Shooting in the dark

He missed out on a Bafta last week, but filmmaker Stuart Urban has much to be proud of, says Susan Reuben


Film-maker Stuart Urban has never shied away from the darkest stories. He puts this down in part to his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor. “I think it goes back to having had an upbringing in which I was aware of the immense suffering of my father’s family. From the age of 12 or 13, I viewed society in a different way,” he says.

On Sunday, Urban  was on the red carpet at the Bafta TV awards, two decades after he was last there. His ITV drama The Secret  had been nominated for best mini-series, losing out to National Treasure. Urban had already  won a Bafta for his feature-length BBC film An Ungentlemanly Act (1992), which dramatised the first 36 hours of the Falklands War. And he directed Our Friends in the North (1995) starring Daniel Craig, which won him another Bafta.

The Secret was broadcast in 2016 to glowing reviews. Starring James Nesbitt, it is a dramatisation of the notorious Castlerock Murders, which took place in Northern Ireland in 1991. Lesley Clarke and Trevor Buchanan were killed by their respective spouses Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan who had been having an affair.


The deaths were made to look like a suicide pact, and the crime went undiscovered until 2009 when Howell confessed to the Elders of the Baptist church to which he had belonged.

When The Secret was broadcast, Lauren Bradford, the daughter of Colin Howell and Lesley Clarke, wrote a piece in the Guardian saying the dramatisation had forced her family to relive the trauma all over again. “The reality of murder is devoid of eerie music or close-ups, just devastation and sorrow,” she wrote.

Urban says he followed strict protocol with regard to approaching those involved. “We did everything that ethical codes, Ofcom and ITV required us to do in reaching out to the families and others who were going to be portrayed,” he says. “We travelled to see Ms Bradford at least twice and invited her to make any observations she wanted to.”

I put to Urban that, protocol aside, a dramatisation of this nature, while of great interest to the public, is inevitably going to deeply upset at least some of those involved. How does he reconcile these two facts?

“It was a known case about which there had already been six documentaries and a best-selling book,” he says. “We were not blowing open a story that nobody had told.

“The reason I felt the drama had to be made was to examine, in the public interest, how it was that a couple could commit a double murder and expect to get away with it, mentally, emotionally and morally. To me, if it stopped even one person from planning such a terrible thing then it has achieved its purpose. Most of the drama was about the aftermath. We were all about the consequences of the crime — not viewing it as a titillating ‘penny dreadful’ effort.”

Urban believes that a dramatised account of a true event has the potential to be as accurate as documentary, if it is created with the rigour and attention to detail that he employed for The Secret:

“It’s as close to a true story as I could get it. There wasn’t a single scene that didn’t have two sources or three. I was able to corroborate many thing in police documents by meeting eye-witnesses and people who knew the perpetrator. In a documentary, you are as beholden to the decisions of the director/editor as to how the truth is presented, as you are in a drama that is carefully fact-based.’

He has previously turned the camera on his own family, making a documentary over 15 years about his father, Garri who had an extraordinary life story, escaping from the both the Soviet forced-labour camps and from the Nazis.

Urban shot the film at first with his father’s help, and then after his death in 2004. During the course of filming he was arrested twice — in Uzbekistan and Russia — and attracted the unwanted attention of the Uzbek Secret Service:

“We were receiving telephone calls saying they knew who my father was.”

The documentary was finally released in 2007 as Tovarisch, I am Not Dead and was shortlisted for best documentary at the British Independent Film Awards.

Urban and his wife Dana, whom he met when they were studying at Oxford University, are members of Wimbledon Synagogue. They have a daughter Leah, 28, who works for a hedge fund, and a son David, 26 who is following in his father’s footsteps. David is a social media producer who has recently won two awards at the Shortys, which honour the best output on social media.

What’s next for Urban? He is working on a number of projects, but does not currently know what is going to be his next big venture. He is interested in dramatising a story about antisemitism in the UK, and he would also like to make something about the legend of the golem. “It’s a great story,” he says, “because it speaks about antisemitism at a time of huge disruption in Europe.”

Which project stands out for him in his career to date as the most significant? He finds it hard to pick on one in particular but speaks of a reaction to a screening of Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead: “I remember being in a festival in the middle of Russia and a lot of people crying at Tovarisch — who were not Jewish, actually.

“They were just crying at the emotional impact of certain scenes. That was moving.”

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