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Curtain falls on The Secret in uncomfortable yet grimly compelling finale charting downfall of notorious killers

TV drama on murderers Howell and Stewart ends amid outrage from victims

Published 21/05/2016

Hazel Buchanan (Genevieve O’Reilly) in a court scene
Hazel Buchanan (Genevieve O’Reilly) in a court scene
James Nesbitt as Colin Howell
Lisa Buchanan (Amy Shiels), Andrew Buchanan (Rhys Dunlop) and David Stewart (Stuart Graham)

And so it ended, exactly where we knew it would. Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart jailed for life for the murder of their spouses, Lesley and Trevor.

It is testament to the power of this well-told story that the final episode was as fraught with sinister tension as the first.

James Nesbitt was superlative as disintegrating psychopath Howell, reeling from the loss of his son Matthew.

"I brought death into the family and this has been my punishment," he cried to his second wife Kyle, all authority and composure gone, although he was still holding on to his old conviction that God was fundamentally on his side. "It's all right, because this means God and I are square," he said. "I now know I am forgiven."

But Kyle, at last, was no longer buying this line, and we saw Howell banished to a seedy static caravan by the sea where he proceeded to lose substantial amounts of money in a dodgy deal to buy Japanese war gold in the Philippines.

For an intelligent, forensically controlling man like Howell, this seemed incredibly naive, but perhaps it was yet more evidence of his unravelling mind. Hazel, meanwhile, was doing just fine.

Elegantly wafting through her affluent new life, her second husband David Stewart at her side, she seemed poised and untouchable.

Yet Howell was coming ever closer to breaking down.

When his grotesque kitchen-table confession finally came, Hazel was at the gym, pedalling away blithely on an exercise bike. The police were waiting for her when she got home.

What was particularly striking here was Hazel's immediate attempt to adopt the role of wronged innocent. She described herself as a "soft" person, easy prey for the likes of Howell. "Why should I be taken down because of his act?" she cried in outrage. "I was a victim in my own home because of him… I couldn't do anything. He controlled me."

It seemed that David Stewart and her children by Trevor Buchanan entirely accepted this narrative. They prayed together before Hazel went to court, asking that the jury would understand that she was indeed Howell's victim. "I know you. God knows you. You are the most loving, good, pure person I have ever met," said Stewart.

But it was Howell himself - at least in this telling of the story - who destroyed Hazel's plea of innocence, depicting her instead as a predatory spider seeking to draw men into her web. Animated and reinvigorated by his appearance in the witness box, he uttered those vivid words that everyone remembers from the trial. "We were two people waltzing together in time. I may have been the lead partner, but she was not dragging her feet."

There has been a great deal of public disquiet about The Secret alongside the significant amount of critical acclaim.

Questions have been raised in Westminster over whether ITV failed in its responsibility to the surviving victims, who, after all, only learned of the now notorious murders in 2009.

Lauren Bradford, Lesley's daughter, has written compellingly about her own pain and feelings of powerlessness.

Ann Travers, whose sister Mary was murdered in an IRA attack, has also described the programme as "the wrong thing to do".

Knowing that many of the people depicted in this drama are still very much alive and hurting made watching it an even more uncomfortable experience.

It was a reminder - as if any were needed - of the terrible truth of Colin Howell's words: "This isn't finished, and it never will be."

Belfast Telegraph

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