After all the drama provided by Line Of Duty, I was almost thankful for The Secret’s more conventional narrative. That’s not a knock on it at all – this four-part series, based on a true story and starring James Nesbitt and Genevieve O’Reilly, was in some ways refreshing in its structure compared to the helter-skelter Line Of Duty the night previously. What was interesting about this well-played drama was how much tension writer Stuart Urban (based on a book by Deric Henderson) managed to extract from a story that has been out in the public domain since 2009.
NB: There are spoilers in this review
We first meet Colin Howell, a respected member of the Coleraine community in 1990, as he sang in his local happy-clappy church. He’s the town’s dentist, he’s married to a pregnant wife who he already has three children with, he’s charming, and driven by his faith. He’s also close to Pastor Hansford (the always excellent Jason Watkins).
Elsewhere in the congregation in that same service sat the Buchanans. Wife Hazel was a school teacher, while her husband Trevor was a police officer, guarding checkpoints by night.
They all lived normal lives, their families coming into contact via school drop-offs and church gatherings. Nothing much to see. There was no spark between the two, except the odd, furtive glance from Colin. It’s often how these things start.
During one such church away days, Colin and Hazel found themselves at a swimming pool. Colin tried to teach Hazel how to do the crawl but, as he lay his hands on her, both his mind and his body wandered into different sorts of water. “I’m having not so innocent thoughts about you, Hazel,” he told her brazenly and almost matter-of-factly. “I’m not so innocent myself,” she replied. It was at this moment that something in both of their minds switched, and from that moment onwards every-day, innocent physical contact became loaded with intention and longing.
Their flirtation soon turned into seduction (from Colin), which turned into illicit meetings and an almost teenage infatuation – Hazel giggled uncontrollably whenever Colin called; Colin wanted to see her all the time. Hazel felt guilt, but Colin assured her that it was what God would have wanted. It was class A manipulation on his part, and because it was new and exciting in a world that was old and boring, Hazel seemed only to happy to go along with it. The affair made her happy, and transported her to places she hadn’t reached with her own husband, Trevor.
But something had to give (Coleraine is a small town), and it soon did – the Pastor was informed by a member of his flock that Colin and Hazel were enjoying an inappropriate relationship, and the whole sorry business all came out. Husbands were told, wives were told, there were tears and gnashing of teeth. Both families did their penance in order to not be cast out of the community and the church. Everything seemed back to normal.
Except it wasn’t. Colin and Hazel’s internecine relationship had taken hold and and they could not resist each other. But by this time, youthful lust had become twisted into something else. Something prickly and poisonous; into an infatuation that knew no boundaries. And this is the moment The Secret began to switch from into a tense relationship drama into a murder drama – seeds had been sown and Colin, still using the God card as an excuse for his actions, had started to think about the unthinkable: to get rid of his wife and Hazel’s husband.
Why? They were still hanging around. Both Lesley and Trevor were keen to turn a blind eye in order to preserve the family unit, which gave Colin and Hazel more or less free rein to come and go as they pleased, which took its toll on their spouses, especially Lesley. Just when you though the situation couldn’t get any worse, Hazel told Colin she was pregnant. Colin took her to an abortion clinic, once again explaining that it was alright because he and Lesley had visited there three times before. In a country where abortion is still such a divisive subject – and the whole physical and mental trauma of the process can weigh so heavily on someone who has experienced one – Hazel was considerably shaken. It went against her religion, and it went against her principles. But this part of the story also gave Hazel and Colin’s relationship an added dimension – what was once carefree now became an emotional connection on a deep level; Hazel was now vulnerable, reliant and susceptible to more or less anything Colin said. So when, after a tryst in the back of a car, Colin had suggested that they might want to get rid of both their spouses, Hazel, initially appalled, began to listen. His manipulation was almost complete. [UPDATE: I’ve been thinking about this all night. I’ve never experienced a termination or been part of a partnership who has decided to undergo one. I wonder if an intense and shared experience like this brings a couple closer, or drives them apart. In this story it seemed to bring them together, or at least intensify the secrecy of their relationship.]
And throughout the whole first episode, as Hazel and Colin began their relationship, there was always this sense of creeping dread. You knew the story – or half knew the story – so you knew something dreadful was going to happen, and yet still the journey to how these two star cross’d, damned souls got there was still tense and fascinating. The fact that it was based on real-life events made it even more difficult to watch, not the opposite.
The question of why they allowed themselves to get there also nagged away. Aside from lust and greed, they both seemed to motivated by financial concepts. Colin, on one occasion when he and Lesley were starting to fall apart, made reference to the fact that he ‘provides for her’. Elsewhere, in the Buchanan household, Hazel also made reference to the fact that she and Trevor were skint. In each other they saw a way to escape their perceived drudgery, both quotidian and financial.
A good start and I’m intrigued to see how their desperate situation gets even more desperate.