An unlikely murderer

Simon O'Connor as Alf Benning and his ''domineering wife'', played by Geraldine Brophy. Photos by...
Simon O'Connor as Alf Benning and his ''domineering wife'', played by Geraldine Brophy. Photos by TVNZ.
Alf Benning with his much loved dog Shep raises money for the 1977 Telethon.
Alf Benning with his much loved dog Shep raises money for the 1977 Telethon.
Simon O'Connor as Alf Benning giving his side of the story when arrested for his wife's murder.
Simon O'Connor as Alf Benning giving his side of the story when arrested for his wife's murder.

Dunedin playwright and actor Simon O'Connor has taken on a grisly role, that of a browbeaten husband who snaps with bizarre results. He tells Rebecca Fox about playing a real-life murderer.

Alfred Benning was the most unlikely murderer.

''What I gleaned of Alfred . . . was a meek and mild-looking, little fella. The idea he was a murderer didn't compute,'' actor Simon O'Connor says.

It was that dichotomy that attracted the mostly theatre and live-performance actor to the script of television movie How to Murder Your Wife which screened at the weekend.

''It sounded like a very interesting approach. This guy telling his, albeit extremely unreliable version of events, in an interesting and quirky approach to telling a murder story.''

That and its author was John Banas, who also wrote television series Underbelly NZ and telemovies Siege and Safe House.

''There was a lot of irony and deadpan kind of humour that appealed to me.''

The movie is based on the case of Alfred Benning, a retired SPCA inspector, who buried his dismembered wife, wrapped in newspaper, under a rose bush in their garden in Karori, Wellington, in 1977.

The drama did not stop there. When a series of outlandish plans failed to cover up his crime and he was arrested, he hired the best possible lawyer, which in 1977 was Mike ''Bungles'' Bungay, who tried to prove Alfred killed his wife in self-defence.

Playing a character based on a real person was always a challenge, Mr O'Connor said.

''You always have the ghost of the real person sitting in the back of your head. With Alfred there was not a lot to go on. He was such a nondescript sort of guy.

''His ordinariness as a film character set him apart.''

To try to glean some more information about Alfred, Mr O'Connor spoke to Mark Everitt, the detective who arrested him and his next-door neighbour.

Alfred was a puzzle to the detective and those who remembered him did so with fondness, he said.

''For me it was a matter of just trying to play the humanity of the guy: the little guy who was out of his depth most of the time. Not a hell of a lot different to many of us.''

However, the way he reacted to his wife Elizabeth, played by Geraldine Brophy (Shortland Street, Insiders Guide to Love, Second-Hand Wedding), and her over-bearing, upright and church-going ways was out of the ordinary.

The picture painted is of a couple living in Karori but their home is divided into ''his and hers'' and they speak no more than necessary.

He loves his tiny Dutch keeshond more than he hates his wife.

On his bedside table are books on homicide, which he reads trying to work out ways of doing the deed, disposing the body and getting off if caught.

''At certain levels people overreact. It's absurd but we all do it even knowing we are being ridiculous. He does it in a tragic and horrible way but at its basic level it is still overreacting in a ridiculous manner.''

Making the black comedy was hugely enjoyable for everyone ''despite the goriness'' of it, its ''emotional underbelly'', he said.

Also in the cast is former Shortland Street receptionist Alison Quigan and former Home and Away actor Todd Lasance.

The director of the Screentime New Zealand production, Riccardo Pellizzeri, said right through the shoot he had to keep reminding himself the bizarre tale really happened.

''The real challenge was being always mindful that what was actually true must be seen to be true as the events were so extraordinary, again proving that real life and real people can be more bizarre than the most outlandish fiction.''

Co-producer Philly de Lacey said the real exploration was of a dysfunctional marriage and a love triangle.

''Simon and Geraldine brought the two central characters to life in such a delicious way that it makes us question our moral boundaries.''

For Mr O'Connor the film was a departure from his recent more usual performances.

''I'm a constant source of frustration to agents, I'm just not that keen on television and film.''

However, in the 1980s and early 1990s he did ''heaps of television and the odd movie'' including scriptwriting for Close to Home, County GP and Roche and acting in Heavenly Creatures and Dangerous Orphans.

He has recently finished performing at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum with Jenny Powell in a Gallipoli commemorative piece and is about to embark on a programme teaching young playwrights before heading to Wellington and a production for Circa.





• How to murder your wife screened as part of TV One's Sunday Theatre season.




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