Peter Bland has described the first part of his life as “the beginning of a restless journeying between the land of my birth and the country of my adoption”.
Bland grew up in the Yorkshire town of Scarborough. Until 11, he stayed mostly with relatives — his parents were in Nigeria, where his English father traded cocoa and peanuts. His mother died when Bland was 13, and his father soon after.
Bland’s horizons began to widen while doing National Service. Having enjoyed some of the patriotic poetry force-fed to him at school, he was now realising poetry could also be “the voice of the outsider and the dispossessed”. But ideas of developing his own artistic potential "didn't even occur".
Feeling a need to shake things up and leave his limited history behind, Bland paid 10 pounds, and joined a scheme to immigrate to New Zealand.
Bland’s steamship arrived in Wellington in 1954; he was 20. His guaranteed Government job was as a social security clerk. Bland got time off to study English and education at university. He began writing poetry in his efforts "to make sense of a new country”, and soon felt at home among Wellington’s “eclectic mixture of local talents and visiting transients” — among them poets James K Baxter and Louis Johnson. Bland’s first poetry collection Habitual Fevers (1958) won the MacMillan Brown Prize for creative writing. Many more volumes were to follow, in both NZ and the UK.
After writing some radio plays, Bland joined the NZ Broadcasting Corporation, making radio talk shows and documentaries. He launched national arts programme Kaleidoscope (forerunner of the TV show), and a regular slot of NZ short stories. Worried that the country was a little shy on national self-examination, Bland also launched talk show Looking at Ourselves. His superiors soon asked that he not use certain critics. Within weeks of Bland leaving the job, the show was scrapped.
Bland then got a job writing features at the Listener. Editor Monte Holcroft left him to it, even after noticing that Bland, when not letting out his infectious laugh, was often “engaged in something that had nothing to do with the Listener” — writing poetry.
In 1963 Martyn Sanderson told him about his dream of establishing a professional theatre company. Bland agreed that it was certainly time for a fresh approach to New Zealand theatre; in the early 60s a new energy was sweeping through the country’s art scene. Sanderson, Bland and actor Tim Eliott co-founded Downstage Theatre in Wellington, after a public meeting met by both enthusiasm and stink bombs.
Though Bland has argued modestly that his acting work at Downstage began as a sideline, “filling in for character roles”, he was taking starring roles as early as the theatre’s second production (The Zoo Story). Bruce Mason later called the play “the most promising omen in New Zealand theatre for years”.
As artistic director, Bland was also encouraging New Zealand writers, though full length Kiwi plays were then rare. One of the few was Bland’s own Father’s Day. Set in a “poverty-stricken New Zealand kitchen” and inspired by his time in a Lower Hutt state house, the play won good reviews, and a sell-out season. By now Bland was pining for England. Seeing swinging London in movie Blow Up sealed the deal. Armed with a letter of introduction from Richard and Edith Campion, he got an acting job with the Bristol Old Vic Company.
Though he acted in Richard II, being “the guy with the big nose” Bland quickly found comedy was where the action was. He appeared in more than a dozen West End farces while working for famed comic Brian Rix: “mistaken identity, beautiful girls hiding in cupboards, all that”. Bland played Arab sheiks and mad detectives. Many were filmed by the BBC, while Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something became a 1976 movie.
He also guest-starred as a Greek-Cypriot in the first season of Minder, and appeared on TV alongside comedians Bob Hope, Les Dawson, and Victoria Wood.
Bland continued to write poetry, most of it about New Zealand. Then in 1983, old Downstage mate Ian Mune invited him back from the West End to star in Mune’s debut movie as director, Came a Hot Friday.
Bland’s improvisational talents were encouraged on set. Bland starred as flamboyant conman Wes Pennington, a man who “thinks he’s a winner, but he’s always going to be a loser”. Came a Hot Friday had a dream run with critics and fans, and Bland won an NZ Film award for best actor. Critic Nicholas Reid later praised Bland as a major element in "the film’s comic buoyancy", mentioning his grand caricature, "confident Groucho-lope", and battered dignity when caught in tight spots.
Bland found “filmmaking here a much more creative and democratic experience than in England. There, it’s all so by-the-book”. So he decided to stay a while.
The perfection of the Came a Hot Friday experience became clearer in retrospect. Bland played crime bosses in forgotten thriller Dangerous Orphans and teen movie Queen City Rocker. He was award-nominated after playing a miner in period TV drama Heart of the High Country, acted in the offbeat Seekers and starred as a hospital orderly alongside George Henare in comedy Porters — which failed to fly, despite a talented creative team, including the yankee director drafted in to demonstrate how TV comedy is done. Bland was nominated for a local best male actor award for his work on the show. He also made an un-screened pilot for his own self-titled show.
In 1989 Bland returned to England, where he continued to act and write poetry - his themes had now moved from suburban social realism to migration — and won an ongoing role as a butler in a series of Spanish-shot TV commercials. Bland retired from acting around 2000, later concluding there had long been “some antagonism between the actor and the poet” over who was boss.
Since then he has continued to write poetry from both sides of the Antipodes. Bland’s son Carl (one of three children with late wife Beryl) has followed him into acting.
Profile written and researched by Ian Pryor
Peter Bland, sorry, I’m a stranger here myself - a memoir (Auckland: Random House, 2004)
'Bland, Peter', (Profile), New Zealand Book Council Website. Accessed 3 March 2010
Steve Braunias, ‘The second man’, (Interview) – Listener, 29 November 2003, Volume 191, No 3316
Monte Holcroft, Reluctant Editor; the ‘Listener‘ years, 1949-67 (Wellington: Reed, 1969)
Bruce Mason, Every Kind of Weather (Reed Metheun, 1986)
Ian Mune, Mune - An Autobiography (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2010)
Nicholas Reid, A Decade of New Zealand Film - Sleeping Dogs to Came a Hot Friday (Dunedin: James McIndoe, 1986)
Came a Hot Friday press kit