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.
“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 Petersen won the part of Smiley and, accompanied by his mother, the ten year old novice actor joined the location shoot around Camden in NSW.
“Chips Rafferty was a delight to work with,” says Colin. “I think Chips was the most natural actor to rehearse a scene with. Most of the other actors like Sir Ralph Richardson and John McCallum came out of an English theatrical background and to me, as a small perceptive child, I thought they weren’t really letting go.
“Chips was such a natural actor that there were magical moments I remember with him, when what we were doing seemed so effortless. It was as if time had slowed down and I had plenty of time. It was such a positive feeling that you knew what you were doing was good.
“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.
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 TWO (June): The second ‘life’ of Colin Petersen when he becomes a member of the Bee Gees and is thrown back into London of the Swinging Sixties.