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.