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Culture hero: Peter Wells, 1950-2019

Activism and creativity: pioneering LGBT author, screenwriter and “interesting footnote” Peter Wells in 2006. Photo/Liz Marsh/Supplied
Peter Wells wrote books and films about many things in his career as an author and screenwriter. But where his writing shone brightest wasn’t necessarily in his odes to heritage architecture, biographies of historical figures or his stories of LGBT life, love and desire.

His most vital subject, really, was Peter Wells.

His life filled many of his books with eloquent, expansive ruminations on growing up, his sexuality and his family. His last, Hello Darkness, was effectively a third memoir, an account of his dying days.

After starting out as a series of Facebook posts from his hospital bed, it was published last month, a few weeks before his death from prostate cancer. The book was an affecting diary of living with the terminal illness, and reflections on his life – about how being gay had spurred his activism and his creativity.

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Born and educated in Auckland, Wells was undertaking a history doctorate in the late 1970s, at the University of Warwick in England, when he decided to abandon his studies and a likely career in academia to become a writer. Decades later, his history background would help when he penned the acclaimed The Hungry Heart, his 2012 biography of William Colenso. It was followed, two years later, by Journey to a Hanging, about the murder of the Reverend Carl Sylvius Völkner in 1865 and the execution of Kereopa Te Rau for his killing. His study, while at Warwick, of the trial of two Victorian cross-dressers would eventually inspire his 2003 novel Iridescence.

But, before Wells became an author, first came a career as a pioneering film-maker. He returned home from the UK in 1979, with a few published short stories under his belt. One of his earliest professional writing gigs was as movie critic for the Listener, in the early 1980s. His reviews were bookish, occasionally tangential and never let mediocre films off the hook. Late in his tenure, he introduced a positive review: “Someone said to a friend of mine the other day, it would be nice if Peter Wells actually liked a film, for once.”

Words and pictures

In that period, Wells started a relationship and began making films with director Stewart Main, a partnership that produced, among other titles, the 1986 Aids television drama A Death in the Family and the 1993 feature Desperate Remedies. The latter was a wildly extravagant, colourfully camp, colonial melodrama – “the only New Zealand movie without a landscape”, Wells proudly declared. It was selected for the Cannes Film Festival’s offbeat Un Certain Regard section.

“We set out to make disruptive films, which yet had to pass through the rather narrow doors of funding acceptability,” he later wrote about the period. Among his groundbreaking works was Jewel’s Darl, a TV drama starring a pre-politics Georgina Beyer as the titular transsexual, which Wells co-wrote and directed.

“It was a big leap forward, a nod to the future not even in existence yet,” Wells said in Hello Darkness, about the episode that screened, despite TVNZ misgivings, as part of an anthology entitled About Face in 1986.

Other Wells films of the time focused on architectural history. In 1986, The Newest City on the Globe looked at the art deco heritage of post-earthquake Napier, a place where his family’s previous four generations had lived. The city, which would later figure prominently in his books and life, was where he set up a home with partner and eventual husband Douglas Lloyd Jenkins in 2007. His 1988 documentary The Mighty Civic told the story of the Auckland theatre’s role in the city’s cultural history, and is credited with helping save the then-faded picture palace from demolition.

Photo/Jane Ussher/Listener

Having finally made a feature in Desperate Remedies, and splitting with Main, Wells largely turned his back on film.

“After that, I was done. I wanted to get back to the quiet of the page. It wasn’t a bad note to go out on.”

His screen career, he claimed, had also suffered after he heckled John Inman, the camp Mr Humphries from British sitcom Are You Being Served? Inman was a guest presenter at the 1987 Listener Gofta Awards, and Wells’ suggestion (“F--- off, sexist shit”) to Inman made the live broadcast.

The backlash played on Wells’ mind for some time. A man known for his gentlemanly manners and dapper style, he could be sensitive to criticism or when he missed out on awards he thought he deserved.

Having been a pioneering figure in LGBT cinema in New Zealand, Wells would also become one in gay literature. His gift for visual storytelling remained in his erotically charged short story and novella collections Dangerous Desires (1991) and The Duration of a Kiss (1994), with some of the stories inspiring films – director Niki Caro adapted Of Memory and Desire for her debut feature.

They were followed by his debut novel, Boy Overboard, in 1997, a coming-of-age tale with strong echoes of Wells’ childhood in Pt Chevalier, the seaside Auckland suburb that, like Napier, became a backdrop to much of his work.

Outsider art

Wells had more than one outsider life to draw on. His only sibling, older brother Russell, was also gay and died of Aids in 1989.

Wells’ relationship with his brother, two years his senior, and its shifts from 1950s childhood to 1960s adulthood, his death and its devastating effect on his mother, Bess, was at the heart of the 2001 memoir Long Loop Home.

His war-veteran father, Gordon, who died in 1987, appeared as something of a peripheral Willy Loman-like figure in Long Loop Home. Wells based the main character, a former World War II war-crimes investigator whose wartime activities begin to fascinate his adult children, on him in his 2007 novel Lucky Bastard.

He delved deeper into his family’s past in 2018’s Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pākehā History, which acted as a second memoir, of sorts. It was framed by the final months of his 100-year-old mother’s life, and, using a collection of family letters as a map into the past, charted the history of his family, who had arrived in the colonial Hawke’s Bay in the 19th century. The work was addressed to Oliver, the youngest in Wells’ extended family.

Wells hoped the much-acclaimed book would, as Michael King’s Being Pakeha did in 1985, give those whose ancestors weren’t tangata whenua a sense that their family histories and place as New Zealanders matter.

“What I am calling for is a widening of the lens to look at the complete picture of our history. Since Pākehā have been disrobed of the noble toga of ‘pioneer’, ‘settler’ and ‘colonist’, we have been left singularly naked, stripped of all dignity let alone identity. We are the silhouette without a face, demoted into non-beings – we are simply ‘non-Māori’.”

Wells left a legacy beyond his books and films. He co-founded the Auckland Writers Festival in 1998, and in 2016 launched Same Same But Different, a writers’ festival with an LGBTQI perspective. Along with his many book-award nominations and wins, he was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to literature and film, in 2006.

As early as 2001’s Long Loop Home, Wells was contemplating how his work might be regarded.

“I see myself as one of the soon-to-be forgotten workers in culture. I don’t for a moment think any of the artefacts I’ve made – in film or book – will survive or have longevity. But, rather cheerfully, this doesn’t worry me.

“My one wish was to have an effect in a particular area that needed changing, and to add to an aggregate mass, which could be said to be culture in its broadest sense. To be labouring in New Zealand, an emerging culture, has been both difficult and, at times, exhilarating. I’m proud, insofar as I am allowed to be proud, of the fact that I have contributed in some small way. I’m happy to be a footnote, and perhaps my consolation will be that at least I’ll be an interesting footnote, a pungent one.”

This article was first published in the March 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.