Bringing back an awesome show from 20 or 30 years ago may seem like the answer to all our modern TV problems, but is it really? Today, Calum Henderson examines the case for bringing back a true crime masterclass.
Mike Bungay QC was a New Zealand lawyer so famous they gave him his own TV show. The no-nonsense Bungay On Crime aired for one series in 1992, with each episode exploring a different notable or unusual local crime. The series ended with a riveting two-parter titled ‘A Ferry Tale’, both episodes of which can be viewed at NZ On Screen.
There are two things that immediately stand out about Bungay On Crime. The first is Bungay’s unconventional hosting manner: he stands square to the camera and almost shouts his script straight down the barrel. The second is the incredible set. Bungay presents the show amidst what appears to be ancient Roman ruins, for no discernable reason other that it looks bloody cool.
‘A Ferry Tale’ is a belter of a yarn. At the centre of it is an American called Milton Harris who in 1985 staged one of the most ambitious fake deaths New Zealand has ever seen when he supposedly fell overboard from the Cook Strait ferry. Facing a mammoth life insurance payout, Lloyd’s contracted chartered loss adjustor David Denton to investigate whether or not he really did die.
Bungay interviews Denton in his office and he begins to unravel the incredible story. Early in his investigation it was discovered Harris has fallen overboard from another ferry about a week earlier in Adelaide, ‘accidentally’ riding his motorcycle off the edge of the ramp. When he didn’t surface, a reverend jumped in to save him. “It was the coldest day in Adelaide in four years,” recalls Denton. The reverend later told police Harris didn’t seem to want to be rescued, and actually, he appeared to be wearing a diver’s mask.
The investigator theorises that Harris, wearing full diving gear, had planned to walk along the seafloor to where his campervan was parked, half a kilometre away. “To fall off a ferry once is one thing, but to fall off two different ferries within one week in two different countries obviously adds up to… something that stinks,” he surmises accurately.
It only gets weirder. Years after disappearing off the Cook Strait ferry Harris resurfaces in Auckland where a stunning reenactment shows him being caught stealing a value pack of undies from the Queen Street DEKA. He tells police he’s a Chilean refugee called Rodellejo Jose Mancano. After another incident, Inspector Gerry Hugglestone tells Bungay, he claimed to be a Whangarei farmer called Robert Scott. It was four years to the day since his ferry disappearance that police finally got him to confess.
The second part of ‘A Ferry Tale’ explains how he did it, and what happened one he was sent back to the US.
Bringing It Back
Clearly we need to bring this awesome show back. The main obstacle would appear to be the fact that Mike Bungay died in 1993. Can you really bring back Bungay On Crime without Bungay?
Wouldn’t it be great to have a proper crime show like this, one that dug deep into a handful of this country’s weirdest crimes? Something in between the quick fix gratification of Motorway Patrol and the exhaustively detailed reporting on New Zealand crime’s ‘Big Three’ of Bain, Lundy and Watson.
But who would host it? A Google search for ‘famous New Zealand lawyer’ returns a list of people either dead or Mai Chen. Presentation-wise, Graham Bell, New Zealand’s most famous former police officer, is probably the closest thing we have to a modern day Bungay – but his adjective-heavy Police Ten 7 persona might not be compatible with the more formal On Crime format.
There is one option we haven’t considered, one which didn’t exist back in 1992: the podcast. True crime is the bread and butter of podcasting, but aside from Stuff’s Bain-focused Black Hands and RNZ’s mostly colonial-era Black Sheep, there’s a huge gap in the market for a high production value local crime podcast in the Bungay on Crime mold.
For: True crime as entertainment has never been bigger. New Zealand has long history of weird crimes that deserve a decent re-airing and bringing back proven heavy-hitter Bungay On Crime is the best way to do it.
Against: Of course you can’t remake Bungay On Crime without Bungay, idiot. People’s attention spans have also shrunk approximately 500% since 1992 – even the most riveting crime is going to seem boring to modern audiences in this format.
Recommendation: Find a Bungay 2.0 – could be anyone, really – and remake the show as a prestige podcast. It’ll be so popular it eventually gets made into a TV show anyway.
What other New Zealand TV shows from 20 or 30 years ago do you think deserve to be brought back? Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘Bring it back’ and we’ll try to convince the network bigwigs to do something about it.
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