Hudson and Halls Live returns, bringing two 80s culinary stars back to the stage

by Rosabel Tan / 22 June, 2017
Todd Emerson, left, as David Halls and Chris Parker as Peter Hudson in the play Hudson & Halls Live!

As a smash-hit play about two of New Zealand’s biggest culinary stars returns to Auckland stages, theatre-makers, actors, husbands and Hudson & Halls Live! creators Kip Chapman and Todd Emerson discuss making political work, homophobia, and finding their camp.

The idea came to them at a party. Actor Todd Emerson had recently completed a four-month cooking course, and the conversation that night wound its way to the subject of Peter Hudson and David Halls, the pair of celebrity TV chefs known for their flamboyance, wit, and extravagant approach to life – all of it on vivid display as they cooked for the cameras. Like most people who grew up after the 1980s, Emerson and his husband – theatre-maker Kip Chapman – knew only a little about the pair, but as with all great love stories, they knew at once it was meant to be.

Todd Emmerson and Kip Chapman. Photo /Todd Eyre

“What drew me to the show initially,” says Chapman, “was what you could do theatrically with the concept: two crazy characters, live cooking onstage, and it’s the 1980s. That just ticked all my theatrical boxes.” From there, everything seemed to slide into place: their friend Sophie Roberts had recently been named the new artistic director of Silo Theatre, and the three of them spent 2015 developing the immersive, chaotic, slice-of-live-television show, although much of the groundwork was laid in those first few hours. “If you’d spoken to us the day after we came up with it, we’d essentially be explaining the same show as what’s on now.”

Rather than telling their entire life story, the show reimagines a pivotal moment in Hudson and Halls’ career, bringing audiences into a 1980s-era television studio for a live recording of a Christmas special. True to their real-life personas, David (played by Chris Parker) spends the evening charming the show’s guests and pouring drink after drink, while Peter (Emerson) scrambles to keep things under control. It’s exquisitely choreographed and a hilarious shambles.

It’s also a heart-twisting microcosm for a very specific time in New Zealand history. When Hudson and Halls made their television debut in 1975, homosexuality was still illegal – and would continue to be for another decade. Yet there – incredibly! Suddenly! – on our screens was a gay couple who argued and joked and made a mess in the kitchen. It wasn’t long before they became national icons: they were given their own late-night television slot, hosted a radio show, opened a seafood restaurant in Ponsonby, published a collection of cookbooks and were crowned Entertainers of the Year in 1981.

You could say the most liberating aspect of their work was their blasé approach to what had traditionally been taken quite seriously: cooking. While other celebrity chefs somberly explained the best ways to prepare a cabbage, Hudson and Halls drank on set, burned their food, and delighted in imperfection. “Don’t worry too much,” their cookbooks instructed. “You can always add more wine, or go out to dinner.”

Although they were deeply in love, they never spoke openly about their relationship, or advocated for gay rights. “They were political in the sense that they were against the banal,” says Chapman, “and against the blandness of our culture. That’s why it was all about dinner parties and extravagance and flamboyance and talking about your feelings.”

“History will show them as being political in a way,” Emerson adds. “Because they existed as they were. They weren’t butching anything up for TV – they were the complete opposite.” They were inadvertently political, normalising something without ever giving it a name. “But you could question that,” Chapman adds. “Were they normalising it?” Emerson and Chapman spend a moment debating this: were they seen as clowns? Were audiences laughing at them, or with them?

Todd Emmerson and Kip Chapman at their Auckland home. Photo /Todd Eyre

It’s a distinction that came up in their recent season in Kerikeri. “People loved it,” says Chapman, “but being gay up there, you’re definitely an ‘other’.” The two of them recount moments where the laughter felt different – moments where it felt less supportive. Emerson talks about the two women who got up at the end of the show to have their photo taken with the cast. Rather than coming with them, their husbands stayed in their seats. “I said, ‘don’t the boys want to be in the photo?’ And the women said very matter-of-factly – “smilingly!” Chapman says disbelievingly – “No, they’re homophobic.”

But they see these moments as important, and experiences like these are matched with others: people who have driven for hours just to see the show, one generation marvelling at a story they’ve never encountered, and another, nostalgic and marvelling at how far we’ve come; rapt audiences emboldened by two figures who were brazenly and proudly themselves.

Hudson and Halls kept their relationship secret right until the end. Hudson died of prostate cancer in 1991, and 14 months later, Halls – alone in London – took his own life. Their love for each other was never publicly acknowledged. “I remember watching an interview with David,” says Chapman, “and they said ‘your friend Peter passed away. That must have been difficult’. In the end, David was alone because he wasn’t allowed to talk about the person that meant the most to him. His life partner.”

Although their relationship would have been legal by this time, it came late. “For 55 years of his life, he’d been conditioned to never say anything because it was illegal,” Chapman adds. “I think it’s too much to ask someone to change. And also, once it gets past being illegal, it would have been detrimental to his career. It still is in Hollywood. I mean, we know actors in our country who are in the closet, publicly, because it’s detrimental to their acting career. Now. In 2017.”

They shake their heads. “It’s bizarre,” says Emerson. Adds Chapman: “It’s insane.”
Their own coming-out stories are vastly different: Emerson was 16, and had been working in theatre and film since he was 11. He already felt accepted. “I didn’t have any bad reactions,” he said. “It was easy and quite natural for me.” Chapman was 22 and out of drama school (“Which is pretty amazing,” comments Emerson, “that you can get through drama school without coming out”). He had a classmate who was quite camp. “The way I looked at it was, well, I’m not camp so therefore I’m not gay.”

His parents didn’t take it well, and his friends “kind of supported me, but made it clear they were happy I hadn’t changed – meaning I was a heteronormative gay person. I believed, especially for the first years, that it was important to be heteronormative. So it wasn’t quick.” He’s been thinking more recently about the idea of campness. “Chris Parker talks about it a lot – the idea of embracing and developing his own inner camp, and he’s really inspired me and taught me to do the same.”

At this point, Chapman pauses and says, “coming out is never a quick thing. That was 14 years ago, and I’m sure the journey hasn’t finished yet. You’re always coming out, every day.” Emerson nods. “You’re always choosing,” he says. “When I choose to refer to my husband: that’s coming out.”

“And you often choose not to mention your partner because you can’t be bothered,” Chapman agrees. “It’s not so much the backlash anymore. It’s the energy you have to give to the person to reassure them. When you tell someone you’re gay, there’s a real rhythm to how it goes. Everyone’s voice goes up in pitch. Everyone talks quite fast, and then it settles down once you’ve made a joke to make them feel more comfortable. That’s the tiring thing.”

Since its critically acclaimed Auckland season in 2015, Hudson & Halls Live! has travelled to Wellington, Kerikeri and Wanaka. Following their return season in Auckland, they’ll be heading down to Christchurch and Dunedin. By the end of the year, it will have been performed more than 100 times, making it one of the more widely performed productions in New Zealand history.

Elsewhere, Emerson has been shooting Westside and is developing a cabaret with composer Paul McLaney, while Chapman has been busy in his new role as artistic director of World of WearableArt. As they tell me about their plans to take the production overseas next year, Emerson’s eyes widen. “That bird just put a Burger Ring on the fence,” he says. Outside their house (they got the keys the same day the show premiered), is exactly that: a small blackbird hopping happily along the ledge, and an almost impossibly positioned orange-crusted O, facing us head-on. It’s a strange and perfect scene, and – much like their show – infuses an everyday moment with unexpected magic, telling a story that lingers long after you’ve left. 

Hudson & Halls Live! shows at Q Theatre, 27 Jun–9 Jul

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