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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.

By Stuart, Apr 20 2016 07:50PM

At a preview screening of this drama, I was asked what brought me back to primetime TV drama after some 20 years in cinema, and why this story in particular. There are a few reasons for the first question (and not just because there’s a one-way stampede of cinema talent into telly right now on both sides of the Atlantic!). Primarily, it is because television drama is so vibrant now in UK, the US and elsewhere. But it is also because, in answer to the second question, I have always been drawn to the true crime genre and dramatising real events, which I did in my full-length debut as writer/director, An Ungentlemanly Act for the BBC, and as writer, Deadly Voyage for HBO and BBC.

And a miniseries represents the best way to bring to the screen the astonishing, rich, and protracted story of Colin Howell - played by James Nesbitt - and Hazel Stewart (formerly Buchanan) – played by Genevieve O’Reilly - that I doubt anyone could cram into a standard-length film, filled with so many twists and turns over the passage of time. In fact, we tried to cram this story into three hours but it spread into four by the time the serial was finished.

This was a double murder planned and carried out by two lovers whose lives had hitherto been exemplary. The crime lay undiscovered for almost two decades, but it was justified in the eyes of the perpetrators, and came to light, largely through the role of religion. Their faith was crucial from the beginning of this story, in a way I feel is highly unusual in the West nowadays. Devout Baptists (he the driver of the Sunday school bus, she the Sunday school teacher), their pious surface lifestyle meant that divorce was considered unacceptable. Furthermore, I believe that Colin Howell deluded himself as well as any fundamentalist terrorist does to justify murder – the idea that his and Hazel’s spouses would not wish to go on living if they were left alone, and that somehow, killing them was an act of mercy, after which their souls would ascend to Heaven (comparable to the suicide bomber’s idea that innocent collateral damage ends up in Heaven too).

The fact that these two people met, in that particular church and community, led to a unique and tragic homicidal plot, I believe, due to those very particular circumstances. While Colin was a driven man, clearly the instigator, whose conduct would later turn sociopathic and pathological in various additional ways, including acts of dishonesty and sexual assaults, I believe that Hazel might well have led an untroubled and law-abiding existence without transgressing more gravely than the odd parking ticket. But she fell under Colin’s control and a jury decided that she knew what she was doing. The results were tragic for the victims and for families deceived for over 18 years by the killers.

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