Television: Getting away with murder

Review: ‘Just Names of Shows’, ‘In Single Marks’, ‘Like This, Please’, 'The Secret'

For more than 20 years a Northern Ireland dentist, Colin Howell, and his lover, a Sunday-school teacher named Hazel Buchanan, got away with murder. In a case that is as astonishing as it was scandalous, in 1991 they made it appear that their spouses had killed themselves in a suicide pact in a carbon monoxide-filled car. As a true story of an audacious crime, theirs is a gift to Stuart Urban, the scriptwriter of The Secret (UTV, Friday), and to James Nesbitt, who as the churchgoing family man Howell is deeply sinister, a terrifying combination of surface geniality hiding a controlling schemer. The twinkle-in-the-eye cheeky-chappie shtick that has so often been Nesbitt's screen persona is happily absent from this chilling portrayal of the dentist.

Both families are active members of their local Baptist church, in dull, grey Coleraine – Nesbitt's home town, so it's no stretch to do the accent – and The Secret captures a suffocatingly tight community, with neat bungalows and ordered lives, dominated by the church. The Troubles infringe only through the occasional inconvenient night-time roadblock. Buchanan (played by a convincingly malleable Genevieve O'Reilly) initially feels guilt about their clandestine relationship, as Baptist teaching is all fire and brimstone on adultery. Howell reassures her with the unlikely foreplay line: "This is God's gift. It would be wrong to refuse it."

By the end of episode one their affair is known to their spouses – courtesy of the pastor who, acting on gossip, decides it is his duty to inform them – and Howell is once again in persuasion mode. This time he tells Buchanan that their spouses would prefer to be dead rather than be left, so, really, it would be a kindness to kill them. Even though it's a true story, and we know how it all unfolds, the end of the first part of The Secret feels like a cliffhanger – a sure sign that it's a satisfying drama at every level.

When the vast number of television programmes made to commemorate the 1916 Rising are assessed by media students, they're likely to conclude that they were archive-based but full of new insights and emphasis, educational, serious to the point of reverential, and world class in terms of production values. What it hasn't been (reasonably) is a barrel of laughs or notably inventive. Now, just as Rising fatigue is setting in, along comes the three-part drama Éirí Amach Amú/Wrecking the Rising (TG4, Saturday-Monday), a time-travel romp where three Rising re-enactors are, through a magic key, transported back 100 years, to 1916.


Their first act is to accidentally kill Patrick Pearse. From then on it’s a madcap caper to put things right, starting with a Pearse wannabe and mammy’s boy, Ernest (Owen McDonnell), heading to the GPO and passing himself off as his hero.

His friends Seán (Peter Coonan) and Tom (Seán T Ó Meallaigh) are also in the GPO, sagely advising James Connolly (Enda Oates) that Dublin Castle is theirs for the taking as the police are at Fairyhouse, and raising suspicion when they seem to know a little bit too much about the Helga.

The scenes of fighting are deadly serious and well choreographed, and the Proclamation signatories in the GPO play straight men to the comic trio. That makes the giddy goings-on, driven by the very fine performances of the time travellers – Coonan's stands out – extremely entertaining. Favourite moments – and there are many – include when Seán, put on the spot to sing a rebel song, gives them a blast of Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, or the running gag when he discovers that his grandfather was indeed in the GPO, as family lore had long celebrated, but was in fact a captured British soldier.

In James Phelan’s often hilarious fact-stretching script, two of the three get back to the future: Pearse in this version doesn’t die in the Rising – he couldn’t, as we are far too invested in innocent Earnest for that to happen – and there is a brief gallop through a now changed post-1916 world that doesn’t bother to be too convincing.

None of this is laboured. The bilingual Wrecking the Rising isn't self-importantly hammering home a different "what if" vision of Ireland but having a laugh. Kudos to TG4 for commissioning such a fanciful and gently irreverent drama and to its director, Ruán Magan, for pulling it off.

Louis Theroux’s return to making documentaries in his home country with a film looking at alcohol seems a tame idea. It’s an almost boringly domestic proposal when compared with his recent US outings, where he explored the rich pickings on the fringes of US society, such as death row inmates and fundamentalist wingnuts.

Except that's not how Louis Theroux: Drinking to Oblivion (BBC Two, Sunday) turns out. It's a powerful, sad and insightful film as he delves into the stories of four alcoholics at King's College Hospital in London, a specialist liver centre. He does his Theroux thing: loping down corridors, standing slightly in the way in small cubicles, giving awkward hugs, looking concerned, and gaining the trust of his interviewees while they're puking, out of it or, in the case of Peter, an antiques dealer whose liver has clapped out, chatting while litres of yellow fluid are drained (again) from his extended stomach.

Peter has just been given three months to live, but he doesn’t believe it. This is alcohol presented as a drug without a hint of wine-o’-clock cuteness; it’s as damaging as any illegal drug and, once it has gotten a grip, impossible for some vulnerable people to shake off.

What is most troubling to see is the self-awareness of the patients: Auriele, Joe, Peter and Stuart each know they are killing themselves but can’t stop. Their alcohol consumption typically began as a self-medicating response to situations they found difficult to cope with. The staff at the hospital are briskly realistic; both Joe and Stuart have been detoxed there several times. Cathy, a patient-liaison nurse, says: “The logical endpoint to alcohol dependency is the person sitting in a room on their own with a bottle and nobody else left around them.”

Given this country’s relationship with alcohol, there was that vague niggle at the back of the brain that surely we’d be seeing an Irish person in the hospital at some stage. And we do, but it’s not as I feared. It’s Prof John O’Grady, a consultant liver specialist. His consultation with Auriele is a painful insight into the mind of an addict. The 45-year-old Frenchwoman hears his warnings about drinking herself to death – he’s said it several times before, and she’s heard it – but in response she says that she’s surprised she’s not dead already. She seems disappointed about that.

Ones to Watch: Exploring masculinity, and Pearse on trial

The Turner prize-winning artist has been an engaging TV chronicler of middle England, but for this new series, exploring masculinity, Grayson Perry: All Man (Channel 4, Thursday) hitches up his skirts and jumps into the world of cage fighting.

Who doesn’t love a courtroom drama, as the legions of fans addicted to The People v OJ Simpson series prove? And you’d watch the ambitious drama Trial of the Century (Saturday-Monday, TV3) just to see if Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (left) makes a convincing Patrick Pearse.