Smiley comes home - the lives of Colin Petersen is on at the Redcliffe Museum until February 7.
Smiley comes home - the lives of Colin Petersen is on at the Redcliffe Museum until February 7.

Bee Gees’ bizarre link to Bohemian Rhapsody

In an early scene in the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, the lead singer of a band called Smile leaves to join ­another outfit, Humpy Bong.

It couldn't have anything to do with Humpybong State School at Margate on the Redcliffe Peninsula, north of Brisbane, could it?

The weird thing is, it does. The English folk rock band Humpy Bong was formed in the late 1960s by a kid from Margate by the name of Colin Petersen.

He had previously been the drummer with a more famous band, the Bee Gees, who were, bizarrely enough, also former pupils at Humpybong State School, like Petersen.

Petersen called his new band Humpy Bong in honour of the little school where he learned to play the drums.

There's a twist to this story and it relates to Queen.

The 72-year-old former Bee Gee and one-time child movie star tells me about it as we walk through the exhibition Smiley comes home - the lives of Colin Petersen, now showing at the ­Redcliffe Museum.

 

"We were looking for a lead singer and we found a guy called Tim Staffell," Petersen explains.

"He left a band called Smile to join my lineup."

Petersen pauses in front of a blown-up photo of Humpy Bong as he finishes his anecdote with a flourish. "Because he left Smile they were without a lead singer," he says. "So they took on a guy called Freddie Mercury and then called themselves Queen."

Petersen pauses for effect. "Amazing," I say, and I mean it. It's an incredible six degrees of separation episode and features fleetingly in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody. But it's just a sidebar story to the exhibition about Petersen's life … or his two lives, really.

The Bee Gees in London, from left, Robin Gibb (17), Barry Gibb (20), Maurice Gibb (17), Colin Petersen (19) and Vince Melouney (22).
The Bee Gees in London, from left, Robin Gibb (17), Barry Gibb (20), Maurice Gibb (17), Colin Petersen (19) and Vince Melouney (22).

 

THE FAME BEFORE THE FAME

There was his life as a member of the Bee Gees when he was a cool, Ferrari-driving pop star in London. But ­before that there was another life of fame as a child actor.

Those of a certain age will remember the 1956 Aust­ralian film Smiley, a charming but gritty tale about a kid growing up in an Australian country town.

It starred a cute little wag by the name of Colin Petersen from Margate, who appeared alongside English star Ralph Richardson and Australian legend Chips Rafferty. It's about a boy, Smiley Greevins, who is determined to get himself a new bike. ­

Smiley lives in the town of Murrumbilla, based on the ­western Queensland town of Augathella, where the author of the 1945 novel Smiley, Moore Raymond, came from.

The story had heart and realism. Smiley's dad was an ­alcoholic and was always getting into trouble, as was his son. Smiley unwittingly ends up helping the local publican (played by Queensland actor John McCallum) sell opium to the ­marginalised Aboriginal people living on the edge of town.

 

Colin Peterson as 'Smiley' in the film of that name, with fellow Queensland actor John McCallum.
Colin Peterson as 'Smiley' in the film of that name, with fellow Queensland actor John McCallum.

After various travails, which include his father ­stealing his pocket money to pay for his gambling debts, the townsfolk chip in to buy Smiley a bike. And as Petersen walks me through the exhibition … there it is, the bike from the film, restored and looking brand new.

It's on loan to the Redcliffe Museum from the National Film and Sound ­Archive in Canberra.

There are original posters for the film and in a case, under glass, Petersen's original, heavily annotated script from Smiley, which spawned a sequel, Smiley Gets a Gun, in 1958, which starred another child actor, Keith Calvert. "It's like the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Magna Carta," I joke as we examine the script and luckily Petersen laughs too.

"Looking at all this, it feels a bit like it happened to someone else," he says. "Rationally, you know it was you and I can remember it all like it was yesterday. I guess this is what happens to ageing pop stars. You end up in a museum."

 

Former Bee Gees drummer Colin Petersen with year 5 students at at Humpybong State School. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Former Bee Gees drummer Colin Petersen with year 5 students at at Humpybong State School. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

 

At the exhibition opening last month, Petersen was serenaded by a choir from his alma mater, Humpybong State School, led by local musical theatre star Tom Oliver.

Oliver, 26, has written a musical about the Bee Gees called Jive ­Talkin', named for one of their songs from the movie Saturday Night Fever. When Oliver's friend, Shailer Park (Logan City)-based actor and the curator of the exhibition, Ron Kelly, asked him to be involved in the Petersen exhibition opening, it was serendipitous to say the least.

 

The Gibb brothers Maurice, Barry and Robin in 1979.
The Gibb brothers Maurice, Barry and Robin in 1979.

"I had gone through this rabbit-hole experience of ­reading all about the Bee Gees," Oliver says. "When Ron contacted me, I had just finished reading about Colin and his time with the band. And now here I am singing the theme song from the film that made him famous."

Of course, the Bee Gees (and the Gibb brothers) are ­Redcliffe's most famous sons, having started their musical careers as kids on the Peninsula.

"I was looking at old films and a friend said he'd recently met the guy who played Smiley and he was living at Maleny [in the Sunshine Coast hinterland]," Kelly, 54, ­recalls. "I gave Colin a call and we talked about what sort of ­legacy he was leaving. A friendship developed and it became a quest to help secure his place in Australia's ­cultural ­history.

"You very rarely come across somebody who has had two international careers in different fields. The fact that Colin's band Humpy Bong gets a mention in Bohemian Rhapsody just adds to the story."

 

FROM SKINS TO CELLULOID

Petersen is quite emotional about the museum exhibition but when he begins to tell me his story, he detaches himself somewhat. As he explains, it all seems so incredible it almost feels like it happened to someone else.

It all started in Kingaroy where he was born. When he was five the family moved to Margate, where his father, ­George, owned and rented a small block of flats.

Young Colin took up the drums at Humpybong State School and was in the school band. His first drum kit was bought for him by his uncle, Billy McLeod, a successful Brisbane bookmaker.

Former Bee Gees drummer Colin Petersen at the ehxbition about his life at Redcliffe Museum. Picture:  Mark Cranitch.
Former Bee Gees drummer Colin Petersen at the ehxbition about his life at Redcliffe Museum. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

"He said he'd buy me the kit on one condition," Petersen recalls. "If I didn't use it or practise, he would take it back and sell it. I loved playing; I practised hard and hung onto them."

He was sent to a drum teacher in Brisbane, Harry Lebler, and under his tutelage ended up performing at Brisbane City Hall and Cloudland. He was becoming quite the ­performer and this gave his mother, Edna, ideas.

"So one morning Mum comes in with The Courier-Mail and puts it on the table and says, 'look at this, Colin, they're auditioning for a role in a movie for a little boy living in the bush and his name is Smiley'," Petersen says.

"The thing that impressed Mum was that it was going to be in colour and CinemaScope. She said she would take me to the audition and when I said I had no experience, she said: 'If you can get up and play the drums at City Hall, you can do this'."

Edna dressed him to the nines for the audition at the old Astor Theatre (now the New Farm Cinemas) in inner-north New Farm.

Petersen, who was nine at the time, recalls getting there to find a queue snaking out the door and around the corner. "I lined up but I looked nothing like Smiley should," he says.

"I wasn't successful, so we went to my grandmother's home nearby by tram, and Mum said, 'oh well, it's fate'."

 

A movie poster for 1956 film Smiley.
A movie poster for 1956 film Smiley.

 

Petersen got changed and went out to play in bare feet. Then he had an intuitive feeling that he should go back to the theatre to see how the auditions were going.

"It was all shut up when I arrived and I went down an alleyway to see if I could find a window to peek in," he recalls.

"That's when the producer and director, Anthony Kimmins, came out to have a cigarette."

Kimmins spotted the urchin-like lad, asked him what he was doing and, since Kimmins had the script with him, he asked Petersen to read a scene.

"We read through the scene and during that he decided I was the boy for the role," Petersen says. It was kismet.

The next week he was flown to Sydney for a screen test. The film, released in 1956, was a hit and Petersen became forever Smiley, the little bush tearaway.

His ambitious mother got him an agent and he spent the next few years shuttling back and forth to England, where he made a ­couple of other films - The Scamp, in 1957, in which he starred alongside Richard Attenborough; and A Cry from the Streets, in 1958, with Max Bygraves. Petersen's parents eventually decided to let him live a normal childhood, ­sensing that his boyish appeal might not last.

Petersen finished his schooling at Ipswich Grammar, went on to study at art school in Brisbane, and ­dabbled in music, forming a band called Steve and The Board. "We had a hit record in 1966 called The Giggle-eyed Goo," he says. "I think you can tell it was a novelty record."

 

Colin Petersen drumming for the Bee Gees.
Colin Petersen drumming for the Bee Gees.

After that, he met Maurice Gibb and played session drums for the Bee Gees trio. They had all been pupils at Humpybong but their paths hadn't crossed there.

When Petersen took off for England in 1966, he had no plans. He just wanted to be "where it was all happening".

In 1967, he joined the Bee Gees, who'd also moved to England, full-time. As well as the three brothers Gibb - Maurice, Barry and Robin - the band at that stage featured another Aust­ralian expat, Vince Melouney, on guitar.

Petersen was with the band from 1967 to 1969 when they had their breakthrough hits including New York Mining ­Disaster 1941 and Massachusetts, among others.

"I liked the Gibb brothers but I was closer to Maurice than the other two," Petersen says. "He was the real musician among them. Robin and Barry were incredible songwriters but they weren't really musicians."

Petersen was eventually fired by the band, which was managed by impresario Robert Stigwood.

There were court proceedings that followed as Petersen alleged he had been deprived of his share in the partnership, but despite never getting his just deserts, he isn't bitter.

Colin Petersen in London in the 1970s.
Colin Petersen in London in the 1970s.

After that he formed Humpy Bong, which was a flash in the pan. Still, they appeared on BBC Television's Top of The Pops and were the catalyst for Freddie Mercury joining Queen.

Petersen later managed Irish folk star Jonathan Kelly for a few years, and also got married along the way. His wife, Joanne, was personal assistant for the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein.

Petersen remembers meeting Ringo Starr on several occas­ions and John Lennon once at London's famous The Speakeasy Club.

"When I met John, we [the Bee Gees] had just released our single World," Petersen says. "John said, 'I've just heard your new record. It's meaningless. What a load of crap'."

As the pop glamour faded, Petersen returned to Australia in 1974 and worked in the music industry for EMI Records. Later he drifted away from the business and in the years since he has worked as a house painter.

He has two adult sons, Jamie and Ben, who both live in northern NSW, and there are a couple of grandchildren, Arlo and Louella.

"My ex-wife Joanne and I remain great friends," Petersen says.

"She recently sent me a video of Arlo getting up on stage in a kids' show. It had a cowboy theme and he took his hat off and waved it in the air and Joanne said to me, 'it's Smiley all over again'."

So the story continues. ■

Smiley comes home - the lives of Colin Petersen, until February 7, Redcliffe Museum, 75 Anzac Ave, Redcliffe; moretonbay.qld. gov.au/redcliffe-museum

Smiley will be screened at the Redcliffe Cultural Centre, January 22



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