The dark tale of murder and betrayal that left us all wanting to know more
It’s one of the most sensational double murders to take place in Northern Ireland and the subsequent TV drama has provoked a storm with relatives of the victims saying their privacy has been invaded. As the dramatic finale of The Secret aired last night, Ivan Little reports on the strong reactions the controversial series has evoked
Millions of TV viewers have been gripped by it, scores of newspapers have carried thousands of words about it, but on Thursday, the eve of the screening of the final episode of The Secret — the controversial series about what were arguably Northern Ireland’s most notorious murders of recent times, a poignant anniversary slipped by almost unnoticed in Castlerock.
But the families of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan most certainly didn’t need reminding that April 19, 1991 was the date on which the bodies of their cherished loved ones were discovered in a fume-filled car in the scenic seaside village, the day after they were murdered by their spouses, who conspired to make their deaths look like a tragic suicide pact.
On Thursday, a short distance from the terrace of pretty houses called the 12 Apostles, where the nurse and the policeman were found, a group of golfers did what golfers do, tackle Castlerock’s spectacular and challenging links course — and the weather — on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, largely oblivious to the anniversary. But one of the journalists on that regular Ulster Press Golf Society outing remembered all too clearly what had unfolded on Castlerock’s most infamous day.
For Deric Henderson is the man who wrote the bestselling book, which was adapted by TV producers into The Secret, which has held audiences across the UK spellbound for the last month.
Viewers across the water, who didn’t know the sensational story as well as their counterparts here, were astounded to see how the cold-blooded Colin Howell, played by James Nesbitt, and his lover Hazel Stewart, portrayed by actress Genevieve O’Reilly, would have got away with murder if the Ballymoney dentist hadn’t confessed to the killings 19 years later and implicated his former mistress in the shocking, sordid slayings.
Last night brought the curtain came down on what has already been hailed as the television event of the year — and many other years — in the province. Though not by the families of the two hapless murder victims, who even had their grievances about the series aired in the House of Commons.
Indeed, such has been the level and persistence of the media onslaught against the programme-makers that a number of observers queried why they’d apparently attracted more opprobrium than Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart.
Lauren Bradford, who is in the unusually tragic position of being the daughter of not only one of the victims, but also of one of the killers, has been the most vociferous of all the relatives caught up in the sorry affair. In public, at any rate.
In an article for the Guardian, Lauren wrote of how she was traumatised not only by the deaths, but also by the revelation — 19 years later — that they were, in fact, murders and then re-traumatised all over again by the production of the series against her wishes.
She said there’d been a disrespect for the victims, a disregard for accuracy, an embellishing of the content and an inaccurate portrayal of her mother Lesley as a downtrodden housewife, failing to capture her ambition and drive, her wicked sense of humour, her thoughtfulness and her warmth.
In her carefully constructed newspaper piece, Lauren also wrote of exploitation; claimed that the series had trivialised the murders and sensationalised the aftermath.
Louise Haigh, who is Lauren's MP in England, where she now lives, raised her constituent's concerns at Westminister earlier this month, calling for regulations to be strengthened to protect the families of victims from having to relive similar pain in the future.
In reply to a question from her, Prime Minister David Cameron said he would discuss the case with Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, but seasoned commentators commented that he would say that, wouldn't he? However, the PM also pledged that the Culture Secretary would meet Lauren Bradford.
But insiders have said, while the Government may redefine protocols in a bid to force producers into taking more care about the feelings of victims' families in the future, there is little likelihood of any major changes, because the producers didn't break any rules in the making of the series.
"There've been many series like The Secret in the past, dealing with high-profile killings in the UK - and, indeed, all over the world. Governments aren't going to start censoring them now," said one source.
"Just weeks before The Secret was shown, millions of people were glued to a 10-part American series, which centred on the killings of OJ Simpson's wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman."
For their part, ITV have defended The Secret, saying it was based on "an exhaustively researched" book by a "highly respected journalist" and a statement added that the families had been given an opportunity to see it before it was broadcast.
The latter assertion was subsequently denied by Hazel Stewart's second husband, David Stewart, on behalf of his wife's children, who had insisted all along they wanted nothing to do with the series.
But, as the furore continued over The Secret during the week, Northern Ireland Screen was also embroiled in the row, because it contributed more than £300,000 of public money towards the development of the series.
It issued a statement defending its funding, saying that the investment was part of its strategies to develop the film industry here. The Northern Ireland Executive instantly distanced itself from the controversy.
A spokesman said: "We respect the rights of all those affected by the programme, but any complaints are a matter first and foremost for the broadcaster."
But the disclosure about the money triggered another angry riposte from MP Louise Haigh, who said that ITV, the Hat-Trick production company and the funders had big questions to answer.
She further questioned whether or not the producers had complied with their duties under the Broadcasting Code to minimise distress to the victims' relations.
It's understood that a number of relatives did take up the invitation to see the series in advance, but their sense of outrage wasn't assuaged.
Journalist Deric Henderson, who wrote the book Let This Be Our Secret, on which the series was based, turned down approaches for interviews to give his opinions about the controversy.
Instead, he limited himself to a number of tweets and subsequently found himself under fire from trolls on Twitter, where there's been a constant exchange of messages from people backing and berating Henderson in equal measure.
At the height of the personal abuse, Henderson said in one tweet that he was proud to have delivered his book, which has been republished with an eye on the market in Britain under the title of The Secret.
Words like "disgusting" and "despicable" have been thrown into the Twitter mix, but others have said that, if Howell and Stewart, who were pillars of their local Baptist church in Coleraine, hadn't committed the murders, there would have been no book and no TV series.
In Ballymoney, where Howell was a dentist, the football and motorcycling commentator Liam Beckett tweeted that The Secret was the best TV series he'd ever seen. And he clearly hasn't been alone.
Viewing figures have been averaging around the four million mark, which has been described as a huge audience - especially for a Friday night.
Several newspapers have claimed that one of the most ardent viewers has been Colin Howell, who they said had been watching his own sick story unfolding on the small screen.
But on Twitter, Henderson said he'd been reliably informed that, contrary to the reports, Howell was not watching The Secret from his prison cell.
"But everybody else in Maghaberry is," he added.
Before The Secret was broadcast, I interviewed Henderson for this newspaper and he said he was concerned about how the families of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan would be affected by the series.
But he also spoke of how much he'd been impressed by the sensitivity shown by the series producers, who he said had gone to great lengths to ensure that their drama didn't exaggerate what had actually happened a quarter of a century ago, when Howell and Stewart killed their spouses and stoked suggestions that they'd killed each other after finding out about their extra-marital relationship.
"They didn't play fast and loose with the truth," Henderson said.
And, indeed, for anyone who covered the trial at which Colin Howell gave damning evidence against Hazel Stewart, it was hard not to be struck by the faithfulness of the depiction of the murders on TV to the dentist's testimony from the dock about them.
"They could have gone right over the top with how the killings were carried out on that evening in Coleraine, but they resisted the temptation to hype them up," said one observer.
TV insiders have also said that the veritable hurricane of publicity over the morality of making the series has obscured the fact that so few people actually complained to ITV about it.
And reviews for the series have largely been positive. After episode one, one newspaper said that, "as a study of mutually re-inforced delusion it was masterly". It added: "It offered an excellent reason to stay in on Friday nights to come."
The sales of Henderson's reprinted book, meantime, have been picking up ever since The Secret appeared on television.
Asked about the book in Waterstones at Trafalgar Square in London earlier this week, an assistant took this writer to the very shelf in the True Crime section, where only two copies of The Secret remained.
She also said that more copies had been ordered and would be given greater prominence in the shop once the TV series ended and viewers "were left wanting to know more".
It's understood that the series has already been sold to a number of countries right across the world, ensuring that millions more TV viewers - including Howell's second family in America - will also learn about the evil perpetrated by the dentist and Hazel Stewart, who still protests her innocence in the women's prison in Hydebank in Belfast.
It's not known if she has been watching The Secret there, but if she has, she won't have liked it.
For what was depicted in the drama based on the courtroom evidence from Howell left little doubt that Hazel Stewart, who described Trevor Buchanan in a death notice as her "dearly loved" husband, was guilty of his murder.
Or, as one Twitter user said of the devout Christian, "Guilty as sin".