeping in my car for weeks on end. So I decided to go to England to try to get back into films”.

England was a magnet in the early 1960s for Australian bands. The Gibb brothers had become The Bee Gees in Australia and even though their song, Spicks and Specks went to No 1 in October 1966 the Gibbs were on a ship for London by the end of the year. Colin met up with them in London along with fellow Australian, Vince Melouney. Vince, formerly with Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs was to become lead guitarist with the Bee Gees, Colin was the drummer. However there was no work lined up in the UK when they arrived. Nevertheless they had sent demo tapes to Beatles manager, Brian Epstein who passed them on to Robert Stigwood, and he was to become the Bee Gees manager and producer.

Colin Petersen, the Bee Gees’ drummer in 1967.

According to Wikipedia: By 1969, the cracks began to show within the group. Robin began to feel that Stigwood had been favouring Barry as the frontman. Robin quit the group in mid-1969 and launched a solo career…

Barry and Maurice Gibb and Colin continued as the Bee Gees, but further arguments continued as Colin raised questions about Stigwood’s conflict of interest as the Bee Gee’s manager. Stigwood also owned their recordings and publishing, and was in effect their employer. Colin believes this led to his being fired from the group in 1969.

“We were on a paltry royalty. We signed a record contract with him. It was an extraordinary experience”.

I lived very well in those years but I ended up with very little money in the bank. It was mainly because it was decided we would carry a 40 piece orchestra wherever we went. You see it was Stigwood’s policy to make it seem at all times that we were making a fortune. So when we went into a hotel we each had our own suite. If you wore your clothes for more than a couple of times, Stigwood would insist you went down to Savile Row to have a new suit made. That was his thinking, if you look successful then people will say, I should listen to the Bee Gees. I was involved in litigation over money with Robert Stigwood that went on for three years. I finally settled with them and their stipulation … signed off by the British courts … was that I would never again seek to make my livelihood as a drummer. That was the Bee Gees parting shot to me. It was interesting though that Barry later wrote me a letter saying that it was Stigwood, not the other band members who insisted on me being sacked. He regretted it and he wanted me to know that I was a loss to the Bee Gees sound”.

Despite the astonishing court injunction that stipulated Colin never again sit professionally behind a drum kit, he went on to work in the music industry, producing tracks for Irish singer, Johnathan Kelly during the 70s and later producing albums for CBS Records. Colin has lived in Maleny for the past eight years and he looks back with mixed feelings of personal achievement, a little sadness and a resigned feeling that life will always deliver the unexpected. “What happened to me, was it due to fate or initiative? There was some initiative in me going to that Smiley audition and initiative in me leaving home to set up a band. But there is fate too. With the Bee Gees it was about certain people with talent coming together to play their roles in that particular intense 60s scenario.
You know sometimes in life it all gells at one particular moment … and that’s how I think it happens”.

Colin with The Bee Gees
Gibb Service International