Peter Hawes was a man of many parts — playwright, novelist and columnist, actor, presenter and raconteur — but all of these roles reflected a passion for words and language, and a razor-sharp wit.
Hawes was born in Westport in 1947, the son of a miner and rugby league player. When he was four, his father signed to play in Yorkshire and the family spent four years in Bradford (where Peter Sutcliffe, later the Yorkshire Ripper, was one of his playmates).
After graduating with a BA in English and History from the (English) University of Canterbury in 1969, his OE took him from England to Barcelona, where he worked as an English language teacher. An interest in Spanish history inspired a novel based around the Inquisition. One of his students was a publisher, who arranged for it to be published in Spanish as La Hoguera (The Bonfire) in 1974. It has yet to be published in English. It enjoyed notoriety as an anti-Franco parable and became a bestseller, before being banned.
Hawes returned home in 1975 and gravitated to television, working as a news researcher and journalist. His quirky approach to his craft made him an odd fit for state television. He later told The Listener, “I got my start on television telling lies … They always put my items on at the end of the news”.
He fared better after joining the writing team on breakthrough comedy series A Week of It (starting from the very first episode), and found his niche in 1978 with Yours for the Asking. The series was ostensibly created to answer viewers’ questions and search out odd places and characters, but he estimated the first series averaged one and a half factories per episode. He sought to break the tedium with wordplay, telling The Listener “most of the ghastly puns come from factories. All factories are the same, nothing to distinguish them”.
With no wish to play the archetypal presenter, Hawes made it his mission to avoid starting episodes with the standard TV greeting “Hello and welcome to…”. He later recalled, “TV is an easy thing to do. A trained parrot can read the news and quite often does. I think you have a moral obligation to go right to the edge. I used to give myself an almost impossible script to do, then try and pull it together.”
More sober subject matter followed in 1981 as he reconstructed notable court cases in Against the Law. At the time, he was seconded to no fewer than three TVNZ departments — children’s, current affairs and special interest – and, while this underlined his versatility as a researcher, writer and director, it also suggested an employer unsure how to use his irreverent intellect and wit.
The early 80s saw Hawes finding an increasing outlet as a playwright. His plays included Aunt Daisy (about the longtime New Zealand radio broadcaster), Ptolemy’s Dip (set in a museum Egyptology room) and Armageddon Revisited (set in a Taihape lighthouse).
In 1986 he was a surprise choice to follow Lockwood Smith and Selwyn Toogood as host of children’s TV quiz The W Three Show. But his tenure was brief. He told The Sunday Star-Times, “It became gloriously nihilistic. You never knew whether you’d been in a bun fight or on a quiz show. God knows where it would have gone.” He related well to the contestants but a cavalier approach to the format coupled with a tendency to greet incorrect answers with the retort “what a load of rubbish” proved too much for the show’s older viewers and TVNZ itself.
Later in 1986 Hawes was let loose on Auckland, when he presented one-off documentary Beyond the Bombay Hills. In a Listener interview he told Diana Wichtel he wanted to “unplug little snippets of interest, put them in a sort of potpourri and say well, this is how this fat loon saw it when he came here”.
In the same period, Hawes signed on for "the best ride of my life", after being invited to do interviews for Barry Barclay's years in the making genetic resources documentary The Neglected Miracle. Hawes got the job because he spoke some Spanish. After some hairy encounters with guerillas near the Honduras border, the team did more interviews in Europe. Hawes is listed as associate director; he later talked about working with Barclay in this documentary.
After writing a couple of New Zealand shot inserts for Muppet cousin Fraggle Rock, and episodes of the short-lived Peppermint Twist, Hawes cameoed as a preacher in 1989 sci-fi series Night of the Red Hunter. In the early 90s he wrote typically erudite and punning studio scripts for arts show 10AM (later Sunday), and revived his career as a novelist. Second novel Tasman’s Lay was published in 1995 as an attempt at “interesting up” Aotearoa’s Pākehā discoverer Abel Tasman, who Hawes felt unworthy of his place in history. Next came big business satire Leapfrog with Unicorns, inspired partly by research undertaken while working on The Neglected Miracle.
Aside from the occasional short film, Hawes now concentrated on writing. He won an Aotearoa Award after co-starring as a rebellious hippy in short Bird (2011); he played a grandad in quirky coming of age tale Unnatural Selection (2014).
Hawes reviewed television for The Sunday-Star Times, and enjoyed a lengthy stint as a columnist for The Manawatu Standard. In his penultimate column, he complained bitterly about having prompted no complaints during his tenure, and lamented declining standards of writing and grammar in the media. “So I remain alone in an ancient language. I feel much like the ape that stood on the lowest branch of the tree of life but wouldn't jump, wouldn't follow his fellows down onto the savannah”.
Peter Hawes died on 29 October 2018 in his home at Turakina Beach, near Whanganui. He was 71.
Profile written and researched by Michael Higgins; updated on 27 January 2020
'Hawes, Peter' Playmarket website. Accessed 27 January 2020
Matt Conway, ‘The Great Kiwi Novelist’ - The Sunday Star-Times, 22 January 1995
Kate Coughlan, ‘No introspective navel-gazing for novelist’ – The Evening Post, 13 May 1995
Peter Hawes, ‘Farewell, readers, fair and few’ – The Manawatu Standard, 5 February 2013
Ann Lloyd, ‘More Hawes d'oeuvres’ - The Listener, 7 April 1979
Helen Paske, ‘Hawes for the asking’ - The Listener, 26 August 1978 page 22
John Reid, Whatever It Takes - Pacific Films and John O’Shea 1948 - 2000 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2018)
Diana Wichtel, ‘Auckland: The Oblique Angle’ (Interview) –The Listener, 17 August 1985