Episode four of ITV’s ‘The Secret’ saw Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart (formerly Buchanan) tossed about in a sea of emotions.
In the previous three weeks, we had seen the plot to murder their respective spouses hatched, the murders gruesomely recreated and the gradual drifting apart of the lovers as they seemed to get away with their heinous crime.
But at the start of episode four, James Nesbitt’s Howell, who had been so confident throughout that God was on his side, was suddenly plunged into doubt.
As he came to terms with his son’s untimely death, Howell told Katherine Kingsley’s Kyle Jorgensen he and God were now all square.
“I am forgiven. He is guiding me now,” he declared.
Even she had had enough of him and he was asked to leave the family home, taking up residence in a mobile home in Castlerock where he planned a crazy get rich quick scheme to recover Japanese gold in the Philippines.
As he lobbied potential investors, he claimed the proceeds would be used for Christian causes.
As Genevieve O’Reilly’s Hazel, now married to Stuart Graham’s Dave Stewart, lived happily with her family, Howell reached his tipping point when the Philippines venture went awry and he broke down.
He tearfully confessed to Kyle and the elders in his church to sexually assaulting female patients in his dental practice, running up huge debts and murdering his first wife Lesley and also Trevor Buchanan with Hazel’s help.
What followed was his confession to the police, the arrest of Hazel Stewart, her insistence under interrogation that she had been manipulated by Howell and the eventual trial.
The fourth episode of screenwriter Stuart Urban and director Nick Murphy’s adaptation of journalist Deric Henderson’s book was unquestionably the strongest in what has consistently been a disturbing, hard hitting and intelligently written drama.
Both James Nesbitt and Genevieve O’Reilly got a chance to really test their range as Howell cracked and then menacingly returned to his old arrogant self on the back of Hazel’s conviction.
O’Reilly looked increasingly desperate as the past caught up with her and the jury refused to believe she was a victim of manipulation.
Eagled eyed viewers may have spotted Deric Henderson and the veteran court reporter Ivan McMichael, presumably playing themselves, during the gripping courtroom scenes where Howell claimed the plot to murder Trevor and Lesley and its execution was “a dance between control and manipulation” on Hazel and his part.
In Howell’s words they were “two people waltzing together in time..she was in step and in harmony” as they implemented their “blood contract”.
As a four part drama, ‘The Secret’ was well acted, intelligently directed and a very tough watch – particularly its middle episodes.
And while the controversy over the greenlighting of the programme so soon after the real events will rumble, it was nevertheless a very perceptive drama which shone a light into the mind of a delusional criminal in a way that we have rarely seen in a British mini-series.
The only other example I can think of in recent times was ITV’s equally chilling 2011 Fred And Rose West drama Appropriate Adult with Dominic West, Emily Watson and Monica Dolan.
It is understandable that emotions are still raw around the Castlerock murders – especially among the relatives of Lesley and Trevor Buchanan.
However, this series would have caused deep disquiet even if it had been made in 2026.
Judged purely as a drama, it was a powerful mini-series whose disturbing central performances by Nesbitt and O’Reilly will live long in many viewers’ memories.
Dan McGinn is a journalist who was previously the Ireland Political Editor and Ireland Deputy Editor of the Press Association and has worked for the Irish News, Belfast Telegraph and other publications and for TV and radio. He currently works in public affairs and is also a film and television critic with his own blog, They’ll Love It In Pomona covering the latest cinema releases.