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.