From the first dark moments of episode one, evil casts a deep shadow across real-life murder drama The Secret. But for series star James Nesbitt, who plays double-killer dentist and sexual predator Colin Howell, wickedness is not so much a shape as a sound.
“You can hear it in The Secret,” says Nesbitt. “It’s like a generator going in the back of your mind. There is a kind of dark, humming thing throughout. You know something is misplaced.”
It is a strange and troubling professional return to Northern Ireland for Nesbitt. The Secret’s occasionally gruelling events take place in Coleraine, where the 51-year-old went to school. “My sister was at Lesley Howell’s coffee mornings,” he reveals. “Two of my best friends were patients of Colin’s. When Colin dumped the bodies in his father-in-law’s garage and ran along the beach he went right past my parent’s house where they were sleeping. I found that quite scary.”
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Nesbitt says the drama allowed him, “to explore the dark side of that community, to see how wickedness and evil can flourish and grow under the cover of religion.” All four of the main protagonists – Colin Howell, Lesley Howell, Trevor Buchanan and Hazel Buchanan – were members of the Baptist Church.
“There are certain things that a very black and white with the Baptists, it’s quite self-governing at times,’ Nesbitt says. “I think that was one of the problems. If it hadn’t quite had that, maybe something would have stopped, it wouldn’t have got that far, or certainly they wouldn’t have got away with it for 19 years.”
It’s a Christian culture that Nesbitt knows very well. “It was in my home,” he says. “My family were Presbyterians. A lot of people say ‘God-fearing’, but I always thought that I came from a very God-loving background. It was a close community, though not as close as the Baptists, but they were Christian, charitable and would go out of their way to help you. I went to church and Sunday school. We used to sing hymns around the piano on Sunday nights, which sounds extraordinary, so quaint and bizarre.”
Colin Howell does terrible things. Has the experience of playing such an unpleasant man left Nesbitt with a dark view of masculinity? “In the real life stories I’ve done I’ve seen wickedness and loss and menace, and terrible acts of violence and cruelty,” he says. “But I have also seen amazing generosity and spirit and love. So, generally I an optimistic about masculinity. As a father of daughters you want to be. Though in a way it’s easy for me to be optimistic, I’m in a pretty good position. ”
Nesbitt has not always been so happy and has had well publicised problems in his private life. “I certainly have been kissed by, if not quite depression, then negativity at times,’ he says. “It’s a question of getting to a point where you can admit that rather than deflect things. That’s a good place. I think I’m mostly jolly, but of course that’s not to say that it’s not a façade.”
Nesbitt’s Howell is jolly as well – when not planning and committing murder he leads praise-giving sing-alongs on his guitar and takes the Church youth club on outings. Ask Nesbitt if he still believes in God and he says ”I always liked the gospel teaching, but the rest of it I’m not so sure about. I don’t know if there’s a big man in the sky. It was never forced upon me and I didn’t ‘move away’ from it in a kind of rebellious act. It was just that over the years its hold lessened. The world was changing, and we changed with it.”
This article was originally published in the 23-29 April 2016 issue of Radio Times magazine