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The Secret: Killer couple products of a 'pious' society with blind spot for true evil

ITV's The Secret wasn't, ultimately, just about Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart's decades-long double murder pact; it was about facing the unpalatable truths deep inside all of us, says Gail Walker

Published 24/05/2016

Gripping drama: Colin Howell (James Nesbitt) and Hazel Buchanan (Genevieve O’Reilly)
Gripping drama: Colin Howell (James Nesbitt) and Hazel Buchanan (Genevieve O’Reilly)

The Secret has finished, but the controversy shows no sign of dying down. The protests of Lauren Bradford about the drama series making primetime entertainment out of the murders of her mother Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan by her father make thoughtful and troubling reading. She and others deserve a sympathetic hearing.

But while relatives have a right to be treated sensitively, the truth is they cannot have a right to veto representations of facts on the public record. No one is seriously contesting the facts shown in the drama, all of which were proven in a courtroom, or indeed the account of the murders, sustained cover-up and eventual confession as detailed in Deric Henderson's book, upon which the show was based.

Lauren contests that her mother was portrayed as overly passive. I didn't get that impression, nor I suspect did the watching public. Yes, Lesley Howell was a woman caught in awful circumstances, but she was not one without fight. Offered a way out of an unhappy marriage by her father, who gave her a cheque for more than £200,000, Lesley was ready to make her move. Indeed, the scene between concerned father and distraught daughter was exquisitely poignant.

There was no character assassination in the portrayals of either Lesley Howell or Trevor Buchanan. No "facts" were distorted or made-up. They both came across as very human, decent people. The playthings of evil, yes, but the innocent - by their very nature - rarely realise the depravity they are up against.

Indeed, we would do well to remember that the only real character assassination on these two poor souls was that dealt out by Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart. For nearly two decades they propagated and assisted a ghastly and deeply hurtful fiction about Lesley and Trevor - that they committed suicide, abandoning their children forever because they were having an affair.

We should remember also that, until Howell's facade finally broke down, as far as the authorities were concerned no crime had taken place. This wasn't an unsolved murder which was finally cracked decades later. No. It was a double suicide - case closed.

The Secret boldly reiterated, across national television, that none of this was the case. A relatives' veto, however, would have prevented the widespread retelling of this injustice.

The relatives' pain is, of course, very real, but if society is to mean anything there has to be freedom to recall, to educate, to remember, to inform, to imagine. No one "owns" a crime, especially murder. Threaten that right and we will not only endanger the right to drama, but much factual reporting will come into question, too.

After all, is a documentary really so much less upsetting than a drama? Documentaries - like dramas - can be cheap, wrong, sensationalist, even one-sided. Even those made with great journalistic integrity usually contain disturbing "recreations of events", which are often creepy and disturbing. The same applies to works of "fiction" which borrow heavily from the public records. Simply changing the names doesn't mean that there isn't the potential for crass exploitation.

No one owns the "moral copyright" to crime, a very public act.

Take The Secret as exhibit number 1.

We can all agree that in his portrayal of the double murderer Colin Howell, Northern Irish actor James Nesbitt has given the performance of a lifetime. Genevieve O'Reilly, as Stewart, equally delivered a stunning performance. Both are surely in line for shelves of awards.

I am not talking about pure thespian artistry here. They were brilliant not just in themselves, but because separately and together they told us much about human nature and, in a more particularised form, about life in this corner of the Earth.

Perhaps it is Nesbitt's familiarity with Ulster ways of thinking that made his performance so nuanced, so truthful. His Howell is a very recognisable monster: on one level a loathsome hypocrite, wrapping the darkest of deeds in all-too-quickly-to-hand quotes from the Bible; on the other a victim of his own breathtaking self-delusions.

A man who admits that he was evil once, but is all right now, as if evil was some sort of speech impediment, or skin complaint.

Nesbitt's every grimace, every unctuous utterance, every flicker of emotion riveted the watching millions across the UK and revealed something about ourselves here in Northern Ireland, a place where religion still matters in ways that must seem incomprehensible to English, Scottish and Welsh people. Nesbitt wonderfully caught the plausibility of evil, just as the macabre, almost-silent second episode captured the grim awkward practicalities of putting people to death.

Nesbitt showed that Howell didn't come from nowhere. Both Howell and Stewart were products of this society, a society in love with being seen as "good living", a society all too ready to regard those with a ready Biblical quote as morally superior, a society capable of tying itself up in theological knots about relatively minor things while overlooking true evil.

Instinctively, Howell and Stewart not only represented these failings, they exploited them ruthlessly.

Once Howell's nerve finally broke and he confessed to police, of course it became for those closest to the victims a contest between the unthinkable horror of a double suicide, with which they had managed to live for nearly two decades, and a monstrous double murder, carried out by the two surviving parents. In that contest, won't the lesser of two evils always win out?

Problem is, though, it wasn't the truth. The Secret wasn't, in the end, just about the enduring pact between Howell and Stewart. It was about the deep reluctance we all have to face the truth.

Sometimes, unhappily, we get away with it. But sometimes, even more unhappily, we don't.

Belfast Telegraph

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