Deric Henderson: 'The Secret doesn't play fast and loose with the truth there are no heroes in the Howell and Stewart story'
Ahead of UTV's dramatisation of his book starring James Nesbitt, Deric Henderson tells Ivan Little how the exploits of Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart took over his life
It was unquestionably the trial of the century in the wake of Northern Ireland's crime of the century - a ruthless double murder disguised by a heartless Ulster killer as a double suicide - but veteran journalist Deric Henderson found it difficult to interest newspapers in Britain in the horrific exploits of dentist Colin Howell and his mistress and accomplice, Hazel Stewart.
As editor of the Press Association news agency in Ireland, Henderson thought journalists across the water would be falling over themselves to follow up his reports on Stewart's trial, especially as the main witness against her was her God-fearing Baptist lover Howell, who had already confessed to the murders of her husband and his wife which happened in May 1991, but which only came to light 18 years later after the dentist confessed.
But though the mainland papers did carry brief reports on the court cases which saw the callous duo caged for the killings, they didn't share Henderson's fascination with the murders, a fascination - an obsession he calls it - which led him to write a book about them, Let This Be Our Secret.
The book, which told how Howell had gassed his wife Lesley and Stewart's husband Trevor Buchanan and put their bodies in a carbon monoxide filled car to make it look like they'd killed themselves in a desperate suicide pact, was a bestseller in Northern Ireland but didn't cause much of a stir across the water.
"I was told that Northern Ireland was a turn-off in Britain where, because of the Troubles, it was expected that people here would do strange things," he says. "But if the murders had happened in the shires of England they would have been all over the media and the book would have leapt off the shelves."
However, the British public's perceptions of the Howell/Stewart murders are set to change, and change dramatically, after ITV screens a four-part drama about the killings which will be accompanied by the relaunch of Henderson's book under the new, shortened title, The Secret, which is also the name of the television mini-series starring Jimmy Nesbitt.
And for the local actor, it's a story which literally couldn't be closer to home.
The shocking murders were carried out in parts of Coleraine which Nesbitt knows well and the man who found the bodies in a car behind a row of cottages, called the Apostles at Castlerock, used to teach him at Coleraine Inst.
And, as if all that wasn't enough, one scene was filmed on a stretch of beach at Castlerock within sight of a house where the Cold Feet star once lived.
Henderson says: "I stood beside Jimmy's father, Jim, on set on the day in December that the scene was shot at Castlerock. It was a surreal experience watching Jimmy re-enacting something which had happened for real at the exact same spot all those years ago."
Nesbitt was the obvious choice to play the part of Howell. "He was born for that role," says one insider.
Henderson, who had approached the actor long before the book was finished, said he found him spellbinding in the part.
"He wanted to know everything about Colin Howell. He went to meet people who were close to Howell to find out all the nuances about the man and why he would do the things he did. He wanted to get inside his mind to get the character right," says Henderson, a 65-year-old Omagh man who has two sons.
Dublin actress Genevieve O'Reilly, who has starred in Star Wars films and the hit cross-Atlantic TV series Episodes, has also stunned Henderson with her portrayal of Stewart, who is locked up at Hydebank women's prison from where she has launched a number of unsuccessful appeals against her conviction.
O'Reilly bears a striking resemblance to Hazel Stewart, according to Henderson, who has been working as a media consultant since his retirement from the Press Association.
He has admitted that writing the book completely took over his life for several years, adding: "A book about the Troubles was never in my plans - I was too lazy. But the Coleraine murders captivated me from the very start. I knew this was different."
And even though friends told him that Let This Be Our Secret would be snapped up by film-makers for the silver screen, he wasn't so sure.
And his reservations were confirmed after he talked to a number of movie movers-and-shakers like Irish Oscar winners Terry George and Jim Sheridan.
The latter told him the story of Howell and Stewart lacked a vital ingredient which would have made it a sure-fire box office smash.
"He said the story didn't have a hero and that was a big disadvantage for a film-maker. And indeed there are no heroes in the Howell/Stewart story," says Henderson.
But even though the book didn't bring Hollywood moguls to Henderson's south Belfast home waving their cheque books to buy the rights, he did receive a call from a TV writer and the seeds for The Secret were sown.
Stewart Urban came to Northern Ireland to meet Henderson and to discover more about the chilling murders. He pitched the idea to the award-winning Hat Trick Productions who've made iconic shows like Father Ted and Have I Got News for You.
They commissioned Urban to write the script for what was initially envisaged as a three-part series directed by Nick Murphy.
Henderson was contracted to act as the consultant on The Secret and it was the attention to detail of the programme makers which astonished him as they attempted to make their drama as accurate a representation of what really happened as possible.
The producers also impressed Henderson with their sensitivities towards the feelings of the families of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan.
"They didn't play fast and loose with the truth," says Henderson, who adds that he knows the relatives will find parts of The Secret harrowing to watch. "I am acutely aware of the families' feelings, too."
But how I wonder does Henderson think the series would go down with the viewing public as a whole?
"I'm nervous," he admits. "I hope it will be well received because I know the effort that went into making it.
"People who know I have seen the programmes are always asking me what I think of them, but I tell them that my opinion is unimportant.
"It's what they, the viewers, think that is crucial."
Henderson said that he didn't believe the cast and crew could have shown any more commitment to The Secret than they did and he added that the murder scenes took their toll on Jimmy Nesbitt and Genevieve O'Reilly.
For Henderson the filming of The Secret was an eye-opener.
And he saw it up close after being cast in the series as a reporter covering the court proceedings.
When the Laganside court complex in Belfast was used over a weekend to record a number of scenes, Henderson ended up in a place that he knew well from his 40-plus years as a journalist … the Press box.
"I found the whole thing bizarre because I had spent 15 days in court reporting for the Press Association on Stewart's trial which was one of the most sensational cases I ever covered, especially when Howell gave his evidence against her," said Henderson, whose blink-and-you'll-miss-it part in The Secret was expanded to a small speaking role.
"They asked me to throw a question to 'Hazel Stewart' as she got into a lift. We did it 13 times, but I was told that wasn't an unusual number of takes," the journalist adds.
A friend and former colleague Ivan McMichael, who spent most of his journalistic career covering Belfast's courts, was also pressed into service for the Laganside scenes.
And Henderson's wife Clare was also in The Secret, playing the part of a member of the Baptist Church in Coleraine where Howell and Stewart met.
- The Secret is on ITV on Friday, April 29, 9pm