While Bernard ‘Midget’ Farrelly had wrestled with cancer over the past four years, his passing at the age of 71 on August 6 was sudden and unexpected, says Yamba-based writer and filmmaker Monty Webber; in fact, during the weeks before his death he had enjoyed a surfing trip with his family in Fiji.
The history of Australian surfing and Midget Farrelly are synonymous – he became the first world surfing champion when he won the title at Manly Beach, Sydney in 1964.
World renowned surf journalist Nick Carroll quoted Farrelly in a tribute piece published in Surfing Life magazine on August 8: “It’s freedom. Freedom from other people’s ideas.”
Carroll says this was Farrelly’s “fundamental thought about surfing; a deceptively radical thought that guided one of the truly great surfing lives.”
However, while this was a radical idea of its time, Farrelly did not ‘go with the flow’ as surfing’s counterculture rose and rose to prominence on the heels of his historic win.
As media, film and the marketplace embraced and exploited all that came with that counterculture, something Carroll defines as “the surf stardom, the media manoeuvrings, the self-promotion, the drug scene, the apparent revolution in surfing styles and techniques that set Australian surfing on fire in the late ’60s and into the ’70s, Farrelly wasn’t a part of it.
Instead, he remained firm to his own ideas, freeing himself from all that goes with the hype. “Indeed, Midget disliked being pigeonholed in any way at all,” Carroll wrote.
Farrelly was renowned for being protective of his privacy and rarely gave interviews; this was something that Webber aimed to change.
“About a year ago I rang Midget out of the blue and asked if he would be the subject of an interview for Tracks magazine and maybe a short companion piece, like the film Journey On that I made about Shane Herring.
“He said, ‘No’, as he has said to almost everyone for the past 40 years. But then he
said, ‘If you’re really serious, do a bit of research and ring me back.’”
This cycle was repeated several times, and then Farrelly agreed to meet. “‘Okay, you’ve won me over,’ Midget said, ‘but, you know, this is very rare.’”
Webber met with Farrelly and Carroll at Whale Beach on Sydney’s northern beaches about a year ago. “I interviewed both of them [separately] on camera,” says Webber.
“That was the first [and last] time I ever met Midget. The rest of the time was spent talking to him on the phone and emailing.”
In the meantime, Webber received a call from Jolyon Hoff, who made the documentary Searching for Michael Peterson about the late Gold Coast surfing legend.
During previous discussions with Hoff, who was already working with Webber to develop one of his books into a film and television series, Webber mentioned that he was doing something about Farrelly.
“I was just going to make a small film for Tracks like my Shane Herring film, and then Jolyon rang and said, ‘Why don’t we aim big? I’ll take it to Screen Australia.’
Sadly, Farrelly died three days before Screen Australia came to the party with $15,000 of development funding, “to essentially make a short film that is a good example of what the longer film will be like”, says Webber.
Webber says that day at Whale Beach was the last interview granted by Midget Farrelly and that he interviewed Nick Carroll, too, because “he has been really outspoken about how important Midget is to the Australian history of surfing and how he’s largely been expunged from that history”.
“He thought Midget had written himself out the history of surfing, because he had been so reticent to do any interviews,” Webber says.
Much has changed in surfing over recent years: it is more professional since Zosea Media Holdings bought the Association of Surfing Professionals’ world championship tour, now known as the World Surf League; and surfing is now an Olympic sport, come the 2020 games in Toyko.
“It’s come full circle,” says Webber. “Midget had this dream for surfing; about it being a clean, free-spirited sport where you travel and compete.
“He wasn’t aggressive, he was a great statesman and representative of the sport, but it was taken over. He didn’t want his beautiful sport to go in that direction.”
Perhaps, these recent changes are Farrelly’s legacy.