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By Stuart, Aug 29 2016 06:28AM

No one, I hear you say – even in this heyday of fact-based TV drama and films. When I wrote and directed An Ungentlemanly Act, my first fact-based drama in 1992 for the BBC about the Falklands War, I began my career formula of trying to make my fact-based work as accurate as possible, using the methods I was trained in as a historian at university.

Always find two sources if possible, never rely on one narrator but get the counter-view, and so forth. And you know what, nobody in the audience tends to notice! I was very honoured when Falklands vets commented on forums or Amazon that this is how it was. But in truth, you hardly ever get praised for accuracy, actually.

The Secret was scrupulously sourced, to the extent that the production company called it A True Story, which is not something I’d dare say myself as it is my interpretation of the facts. You tend to get into hot water when someone wants to score points against you for their own specific reasons, which, if you have done your homework right as I try to, tends to be a matter of whose version of accuracy, since it is not an infallible science applied with a simple yardstick.

By Stuart, Aug 29 2016 06:23AM

It’s certainly not merely the event itself. For example, there is the inevitable movie spinoff of the actual Hatton Garden raid by a load of old criminal geezers. To me, the only true interest lies in CHARACTER and NARRATIVE. None of these guys, as presented in media reports, nor the actual story of their raid (as opposed to the mechanics of it) represent interesting characters or narrative(s) to me. So if I had been asked, I’d pass!

By Stuart, May 10 2016 10:50PM

If the writer and production team are scrupulous in staying as close to the sources and facts, then I feel that yes, it is. The argument that documentary is somehow more “pure” has no validity, at least in absolute terms, because (as I know from being a documentarian) the film-maker’s selectivity and subjective eye are no more or less “true” than the responsible dramatist’s in fact-based dramatisations. The way you intercut interviews or testimony can actually play much more freely with concepts of truth than, say, the way an actor plays dialogue that has been sourced and cross-checked by executives and lawyers for its veracity. Whoever makes a fact-based drama or documentary must remain as truthful and methodical as they can, which is something I ask myself about every scene and line I write.

By Stuart, May 5 2016 10:41AM


“The real achievement of Stuart Urban’s superb script was in capturing the weird balance of religious devotion and sexual obsession that seemed to normalise the relationship in Howell and Buchanan’s minds…’The Secret’ was masterly, an excellent reason to say in on Friday nights to come”. Gerard O’Donovan.


“Makes for spellbinding, haunting and very uncomfortable telly….Powerful drama…uniquely watchable”. Kevin O'Sullivan.


“Startling….resembles a darkly comic Ulster version of ‘The Affair’, should give…ITV a hit for viewers who find ‘The Durrells’ too twee. Compelling …confirms (N Ireland) as a powerhouse of TV drama.” Mark Lawson.


“I can’t remember a better portrayal of suburban charm hiding suburban evil…it’s hard to create suspense when you already know the ending. But in this case..it was still a nailbiter”. Matt Rudd.


“A terrific dramatization…I have watched ahead and it only gets better…truly chilling..there being nothing quite so terrifying as a man convinced of his own righteousness”. Euan Ferguson.


“Told with passion and power..the sort of tale we’ve seen many times before, yet what made ‘The Secret’ so interesting was the way Stuart Urban’s smart script dealt with it…Urban sensitively depicted a close-knit community where religion was central”. Sarah Hughes.




Strong start for ITV's "The Secret"

By Stuart, Apr 29 2016 09:00PM

Sometimes I am asked how I approach writing factual drama and adapting a book like Deric Henderson’s. Unlike some who adapt true stories for the screen, I do my level best to keep to the facts, and the more unusual and more surprising, the better. So if a detective really surprised Howell by declaring “nobody gets away with murder” while wielding a crucial piece of evidence, but then failed to press his case, it’s got to be in.

My first principle is to use my historian’s training from university, which I have applied to all the fact-based dramas I have written (and of course, writers write many more scripts than ever get made!). So this means never relying (where possible) on a single source for getting to the truth of a story or a scene. Deric wrote a great book but I did not just rely on that text. For a start, much of the dialogue had to be found, sourced, or referenced as closely as possible to first-hand sources. Deric graciously threw open his amazing records to me, producing a level of access to first person accounts and testimony that amounted to thousands of pages. But more revelations came to light after the book’s publication that I needed to absorb, for example in Mandy McAuley’s excellent Spotlight documentaries on this case for BBC Northern Ireland. And I like, wherever possible, to go and walk the course, see where things happened and absorb the atmosphere and influence of the locations; in this case, primarily around the beautiful North Coast of Northern Ireland. So Deric took me on the murderer’s exact getaway route, for example, and that is what you see some of in the final drama.

I also conducted as many of my own interviews as I could with eye witnesses or people who knew the families and victims as I could. Certain others would not speak, despite my requests, including key members or former members of Coleraine Baptist church. One or two of them were downright hostile, questioning why I was raking over this affair once more. My answer was simple; if the portrayal of these events can teach people that murder not only extinguishes innocent human lives, not only wrecks the loved ones left behind, but destroys the life of the murderers as well, then it can have achieved a moral purpose.

Writer's Blog

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