TV series about Howell and Hazel is compelling but spare a thought for their relatives
All drama based on real-life events must walk a tightrope between the public's right to know and the need to show sensitivity to innocent victims, says Gail Walker
It is perhaps a lamentable trait of humanity that we're obsessed by the dark, the evil, the grotesque and bizarre.
At its highest level that fascination is an attempt to comprehend the nature of evil, to demystify it and reveal its essential underlying banality.
At its most base, however, our voyeurism stems from the fact we are prurient, slightly hypocritical and like nothing more than revelling in every sordid detail because true crime is living drama, the ultimate reality show.
Which brings us neatly to The Secret, the ITV series based on Deric Henderson's by now classic tome on the 1991 murders by lovers Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart of their respective spouses Lesley Howell, a former nurse, and RUC Constable Trevor Buchanan.
First of all it needs to be said that The Secret is a brilliant adaptation. Last Friday's opening episode pulled in 4.3 million viewers across the UK, including 384,000 in Northern Ireland - 60% of the audience, according to UTV.
James Nesbitt is giving the performance of a lifetime as Howell. Genevieve O'Reilly also impresses with the much more difficult role of Stewart - for it is this woman in particular, her impulses and motives, that I suspect continues to confound and intrigue many.
It would be hard not to be fascinated by the story of Howell and Stewart, which unfolded against a background of religious fervour. There's that sense of moral decay lurking beneath the sepulchres of church and social acceptability. Add in strange sex and the ability to keep "the secret" for nearly two decades and you have a plot of Shakespearian proportions, one that touches the imagination in profound ways, making us question what it is to be human.
Of course, Howell is a more straightforward prospect - the sociopathic dentist whose unchecked sense of his own specialness leads him to terrible acts. As well as murder, he also sexually abused patients under anaesthetic.
But Stewart...? Her public persona is that of an icy Lady Macbeth who was equally complicit in the callous slayings as her illicit lover. She kept quiet while he unravelled, a dissembling brought on, it's thought, by the tragic death of his son and the sense that God was punishing him.
But Stewart kept going. When her relationship with Howell foundered there were other men, culminating in marriage to a retired RUC Chief Superintendent. Her children and husband have remained loyal to her. Which makes you think, too.
It is the perversity (in its broadest, non-sexual sense) that leaves the audience grasping for meaning. How can one quote the Bible, as the character of Howell did in episode one, while breaking his marriage vows, casting envious glances at his father-in-law's wealth and plotting the death of his wife and the husband of his adulterous lover?
Even in his depravity Howell clings to his self-image as a good man. God meant their affair. Murdering Lesley and Trevor becomes a strange act of kindness, removing them from their suffering. How can such dualities exist so easily?
And there's the rub - as our old friend Willy Shakespeare would write. For ITV's dramatisation of true events is exactly that. While certain facts are not in doubt, we are plunged into the realms of fiction, too - or that controversial world of "faction". Artistic licence means scenes and script must be imagined - and milked for drama.
What we shouldn't forget, though, is that for those intimately touched by the murders this is not Friday night entertainment. On the contrary, their mental and emotional pain must seem more like unending torture than the easy catharsis of prime time ITV drama. Though the murders took place 25 years ago, the revelations and ensuing court cases only took place a few years ago.
For the Buchanans, the Howells and the Stewarts, The Secret will be a traumatic reopening of wounds which will probably never properly heal.
Especially so for the surviving Buchanan and Howell children who, should they switch on the TV, must watch their parents both murder and be murdered. To see their father and mother, respectively, killed - and to see their other parents held up as caricatures of gross carnality, hypocrisy and evil.
And then there are Trevor and Lesley's siblings and wider family circle. What must it be like to watch a vivid recreation of their deaths? Even the small, surmised details must cause agony - Trevor Buchanan being lectured about the duties of marriage by his pastor; Lesley Howell's increasing reliance on alcohol and pills; the innocent parties' strange impassivity when confronted by their partners' infidelity. Even considering our mainly uneventful lives, could we bear a fraction of that type of exposure?
No wonder some relatives have hit out at the series. Fifteen minutes into the broadcast Stuart Buchanan, a nephew of the murdered police officer, tweeted: "Behind 'entertainment' of The Secret are two innocent victims & those who loved them. Remembering them all tonight." He added: "Acknowledging impact on families yet proceeding - insensitive, if not callous. Families traumatised again by this 'drama'."
Both communications were 'liked' and retweeted by Lauren Bradford, the daughter of Colin and Lesley Howell.
It's hard to gainsay them. In the magnified blare and white noise of television (and, yes, print journalism and book publishing) we need to hear those voices and to respect their pain. The casual viewer would do well to remember that the tragedy doesn't end after four hours of viewing - for some it will continue to their dying day.
The awkward truth is that all drama based on real-life events is a balancing act between the public's right to know and a sensitivity towards the innocent victims of a situation beyond their control.
Murder is not a private issue. It has its public dimensions and it is inevitable that wider society will process the moral of a tale in ways that may cause pain: a song, a true crime book, a film, or even just lingering in the popular imagination.
Gripping it may be, but The Secret is also very troubling viewing.
- Gail Walker is CIPR Columnist of the Year. Follow her @GWalker9