Dear Murderer tells the tale of our most flamboyant lawyers

by Fiona Rae / 06 September, 2017
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Mark Mitchinson as Mike Bungay in Dear Murderer.

The life and times of one of our most high-profile lawyers are revealed in new five-part series Dear Murderer. 

Rapscallion criminal lawyer Mike Bungay, who was involved in some of the country’s most high-profile cases, is in the spotlight once again in Dear Murderer (TVNZ 1, Thursday, September 7, 8.30pm).

The five-episode biography is based on the book of the same name by his wife, Ronda, who worked with him in the last 10 years of his life.

Bungay, who came here from England with his first wife and children in 1961, tossed a coin in the registration line at university to become a lawyer, rather than the country’s most flamboyant accountant. As it turned out, he loved it, says the series’ writer, John Banas.

Bungay would go on to appear in more than 100 murder trials, and he famously defended William Sutch in 1975 in the country’s first and only espionage trial. That extraordinary event set Bungay up for the rest of his career, says Banas, but the series isn’t just about his days in court. Inspired by Ronda’s book, he and director Riccardo Pellizzeri chose cases that highlight Bungay as a human being as well as a lawyer.

“The Sutch trial was a springboard to the rest of his career, but it was also a trial about ego and honesty and tyranny, in a way, and these were all things that he had been dealing with early in his life,” says Banas. Some of Bungay’s tough childhood is depicted and the series is about redemption as much as a larger-than-life character who became legendary for his antics in and out of court.

“It is an examination of the law and of justice and how the two don’t always necessarily intersect – and about a passionate and caring and, yes, immensely flawed man.”

Bungay was an alcoholic and “incorrigible womaniser” and often in trouble with the Wellington District Law Society, says Banas, for offences ranging from his brown shoes (not allowed in court) to registering his car in dog’s name to avoid parking tickets.

The role was a gift for Mark Mitchinson, who already had a taste of the Bungay style when he depicted him in How to Murder Your Wife, about Karori murderer Alf Benning.

The series’ title comes from a letter Bungay wrote after the jailed Benning had wished him a “long, lingering and very painful death”. “Dear Murderer,” began Bungay’s reply. “My friends and I are heading out to the beach shortly to enjoy a leisurely picnic. What are you doing?”

This article was first published in the September 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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