Northern Ireland

James Nesbitt: 'Important to find truth' in Colin Howell portrayal

James Nesbitt as Colin Howell Image copyright ITV Press Office
Image caption James Nesbitt plays convicted murderer, Coleraine dentist Colin Howell in new TV drama The Secret

James Nesbitt has taken on many roles during the course of his acting career, but arguably not many as sensitive or as challenging as playing a real-life convicted killer.

Later this week a new TV series, The Secret, revolving around County Londonderry murderers Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart, will air with Nesbitt in the lead role of Howell.

The couple were found guilty of murdering their spouses, Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell, more than five years ago. The bodies of the victims were found in a fume-filled car in Castlerock in 1991. At the time, police believed they died in a suicide pact.

The truth of what happened was kept secret until 2009 when Howell, a dentist and a former lay preacher, He told police he and Stewart had been having an affair at the time of the murders and planned them together.

Stewart was jailed for at least 18 years for plotting the murders with Howell.

It is an infamous case that shocked not just the quiet north coast community where the murders took place, but the whole of Northern Ireland.

'Great jigsaw'

Nesbitt, a north coast native himself, from Coleraine, told BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday News programme he had been fascinated by the story for some time.

"I knew about the story for a long time, it was a story I knew thanks to my friends and family," he said.

Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption Colin Howell confessed to the murders nearly 20 years after they took place

"Obviously, what drew me to it was that it happened in my home town, it's an incredible story which lifted Northern Ireland out of the torture of the Troubles - out of the frying pan into the fire.

"He (Howell) was a great character, and I was desperate to do it."

Nesbitt acknowledged that portraying a real-life murderer was unlike anything he had every done before, but that the cast and crew were given great access to the story to ensure the portrayal was as accurate as possible.

"What's difficult and important is to find the truth in this story, but we had such access to detail, to testimony, interviews Colin gave," Nesbitt said.

"We wanted to make it good. The idea of committing a murder is not very easy. It's ugly, clumsy, violent, messy and it has a terrible impact on someone's life, but it's a great jigsaw for us to try and put together."

Image copyright ITV
Image caption Genevieve O'Reilly, who plays Hazel Stewart, said she had never heard of the case prior to reading the script, and found it fascinating
Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Hazel Stewart was jailed for a minimum of 18 years in 2011 for the murder of her husband, Trevor Buchanan

Nesbitt's co-star, Irish actress Genevieve O'Reilly, plays Hazel Stewart in the drama.

'Living a lie'

She said she had heard nothing about the case prior to reading the script, and said it was both a "captivating and shocking tale".

"This story captivates us because it happened next door. These were respectable people, with strong communities around them, who had a seemingly deep faith with lovely children," she said.

"You do wonder, 'how did that happen'? But it's a deeply sad, sordid and horrible tale, living a lie and what that does to you."

O'Reilly said seeing testimony from the trial and media reports at the time were helpful for her portrayal of Stewart.

"It was all really helpful - to see that she was loved and yet vilified, respected and yet feared, somewhere in the middle there is the woman, and that's my task," she said.

"Seeing her interrogation, that was played in full at the trial and for me that was the most effective, valuable piece of evidence because I could read the woman in those words. Her half-tripping, lying, struggling to remember, doubting herself - I could see the lies under the secret there."

This interview will air on The Sunday News on BBC Radio Ulster at 13:00 BST on Sunday 24 April

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