It’s been a tricky week for The Secret.
Not in ratings terms – it’s a hit – but because it has upset the daughter of Lesley Howell, the real-life murdered mother portrayed in the ITV drama. The family claims permission to make the drama was never sought, and daughter Lauren Bradford’s case was raised during Prime Minister’s Questions, where her local MP argued that relatives need more rights over their stories – especially ones as traumatic as this one.
This topic raises lots of difficult, important questions about dramatisations of real-life events – and in a way, I feel guilty for enjoying a piece of TV that has been painful for the family of the victims.
- The Secret: how a mild-mannered dentist murdered two people and buried the truth for years
- James Nesbitt explains why The Secret’s true story of murder is close to home
And yet, you cannot ignore the fact that The Secret, as a piece of TV, deserves all the praise it gets for its staggeringly good acting. James Nesbitt is bewitching as Colin, a man so obsessed with God, punishment and redemption that he’s found a way to justify murder.
But while everyone’s talking about Nesbitt’s on-screen power, it’s really Genevieve O’Reilly (Banished, Episodes) who is hooking me in to this grim story.
Nesbitt’s Colin Howell seems convinced his life and actions are of epic, biblical proportions. God sees him, he’s sure of it, and he’s centre stage in his family life, running bible classes and basking in his popularity. He’s a local hero with a sinister inner world.
But O’Reilly’s Hazel, Colin’s accomplice, is quieter and harder to read, engulfed in a vulnerable innocence that makes her guilt seem all the more disturbing.
We can guess what Colin’s thinking: we know he’s being driven by something far darker than the holy book, and that these brutal plans have come from his desperation to have what he wants.
But O’Reilly’s skilful portrayal of Hazel leaves you wondering whether the plan could have been stirring in her mind, too – or whether her initial shock at the thought of a double murder was real.
I’ve re-watched that scene several times, where Colin suggests the murder plan to Hazel, simply because O’Reilly’s reaction is so alarmingly imperceptible. A look of wide-eyed disbelief, and then a slow, almost baiting, “We’ll never get away with it.” Cue long, silent looks. The deal is done. They are blood brothers – or blood lovers.
But what has she been thinking this whole time? O’Reilly never quite lets you into Hazel’s mind, forcing you to question your own intuition about this character. There are moments when you think she’s in way too deep, that she never truly wanted this. But in other scenes that power dynamic vanishes, when you wonder if Hazel is far more calculating than she seems.
So here’s to O’Reilly, my new favourite actor. In every episode of The Secret, she manages to vacillate smoothly between a wholesome female under the spell of a manipulative man, and a self-aware woman who’s actually stage-managing the horror.
This article was originally published in May 2016