November 30 2023

Did Hazel really get her just desserts? Bob Woffinden on ITV’s drama The Secret

Did Hazel really get her just desserts? Bob Woffinden on ITV’s drama The Secret

James Nesbitt and Genevieve O'Reilly as Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan in The Secret ITV / Hat Trick Productions


James Nesbitt and Genevieve O'Reilly as Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan in The Secret ITV / Hat Trick Productions

James Nesbitt and Genevieve O’Reilly as Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan in The Secret ITV / Hat Trick Productions

As crime dramas on television churn at an increasingly rapid rate, those no longer on screen are quickly pushed to the back of the national consciousness. But I believe that The Secret should be remembered and should continue to stimulate discussion because it does raise matters of extraordinary importance.

  • The Secret, Hat Trick productions for ITV, is now available on DVD
  • You can David Rose’s review of Bob Woffinden’s latest book The Nicholas Cases (Bojangles Books) here

This outstanding four-part series examined a series of events in a deeply religious community in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. An affair between Colin Howell, who ran the local dental practice, and Hazel Buchanan, a schoolteacher and mother of two children, led in 1991 to a plan by Howell to kill their respective spouses, Lesley and Trevor.

‘How would it work?’, Hazel asked him.

This was how: as Lesley slept, Howell ran a hose pipe from the car exhaust in the garage through their home. He tucked it under her duvet before going back to the garage and starting the engine. The carbon monoxide did not take effect as quickly as he’d hoped. In her drowsiness, Lesley began to cry out, so he ended up smothering her. Meanwhile, their four children slept on.

He put the body in the boot of the car and drove to the Buchanans’ home where he repeated everything. This, though, was a trickier assignment; Trevor was an armed officer with the RUC. So he’d asked Hazel to ensure that he took a sleeping tablet. Once again, the toxic fumes took time to work, Trevor stirred and resisted and so Howell smothered him also.

Cinematically speaking, there was a wonderful split shot in the film of Hazel with her back against the outer side of the bedroom wall while, inside, her lover was murdering her husband.

Howell put both bodies in the car and then constructed a double-suicide scene. The police were taken in. Even though this was wildly improbable, even though Lesley and Trevor were no more than acquaintances, a double suicide was the official verdict.

Afterwards, Howell and Buchanan had a stressed relationship for about four years before parting. They both remarried, in Howell’s case to an American woman who bore him a further five children.

At that point, Howell’s life seemed serenely fulfilled. But the accidental death at university of Matthew, his eldest son, followed by a spectacular financial collapse in which he lost about £360,000 in an international scam, changed everything. A broken man, he confessed everything – and there was a lot to confess – to church elders in 2009.

He then pleaded guilty to the murders as well as offences of sexually assaulting patients while they were under sedation in his surgery. In a subsequent trial, Hazel insisted that she was innocent but was convicted of her joint enterprise involvement. They received sentences of 21 and 18 years’ imprisonment respectively.

Just desserts
As a drama, this was really top-drawer, with superb direction, a first-class script and utterly riveting central performances from James Nesbitt and Genevieve O’Reilly (even if he seemed to age about thirty years and she not at all).

ITV says their production was a true story. Well, was is it? What was Hazel’s involvement? To what extent was she merely manipulated by Howell? After all, he manipulated everyone else.

Did she administer a sleeping tablet to Trevor or did he simply take one himself? Those four words – how would it work? – condemned her. But presumably we have only Howell’s word that she ever said them.

ITV’s dramatisation may well have sealed in the public mind an interpretation of these events (‘Glad Hazel got her just desserts’, asserted one verified purchaser of the DVD on Amazon) and, in doing so, have deprived her forever of the chance to continue fighting her case. In that sole respect, this brilliant drama leaves a sour taste.

For anyone approaching this series from a different viewpoint, however, an alternative reading of events was possible. On the basis of what I saw in this television series (and entirely on the basis of that: I have not read Deric Henderson’s book, nor did I follow reports of the trial), I believe that Hazel should have been acquitted.

The most obvious problem was that she did not go into the witness box. This would have been fine up until 1994, but then the law was changed. The right of silence was abolished so that adverse inferences can be drawn from a defendant’s failure to give evidence. Now, giving evidence oneself is the sine qua non of mounting a successful defence.

Keeping defendants out of the witness-box is doubly disastrous: firstly, it’s akin to throwing in the towel at trial; and, secondly, a subsequent appeal is bound to be lost.

Court of Appeal judges give short shrift to appellants who have not spoken up for themselves at trial. Indeed, I do not know of a single instance post-1994 where a compos mentis appellant who declined to give evidence at trial has subsequently won an appeal.

Not having given evidence becomes a matter that haunts defendants for the rest of their lives. They may have received strong legal advice, but the final decision is always held to be their own. There is a short scene in the film. Hazel, naturally wishing to give evidence herself, is dissuaded by her husband, apparently. ‘As your husband has observed’, the lawyers pointedly tell her, ‘the prosecution’s first question is likely to be: what was it like having sex with your husband’s killer for four years?’

So she doesn’t give evidence. But look at this differently: if you think you know the opposition’s first question, like their opening chess move, isn’t that a tremendous bonus?

Of course, her evidence needed to be buttressed by some kind of expert evidence, from a psychiatrist perhaps, of psychological duress, control and manipulation and of how someone can be held in the thrall of a dominant personality.

And what a massively dominating personality Colin Howell was. He certainly wasn’t a psychopath; a psychopath does not have a conscience whereas, plainly, Howell did. It’s just that he felt free to act in an unconscionable way because, whatever evil he perpetrated, God would forgive him. And Howell knew where he stood with God because he was constantly in dialogue with Him.

After all, the whole point of the Christian faith is repentance and forgiveness. Ultimately, to Howell’s mindset, any depravity was excusable because the Lord Jesus Christ had come to earth to wash away our sins. Howell’s got the biblical quotes at his fingertips, and it’s right there, Luke 15:7: ‘there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance’.

So Howell sinned and repented, sinned some more and then repented some more. He was just creating joy in Heaven, over and over again.

While we fully appreciate the barbarities of religious fundamentalism in other areas, we may perhaps be blind to its evils when, rarely, they are manifested in a Christian context.

By the time of trial, Howell had fully recovered his remarkable mental strength and, it seems (in common with other criminal types), his infinite capacity for self-delusion. Dealing with someone of such fervent but perverted moral rectitude was obviously going to be tricky, to say the least. The defence needed to show how Howell would lie and lie again and you would never be able to tell.

The Pastor (Jason Watkins) originally confronted him about his ‘inappropriate relationship’ with Hazel – even in a Christian context, Howell could look people straight in the eye and tell barefaced lies. There would be no facial tic or negative body language. Lie detector tests? He would have passed with ease.

There’s a key scene in the film where Howell, having been told of the deaths of Lesley and Trevor by the church elders, is asked by the Pastor to join them in prayer. Howell demurs, saying he must first tell the children. The point is that any other guilty man feigning ignorance of the deaths would have quietly acquiesced with the Pastor’s wishes; but Howell flouted them. As a manipulator, he was in a class of his own.

It should be added that there was no apparent motivation for Howell to give the malicious and damning evidence that he did give, other than that control and cruelty were part of his nature. Even in the courtroom as a long-term prisoner, he could still manipulate events and shape the destinies of those over whom he wielded control.

The cross-examination could not afford to be clumsy. It needed to be the most sophisticated operation. He should have been given no opportunity to be as fluent and mesmerising a personality in the courtroom as he was in everyday life. Howell’s contribution had to be as circumscribed as possible.

Then, an additional advantage of putting Hazel into the witness-box was that her evidence would be heard after his.

Secret, James NesbittThere are two other factors, neither of which was covered in the television series.

Intriguingly, Lesley’s family apparently believe that Howell may also have murdered her father (his father-in-law) who was in fairly good health when, while staying with the Howells two weeks before the other murders took place, he suddenly collapsed and died. Heart failure was given as the cause. His death helped to alleviate financial problems for the Howell family.

The body was cremated so the matter cannot now be taken forward. However, this raised the possibility that Howell was committing murder independently of Hazel, just as he committed numerous other serious offences independently of her – including defrauding some of his patients and assaulting others.

The trial was held – incredibly, it seems to me – at Coleraine Crown Court.

The case concerned the perversion of Baptist beliefs. This was always going to be a distasteful pill to swallow for the small local Baptist community from whom the jurors would be drawn. The case needed to be heard by jurors who did not share the fundamentalist outlook of almost all the main characters in this extraordinary drama.

A further point is that, because of the way the case unfolded (with Howell having pleaded guilty prior to Hazel’s trial), the background of prejudice, whether generated by adverse publicity or the local grapevine, would have been overwhelming. In my opinion, Heaven and earth and several other planets should have been moved to get the trial heard as far away from the locality as possible.

This was always going to be a difficult case to defend because it concerned not just the murder of a serving police officer but it was also a case in which the original police investigation was a serious cock-up, and therefore a major embarrassment. The authorities would have wanted it pursued with especial rigour.

Certainly, judging solely on the basis of the television adaptation, the defence strategy appeared to veer from the muddled to the catastrophic – though I do not believe that is an accurate impression. What is certainly the reality is that in the circumstances of today it is now almost impossible to put up a viable criminal defence, such are the handicaps under which the defence must work.

All we know about the jury deliberations in Coleraine is that it took them a mere two-and-a-half hours to reach their verdict which, bearing in mind the complexities of this case, was an absurdly brief time.

Kyle, Howell’s second wife, was not prosecuted, even though he had confessed to her and so she had kept the secret of the double murder for several years. So why not? Because she was under Howell’s thrall? Then why did the same not apply to Hazel?

On the basis of what we saw in this television series, she has now been convicted on the word of a man of consummate evil; and that cannot be just.