OK. So before I review the Colin Howell drama ‘The Secret’, which aired on ITV tonight, I have a confession to make.
I have more than one connection to this programme.
Deric Henderson, the journalist who wrote the book ‘Let This Be Our Secret’ on which ‘The Secret’ is based, was my boss for nine years at the Press Association.
James Nesbitt also became the Chancellor of the University of Ulster when I was the Director of Media and Corporate Relations there.
And so, on June 8, 2010 I arranged a meeting between both Deric and Jimmy at the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine on the day he became the Chancellor.
Deric got his chance to pitch the story that wound up on our TV screens tonight.
Directed by Nick Murphy, ‘The Secret’ deals with the Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan case that gripped the Northern Ireland public in 2011 but went largely ignored in the rest of the UK.
ITV has turned to the acclaimed director and screenwriter Stuart Urban to adapt Deric’s best selling book ‘Let This Be Our Secret’.
And Murphy and Urban have opted to tell the story in a cine realist style, with naturalistic lighting and dialogue.
Episode One began dramatically with shots of Howell’s trembling hands and eyebrows and pieces of scripture highlighting the Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife’.
James Nesbitt’s dentist Colin Howell burst out of a trailer in Castlerock in a state of distress before we travelled back in time to 1990 and Howell leading singing in his local Baptist Church in Coleraine.
What followed was a carefully crafted and tense study of a master manipulator, with Howell flirting with Genevieve O’Reilly’s Hazel Buchanan in a school yard, at a Bible study group and during a swimming pool outing for children.
A scene where Nesbitt’s Howell creepily groped Buchanan and claimed she was not having innocent thoughts about him was met with a flirtatious response about his intentions.
Soon, while Hazel Buchanan’s policeman husband Trevor, played by Glen Wallace, was on night duty, Nesbitt’s Howell was clambering out of his own bed, praying, then jogging and obsessively turning up in Hazel’s garden like, well, a serial killer.
After their first sexual encounter, Buchanan asked Howell what had just happened and said they had committed a sin.
“This is God’s gift. It would be wrong to refuse it,” Urban had Howell reply – although it was unclear if he was talking about himself or their affair.
Inevitably in a tight knit religious community, their infidelity was exposed.
Jason Watkins’ English Pastor Hansford confronted both parties with Howell initially denying it.
Soon Howell was confessing to an adulterous relationship in his living room to his distraught wife Lesley Howell, played by Laura Pyper.
Murphy and Urban’s drama was at its strongest in depicting the struggle between its main characters’ Baptist beliefs and their desires.
Neither Lesley nor Trevor could bear the thought of separation from their spouses, although the former had the greater struggle.
Meanwhile the manipulative Howell was quick to declare: “I have admitted my sin. I love my family. I love the Church. This will never happen again.”
Trevor and Colin shared a forgiving handshake and embrace after Sunday Service but soon he and Hazel resumed their affair, with clandestine phone calls and secret rendezvous.
Nesbitt has never been more devious, more sinister onscreen.
In what is clearly a role he was eager to play, Nesbitt portrayed Howell as devious, hypocritical and as someone who was not afraid to cloak his sins in language that warped Evangelical beliefs.
A scene where he berated his wife for revealing she was now financially independent was laced with the chilling line: “This is not how a Christian wife should behave”.
But O’Reilly also impressed as a woman who was not so innocent and enjoyed the thrill of being chased.
Pyper was also strong as Lesley Howell, particularly as she struggled to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity.
And Jason Watkins was as good as you would expect as the Pastor.
By the end of Episode One the murderous seeds had been planted and after a very strong start it will be interesting to see if ‘The Secret’ grips viewers outside Northern Ireland as much as the real life events gripped people in the province.
(Dan McGinn is the resident film critic on Belfast 89FM’s ‘Saturday Bites’ programme and has a film and TV blog, They’ll Love It In Pomona – http://loveitinpomona.blogspot.co.uk/?m=1)