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The untold story of Hudson and Halls

Hudson and Halls.

They camped-up our TV screens in a repressed era, but Hudson and Halls kept a lid on more than just their sexual orientation, a new book by Joanne Drayton reveals.

Keeping secrets was already second nature to Peter Hudson by the time he and partner David Halls – best known for their eponymous TV show Hudson and Halls – cooked their way, sizzling, bickering and hooting with laughter, into the affections of New Zealand TV audiences.

When they went to air in 1975, it would still be another 10 years until the Homosexual Law Reform Act would finally sweep away the fear of prosecution. In a sense, Hudson and Halls were hiding in plain sight on national television.

And it wasn’t the only secret, as writer Joanne Drayton reveals in her new book Hudson & Halls: The Food of Love. Drayton is the New York Times best-selling author of The Search for Anne Perry, about the convicted murderer originally known as Juliet Hulme, who became a successful crime author after moving to Britain.

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Drayton’s latest work is first and foremost a story of two men who fell in love at first sight, a flamboyant couple who found fame in New Zealand at a time when, she writes, sexism and racism were the norm, abortion illegal and homosexuality was “an abomination”. Laws specified lengthy jail terms for “bestiality” and “buggery” and international medical literature branded homosexuality as a psychiatric illness.

As Drayton notes, “For many of Peter and David’s contemporaries, visibility was anathema. They had been conditioned by years of awkward silence or open hostility to keep quiet and to pass as much as possible as heterosexuals. This was not Peter and David’s style. They were not ashamed of being gay. They belonged to a transitional generation: not veterans of war or baby boomers, but one containing elements of both. They had what social commentator Barry Miles describes as ‘a new flamboyant personal style [that] was a reaction to the cold, war-hardened, emotionally repressed male embodied by the returning soldier. Young men were almost purposefully effeminate in their satins and frills, in their revealed vulnerability and innocence.’ But like the generation before them, Peter and David were not anti-Establishment. In spite of their extroverted flamboyance, they would not talk about being gay or discuss sexual matters in public. They were also smart enough to realise that being politically rather than privately gay might hinder their progress in parochial New Zealand.”

“It was very rare,” Drayton tells the Listener, to see these relationships on the screen. “The thing that was huge about them was that it was the first time we were actually seeing [a gay couple] on TV and it was also that really domestic life. It was almost like we were at home in their kitchen and they were bitching, and bickering, and back-chatting each other and doing the things that almost felt really private. It was like their private life revealed. And the most remarkable thing I used to think to myself was, ‘How the hell are they getting away with this?’”

Did Peter Hudson and David Halls take a personal risk with their on-screen conduct given the legal strictures surrounding homosexuality? Even now, Drayton says, Halls’ family in the UK are not unanimously pleased to have the spotlight turned, yet again, on their famous cousin and brother. Most of them did not address the issue of his sexual orientation while he was alive and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy still applies for some of them more than 20 years after his death.

Joanne Drayton. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Eureka moment

During her research, Drayton uncovered a story that was an even greater secret. It concerned Hudson, the older, quieter and arguably funnier of the pair. Peter created a new back-story for his fresh start in New Zealand. Some of it was real but much of it imagined. There was the privileged part – he was from a smart suburb of Melbourne, but as Drayton discovered, he embellished the truth and omitted disturbing elements of his childhood there.

Hudson’s birthdate was registered as November 8, 1931, five years after a headline-grabbing trial that brought his family unwanted and scandalous attention. His life in leafy Toorak was ostensibly as the son of a well-off family running a maternity home. Drayton’s revelations in her book – of the maternity home’s darker side as an illegal abortion clinic, and of the trial for murder of the woman he believed to be his mother, Mary Ethel Hudson – were definitely not part of Peter’s narrative in his new life in New Zealand. While he initially believed Mary Ethel was his mother, he was later told that his sister, Biddy, 21 years older than him, had in fact given birth to him. The murkiness surrounding his parentage was never resolved completely and he may, it seems, have been adopted by the Hudsons. But he certainly never wanted any of these facts out in the open, and told no one after he left Melbourne.

As part of her research, Drayton travelled to the US, the UK and Australia. Her eureka moment as a researcher came in Melbourne at the end of a long and frustratingly unproductive day of going through files. She’d hoped to find out more about Hudson but had little to show for two days of work. What she finally found – after what she calls “a Hudson and Halls moment” of venting her frustrations with partner Sue Marshall at their hotel on one of their last nights in the city – makes for a riveting chapter. “I hadn’t slept. It was something like 4 or 5 in the morning, and I decided to try once more. What I put in [the search engine] was Mary Ethel Hudson, just three words. I wasn’t expecting much as I had put in Hudson and Halls and got little. But what came up – I said to Sue, “My God, this is amazing, it can’t be true”. I actually did a jig beside the bed. What I was reading said so much about Peter and the world he lived in.”

What Drayton had found was the newspaper coverage of the sensational 1926 murder trial. It explained for Drayton why Hudson, after moving to New Zealand, told various and sometimes conflicting stories about his origins. “You can imagine the disruptions and the difficulties, not knowing who your parents are, but always knowing it was not how it should be,” she says.

Hudson and Halls.

Reinventing themselves

What is beyond dispute is that both Hudson, of indeterminate parentage, education and means, of Melbourne, and Halls, working class, of England, had glimpsed, as they grew into young men, the possibilities of a better life. Both realised they needed to leave their pasts behind, to reinvent themselves, and to be themselves.

Drayton had been fascinated by the Hudson and Halls story since watching a 2001 documentary, Hudson and Halls: A Love Story. The 2015 stage play Hudson & Halls Live! prompted her to get on with writing her book. The chance to devote her time exclusively to it came when she was awarded the Logan Nonfiction Fellowship at the Carey Institute for Global Good, in upstate New York.

Her research tells how Halls, born on October 14, 1936, grew up in England during and after World War II. His family, having lost their home to a bomb, moved around and, for one glorious period as he approached his teens, he had his first real taste of the good life. His parents were in service for a well-to-do family at an upper- middle-class home, Theydon Hall. Their unusually egalitarian employers allowed the young David to take part in their family life. He played with their children, ate with them, took trips with them. Importantly, he learned about good food, and how it could connect people. His sexuality was never spoken of and would not have been accepted by his family. Discretion was something he learned early in life.

Meanwhile, while working at the upmarket Georges department store on fashionable Collins St in Melbourne, Hudson decided to head to London for a taste of Savile Row sophistication. But, Drayton says, without connections or family support, London proved too expensive, and he headed home. By 1962, he was looking at Auckland for longer-term prospects, and once he crossed the Tasman, worked for several years for the shipping company P&O. Halls had already been in Auckland three years, working as a shoe designer for Clarke and Coventry, when Hudson arrived.

Alison Holst on set wit Hudson and Halls.

Talk of the town

The early years of the couple’s relationship weren’t easy financially. But 1971 was a watershed year – they established a shoe retail business, Julius Garfinkel, in the swanky Strand Arcade on Queen St. They were upbeat, and they expanded their horizons to opening ice-cream businesses. Although these wouldn’t last, the gregarious couple made an impression and connections in Auckland and beyond. Among their friends were people who led big lives – they travelled the world with Gavin and Jan Cormack and met the Cormacks’ new celebrity pal, Elton John. Drayton explains that this relationship ended in tears, and in court. Elton John’s manager, John Reid, was sentenced to a month in prison for assault at an after-show party in Auckland for the American pop singer David Cassidy. Elton John performed at Western Springs before his own court appearance the next day, where he was fined $50 for assault. The friendships did not survive the fallout despite Hudson and Halls taking food hampers to Reid in Mt Eden Prison and hosting a party at their flash Parnell home to celebrate Reid’s release.

Drayton notes that TV was as much part of Hudson and Halls’ life as anyone else. Television, black and white until 1973, had been around since 1960 and, although it revolutionised the way people saw the world and themselves, its earliest offerings were relatively colourless by today’s standards, designed for universal appeal and to avoid offence.

Predominantly meat-and-three-veg New Zealanders had quickly taken to on-screen food programmes – Graham Kerr was the early, debonair face of TV cooking, counterbalanced by Alison Holst, the sensible, budget-conscious, culinary mother of the TV-watching nation. Compared to them, Hudson and Halls – colourful in more ways than one, and with exotic dishes such as sweet avocado pie, and humour sometimes infused with sexual innuendo – might as well have come from another planet – and in some ways they did. They were especially interested in Graham Kerr’s programmes, and wondered if they might find a place for themselves in the new television world. They did – impressing enough to eventually move their show to evenings in 1977, and releasing a best-selling cookbook at the same time. They also established their own restaurant, in St Marys Bay in 1979 – Hudson and Halls Oyster and Fish Restaurant – and moved from Parnell to St Marys Bay, where they continued to host their famous parties. They acquired a Bentley, which neither had a licence to drive, adding to the sense that the couple were back in the game. Television work continued alongside the restaurant and the couple later bought a coastal block near Leigh, where they lived up to their incomes, entertaining their friends.

An unguarded cooking moment for Peter Hudson. Photo/Supplied

Riches to despair

But television audiences can be harsh or fickle. Ratings declined and, by 1986, Hudson and Halls’ decade in New Zealand television was over. Following the boom, and then bust, of their popularity and fortunes in New Zealand, the pair moved permanently to London in 1990, where they found work with the BBC. As they had in Auckland, they moved into the right part of town. Their first address, an apartment in St James’s, was next to the Ritz Hotel, and when they had to move, it was to nearby Jermyn St. They partied, as ever, and worked hard to find favour with their TV audiences but the UK TV reviewers were harsh. Times were lean, and became tougher, when Hudson’s prostate cancer, in remission for several years, returned with a vengeance. When Hudson died, in 1992, Drayton says Halls tried to present a happy face to friends and do TV on his own but, without Peter, he was a lost soul. He died by suicide in 1993.

“When David lost his other half,” Drayton says, “he lost more than just a half – he lost the huge force that they created together: the humour, the entertainment and the colour. It was really sad but he just didn’t have it in himself to live without Peter. They had become one entity.”

For Drayton, researching the book was like “looking in a mirror”. She’d paid a high price years ago when she left her husband for Marshall, becoming estranged from one of her two birth children. Despite the pain that her own lesbian identity brought her, she says there was a kind of enchantment in writing the Hudson and Halls story.

“It is the world that I grew up in and they were an important part of that world. The things that they contended with were the things that I knew about. So it was just such a great experience. And you have to be consumed by your work to be able to make those stories come alive.”

David Halls on pool duty at their Leigh farm. Photo/Supplied

Drayton is aware of the responsibility in telling the story of men who can no longer have the last word, witty or otherwise.

“I love those guys. They did me a favour, as Anne Perry did. Writing these stories is always a privilege and a sacred thing, because it involves truth, and details that people shy away from. You can never take that access for granted. I have always thought I would like to be able to still sit in the same room with the person whose biography I had written, and for them to at least understand why I said what I had about them and to be at peace with it.”

For New Zealanders who missed the heady days of Hudson and Halls, there is little left in New Zealand TV archives to show the development and range of the duo who once transfixed the nation. “They [broadcasters] did the typical thing of recording over [the film reels] and destroying the show, but the BBC have what they did there. So we could buy those back.”

Showing Hudson and Halls in the kitchen, with their sometimes outrageous style, coupled with their respect for food and its social dimension, normalised them as gay men in ways people had not previously seen, Drayton says. “I think popular television has done more than anything else to change our attitudes to being gay, to gayness, to lesbian relationships and gay relationships. It allowed those lives to become part of our popular canon.”

This article was first published in the October 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.