Peter Hayden’s career makes him a very unusual species indeed. His extensive acting resume stretches from Beyond Reasonable Doubt to stage play The Daylight Atheist; he also spent three decades making and presenting nature documentaries.
Hayden's double screen careers began in tandem in the late 70s, although by the 90s the documentary work had taken centre stage. Hayden first began acting while studying for his Bachelor of Science at Massey University. Then he headed to drama school in Wellington, where he continued the stage acting and joined the team of reporters on five day a week magazine show Today at One.
The glory period acting-wise came in the mid 80s. Hayden won a leading role in award-winning Maurice Gee TV serial The Fire-Raiser, as the teacher to whom the story’s young characters confide. He also won a GOFTA for portraying 1860s Presbyterian minister Alexander Don in acclaimed goldmining tale Illustrious Energy.
Hayden’s most front and centre role in this period was 1986 road movie Arriving Tuesday. Made on the smell of an oily rag, Tuesday marked a rare Kiwi stab at producing an intelligent screen romance. Hayden plays the flawed but charismatic sculptor who goes travelling with his old flame (Judy McIntosh).
Tuesday and Illustrious Energy arguably won less attention than they deserved, partly due to their small-scale releases. He was seen by far more in a throwaway role in car crash romp Shaker Run (as Lisa Harrow’s boyfriend), and was heard providing voices for the hit movie of Footrot Flats, including that of villain Irish Murphy and Cooch, the 'greenie' neighbour. In 2003 his old Massey University mate Tom Scott cast him to star in one-man play The Daylight Atheist. Since then Hayden has made occasional screen appearances, including as the grandfather in 2015 TV hit 800 Words .
Peter Hayden’s second career is closely tied to the rise of documentary company NHNZ, which had began around 1977 as the Natural History Unit, a small team of wildlife enthusiasts and programme-makers at TV1’s Dunedin studios. These days the company has offices in Beijing and Washington, and their programming has expanded across many fields.
Hayden was called in a few years after launch, recruited by future NHNZ boss Michael Stedman to "write a couple of scripts .. I forgot to leave". Working with fellow new recruit Rod Morris on successful 1980 documentary Seven Black Robins, he soon realised that some wife-swapping was going on among the stars. "I think that was our first break-through story," he said later. "Using the footage to tell some good science, but also to take you into the personalities of the animals involved." Hayden’s mixture of screen experience and science knowledge (thanks to his animal physiology degree) made him the right man for the job.
Hayden would go on to write, narrate and occasionally direct for long-running catch-all nature series Wild South. He also co-hosted children’s show Wildtrack, which in the early 80s, won the Feltex Award for best children’s programme three years straight.
Later he personally undertook two important journeys for the Natural History Unit. As director and presenter of 1985 series Journeys across Latitude South 45, Hayden examined New Zealand’s geology and history by following the 45th line of latitude across the South Island. He won a GOFTA award for his script for this episode.
Three years later Hayden won a writing award at the Listener Film and TV Awards for his work on Journeys in National Parks, which he also presented. The programme saw him on location with a range of directors, from Barry Barclay to longtime colleagues Michael Hacking and Neil Harraway.
Hayden ranks Moa’s Ark (1990) as a high point. It was a vital stepping stone in the Natural History Unit’s rise to multi-national programme maker. This time Hayden handed the microphone to bearded British naturalist David Bellamy, as they explored New Zealand’s unique nature and geological history. Hayden directed and produced. 20 years later he revisited some of its theories via series Weird Edens, which explored unique evolution on islands around the world.
Hayden writes about some of the classic NHNZ shows he worked on here.
In 1997 Fox Television Studios purchased an 80 percent share in the Natural History Unit, and soon after, the whole company — now renamed Natural History New Zealand Ltd. Hayden was promoted to Head of Production Development. Five years later he spearheaded the company’s first moves into making programmes in China. He also did time as Head of Special Projects.
In 2006 Hayden left New Zealand to spend a year with NHNZ’s Amsterdam-based distributors Off the Fence. The same year, Equator won a Gold Medal at the New York Festivals (Hayden was one of the show’s writers). As a producer for NHNZ, his work included Animal Planet and the 13-part Buggin’ With Ruud, featuring extroverted bugman Ruud Kleinpaste.
Peter Hayden retired in 2012, but remains passionately curious.
Profile updated on 5 May 2020
Peter Hayden, 'Peter Hayden' (scroll down) Massey University website. Loaded 5 April 2006. Accessed 6 June 2017
Clive Morris, 'Today At One - How to Beat Viewer Rating Records' - TV Personality Parade (Wellington: TV One, INL, 1976)
Bronwyn Sell, 'My happy place: Peter Hayden, author' (broken link)- The NZ Herald, 5 May 2013