The medium is now the message, even more than it has ever been. Gay writer and documentary maker David Herkt examines the tragedies and triumphs of homosexual life as reflected in the TV media culture of mid-20th century New Zealand. There was Peter Sinclair, Lew Pryme – and then there was Hudson & Halls…
At 8.30pm on the Friday night All Black Dan Carter was born, March 5th 1982, the New Zealand television audience had the stark choice of watching one or other of the two state-owned TV channels. TV One featured I Am a Dancer: The Story of Rudolf Nureyev, a documentary about the gay Russian ballet dancer. TV2 screened Hudson & Halls, a New Zealand-produced cooking show, which featured a real-life gay couple and a variety of aspirational recipes. It was coincidental gay programming for a nation that would only legitimise homosexual acts between consenting adults four years later.
Thirty years after the transmission of their last New Zealand cooking series, Peter Hudson and David Halls still retain a startling and continuing role in Kiwi culture. They are a common social referent. There have been award-winning documentaries, magazine feature stories, and a stage play about the pair. Just why two flagrantly homosexual men, neither ‘confirming nor denying’ what seemed patently obvious to their viewers, should have won the hearts and minds of a conservative public in an age of prejudice and anti-homosexual rhetoric seems to be one of New Zealand’s enduring social mysteries.
Male homosexuality had largely been absent in the New Zealand media for much of the 20th century. The New Zealand Truth, a weekly tabloid newspaper founded in 1903, was one of the few places a reader could find the subject regularly addressed. Truth ran court reports of indecency between males, investigated cross-dressing in Auckland and Wellington, and specialised in salacious detail: men accosted disguised police officers in public toilets, buttocks were touched, and high-pitched transvestite voices trilled at intimate parties on the slopes of Mt Eden or Mt Victoria.
The Charles Aberhart case in Christchurch received more general news coverage in 1964. It was a violent premeditated murder and the verdict was unprecedented. A gang of six youths had gone to toilets in Hagley Park with the deliberate intention to ‘belt up a queer’, using one of their number as bait. Aberhart, who had previously been convicted of indecency between males, allegedly made a pass at the youth and was beaten to death. The jury found the perpetrators not guilty of manslaughter. As Monte Holcroft wrote in a subsequent Listener editorial, ‘an alleged homosexuality has been felt to be an offence which mitigates a crime’. It would not be the last time.
New Zealand literature and art had been comparatively silent on the subject of same-sex relations. Through the 1940s the short stories of Frank Sargeson told of men who inarticulately brooded and bonded. His unreflective Kiwi blokes fell into each other’s company without apparent intent and their emotions were mute. This inexpressibility forced the homosexual impulse into absurd incident or murderous gesture. Sargeson’s stories were object lessons in the effects of repression.
There were many others. The artist and photographer Theo Schoon, for example, took posed nude photographs of his male friends in the 1940s and 50s but, unlike his images of Rotorua mud pools or Maori petroglyphs, they were never publicly exhibited. Instead they were kept hidden in a lunchbox that would eventually find its way to Te Papa storage where, even in the early 21st century, the national museum refused to allow their reproduction, lest some of the now octogenarian models might still be alive.
Then there was comedy.
The only place that homosexuality and gay culture received regular attention in New Zealand during the 1950s and 60s was in rebroadcast and repeated BBC radio comedy programmes. Round the Horne played late in the evening on the National Radio stations, and featured Kenneth Williams, a gay British comedian, whose effete tones were an unmistakable homosexual signifier.
Williams played one of the characters in the regular Julian and Sandy skits, in which the characters communicated in the camp lingua franca, Polari, a gay slang dating from the 18th century. “Bona to vada your dolly old eke,” Williams would gush, while mysterious incidents with sailors would be hushed over. “Oh, she’s bold,” he would drawl, in a running catch-phrase commentary.
Williams was also a regular in the Carry On series, 31 low-budget British movies released between 1958 and 1992, which played profitably on the New Zealand Kerridge-Odeon movie circuit. They were saucy: Carry On Up the Khyber, Carry on Cruising, Carry on Camping. Williams was often dressed in Bombay bloomers and the solar topee of the cartoon Englishman, or he was tightly buttoned up in a uniform or suit. He was a walking caricature, his voice an extraordinarily strangled version of usual male tones.
It is startling to realise the silence concerning male homosexuality in New Zealand in the 1950s and 60s. For anyone with a homosexual orientation, there was only one route – to become someone Other, someone not the same as everyone else. It was all about Difference, and homosexuals and lesbians were so different that they and their orientations were barely acknowledged in everyday discourse.
Growing up gay was a lonely business. For every Kiwi gay child or adolescent, it was an adventure into the unknown. There were no role models or exemplars, and few explicit stories. Desires, when followed, led into uncharted territory. Words would have to be discovered – and not all of them would be pleasant. It was an unspoken and vastly coded country.
Being gay, there was a whole world of ‘why?’ While heterosexuals never had to consider their origins, it seemed homosexuals, being different, had to devote much effort to the process. Was it genetic, the result of nurture, an effect of early and possibly unremembered sexual molestation, delayed development, or a mental illness? Finding one’s sexual orientation in the great New Zealand dark was often a solitary exercise in metaphysics and self-analysis.
But as always, there were subtle cultural codes that could be unearthed – or created. Many young TV-watching gay boys discovered what could be called the ‘Lieutenant Syndrome’. It seemed to be a rule for every TV series featuring military personnel that the captain was frequently a father figure: burly, authoritative and virile. But then there was the lieutenant, slimmer, prettier and submissive.
The classic example was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964 -1968), an American series which screened at peak time on New Zealand TV. It featured the rugged, resolute Richard Basehart as Admiral Nelson, and the dark-haired, fine-featured David Hedison as Commander Lee Crane, his second-in-command. TV-watching was always a creative exercise. Dreamy sexual subtext was always available to those who required it.
In the mid-60s came the strange and anomalous comedy Bewitched (1964 – 1972). Again, it was prime-time and popular viewing in New Zealand. It was a long-running series about a young and attractive witch, played by Elizabeth Montgomery, who gave up her supernatural heritage in an attempt to live a mortal married life, in secret: a parable for any nascent gay child in an age of suppression.
Bewitched was oddly heightened by the startling fact that, apart from Montgomery, every major actor in the later run of the series was gay or lesbian in real life: Agnes Moorehead, who played haughty, flame-haired Eudora, Samantha’s mother; the outrageously camp Paul Lynde, who played Uncle Arthur; and even Dick Sargent, Samantha’s bewildered husband. Sargent would later go on to be feted as a gay rights pioneer, leading gay parades in major American cities. Lynde would neither confirm nor deny. Moorehead both denied and confirmed.
Television produced in New Zealand was another story. Peter Sinclair, the smooth, well-dressed host of 1960s pop shows like Let’s Go, Happen Inn and C’mon, was the focus of much gay innuendo. Whether this was simply due to his debonair good looks or gossip from real incidents cannot be gauged. New Zealand is a small country after all, and nothing escapes notice. Sinclair’s sexual orientation would eventually become a widespread schoolyard joke.
The popular Sinclair rumour concerned an anally-inserted Vegemite jar that had resulted in a hospitalisation for its removal. It was an anecdote everyone knew, spectacular in its improbable lewdness. It was also often a New Zealand schoolboy’s first encounter with the puzzles of homosexuality, somehow made more immediate by the involvement of a local personality. The why, wherefore, and how, were not addressed.
It was also the real thoughts of a real crowd, created by Chinese whispers, when faced with the homosexual life of a public figure. The rumour was undoubtedly personally hurtful, but it was also culturally significant. It was what the New Zealand public – the rateable viewers, the countable demographic – genuinely felt.
Sinclair never acknowledged his homosexuality publicly, nor did any New Zealand media figure, until singer and entertainer Lew Pryme came out in a pre-recorded documentary screened immediately after his death from HIV/AIDS.
Pryme had a number of pop hits and he featured extensively on New Zealand musical TV programmes in the 1960s – the same ones hosted by Peter Sinclair. In the early 1980s, the Auckland Rugby Union would eventually appoint him its Executive Director. In 1986, Pryme pioneered cheerleaders and music at games to entertain both the crowds and TV audiences. He also co-hosted a regular radio rugby show with Tim Bickerstaff, and discreetly co-owned Backstage, a quasi-legal and late-opening gay club located immediately behind the Auckland Town Hall. His death in 1990, coupled with the on-camera deathbed revelation of his homosexuality, was a game-changer.
Then there was Hudson & Halls. The New Zealand produced cooking show ran from 1976 to 1986, and featured two men guiding the audience through a variety of recipes with flair, drama, and innuendo. There was the blond, affable, British-born David Halls and the smaller and snappier Australian, Peter Hudson. They bickered, camped and drank while creating complex dishes for an audience more used to meat and three veg. “I’m adding a few twists of coarse black pepper to that – very good for the wrist action,” Peter Hudson murmured over one recipe. The programme was extremely popular and survived mystifying attempts by TVNZ to cancel it.
By 1981 the series was regularly ranked in the week’s five most highly rated programmes and the duo had won a Feltex Award for Best Entertainers of the Year. Associated TVNZ publicity material even contained the line “We’re not sure if they are gay, but they certainly are merry,” a sentence dutifully parroted by the couple themselves. They were tolerated because they were amusing. As caricatures they didn’t threaten, but they also provided the titillation of ‘just maybe’. Nearly 300 episodes of Hudson & Halls were eventually recorded.
But it was late in the day. The Wellington Dorian Society had begun its behind-closed-doors social gatherings in the 1960s and established a legal sub-committee. Gay Liberation in New Zealand began meeting in Auckland in 1972 and formed a series of national groups in the major cities. There were Gay Liberation demonstrations, marches up Queen Street, and Parliamentary submissions. The MP Venn Young had introduced a Crimes Amendment Bill in 1974 to legalise homosexual acts between consenting adults. It did not pass.
Hidden in clear sight, Hudson and Halls kept themselves in the realm of innuendo and speculation, but they were already representatives of a vanishing world. Their series was finally cancelled in 1986, the same year that the Crimes Amendment Bill eventually passed in the New Zealand Parliament, despite fiery and polarising debate and a third of the country’s population signing a Coalition of Concerned Citizens petition against the proposed decriminalisation of same-sex relations.
Hudson and Halls relocated to the United Kingdom to reprise the Hudson & Halls format for the BBC. The series was a failure. The reviews were scathing. The UK Daily Star called them “pathetically unfunny”. Comedian Spike Milligan referred to them as a “failed Laurel and Hardy combo”. Hudson died of cancer in 1992. Halls, bereft without his life-partner, committed suicide the following year.
We are made by our media. Television, movies, books, newspapers, and websites provide our examples and guides. We learn from them. They form a history of how we regard ourselves and behave towards one another. Often, however, the implications and consequences remain tragic and uncomfortable.
Watch the 2001 documentary Hudson and Halls – A Love Story below, or click here to browse NZ On Screen’s entire LGBT collection.