Northern Ireland's 'Perfect Murder' on Channel 4
Director Judy Kelly on her documentary into the Howell murder case
The details read like the plot of a psychological thriller: an affair, suicide pacts, religious mania and a he-said she-said murder trial.
However, the deaths of Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell, and the subsequent trial and conviction of their respective spouses, Hazel Stewart (formerly Buchanan) and Colin Howell, 18 years later, played out in the Northern Irish news, not on the film screen.
Now DoubleBand Films have made the story the focus of their Channel 4 documentary, The Perfect Murder, to be aired on Friday, August 19. There is an urge to ask why. Sensational though the story was, the bones of it were picked clean during the trial. Is there anything new to say?
‘No-one in Britain knows the story,’ Director Judy Kelly points out. ‘It isn’t even all that well-known in the South, not nearly as well-known as you’d imagine.’
The Perfect Murder does not merely explore the chronology of the crime and punishment – how dentist Howell, a respected member of the community in Coleraine, in and around where the murders took place, poisoned his wife as she lay in bed before traveling to the Buchanan family home, where he poisoned his lover's husband with carbon monoxide fumes from his car.
For Kelly, her interest lay behind the conspirators, with the impact of the trial on Hazel Stewart’s family, in particular, to whom DoubleBand gained close access during filming.
Kelly points out that this was the ‘right time’ to make the documentary. The impact of Stewart’s conviction for double murder – after she had pleaded not-guilty and insisted that she did not know of Howell's plans – was still very fresh for the family, who support her in spite of her conviction. ‘In three years time, that might have changed,’ Kelly ventures.
DoubleBand began filming The Perfect Murder only two months after Stewart was imprisoned for life. With the family planning to appeal her verdict, time was of the essence, and Kelly was aware that no filming would have been possible during an appeal.
The cameras began rolling a week after Buchanan's son moved out, leaving Stewart's second husband, David, alone in the family home. ‘It was his first time being entirely on his own,’ says Kelly. ‘We were able to capture a very intimate sense of how he’s getting on in a very different life to what he expected.’
The Perfect Murder
is part of Channel 4’s eclectic documentary strand First Cut, designed to showcase new, upcoming and, by default, usually young directors. At 41, Kelly admits that she is probably one of the oldest of the current crop of film-makers included in the strand.
A native Dubliner, she began her career working in fashion in London before moving into television production. ‘I was about 26,’ she says. ‘I got a job working on an Angus Deayton documentary as a researcher.’
She spent five years in London, working in various production roles, before returning to Dublin. DoubleBand Films, who Kelly had worked for on the RTE documentary Bright Young Things, then approached her to direct The Perfect Murder after a meeting with Channel 4.
‘As far as I know, what happened was that they were over to pitch something else,’ Kelly explains. ‘And Channel 4 told them that for First Cut, they always wanted murder stories. Once the guys told them about the [Howell case], as I understand it, Channel 4 pretty much commissioned it on the spot.’
Although Kelly hasn’t seen any of the other documentaries in this season’s First Cut programme, she does praise past seasons. ‘It is a great opportunity for people who have only done a little shooting,’ she says. ‘I love them. They are so diverse and compelling, and often film-makers use innovative techniques.’
Yet, for The Perfect Murder, Kelly stuck to ‘what I know’ and created a simple, observational documentary. ‘I didn’t want to distract from the story,’ she says, simply.
Watch The Perfect Murder on Channel Four at 19.35 on Friday, August 19