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Shoot to Kill (1990)

Main image of Shoot to Kill (1990)
Zenith Productions / Yorkshire Television for ITV, tx. 3-4/6/1990
1x120, 1x60, 1x70 min, colour
DirectorPeter Kosminsky
ProducerNigel Stafford-Clark
ByMichael Eaton

Cast: Jack Shepherd (DCC John Stalker); David Calder (DCS John Thorburn); John Ryan (DCI John Simons); T.P. McKenna (Chief-Con. Sir John Hermon); George Shane (DCI Flanagan); Breffni McKenna (Martin McCauley)

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Drama documentary reconstructing police shootings of suspected terrorists in Northern Ireland and the obstacles faced by the subsequent Stalker Inquiry.

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Led by Deputy Chief Constable John Stalker, the Stalker Inquiry (1984-86) investigated the killings of six unarmed men by a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) anti-terrorist unit in 1982. Shoot to Kill explored the incidents and, like Stalker's 1988 memoir and Ken Loach's fictionalised Hidden Agenda (1990), documented the inquiry's failure amidst alleged cover-ups, obstruction and smears.

Director Peter Kosminsky distrusted faction - he had made First Tuesday (ITV, 1983-93) documentaries such as 'Afghantsi' (ITV, tx. 4/10/1988) - but made Shoot to Kill as a drama documentary because on-screen interviews seemed impossible. Broadcast on consecutive nights, the first part dramatises shootings, debriefings and the Stalker team's arrival, and the second part depicts the team's investigations, led by Stalker and Detective Chief Superintendent John Thorburn, and their interactions with the RUC's Chief Constable, Sir John Hermon.

Although a compelling drama with striking visuals and thriller atmospherics, the programme was researched like a documentary - with three years of journalism plus advice from Thorburn - and prioritised documentary record over dramatic devices. Writer Michael Eaton faced legal scrutiny, minor annoyances (several major characters called John) and masses of research - Stalker's memoir details many interviews and complex procedures, such as the real negotiations for a vital MI5 tape - that required dramatic structuring and sensitive compression.

Allegations of fabricated evidence, shooting without warning, problematic informant use and potential collusion prompt the question, quoting Juvenal, "who will guard the guards?" The programme repeatedly voices balancing arguments, mainly the RUC's particular challenges in combating terrorism, but Hermon still complained of bias and inaccuracy, and settled out-of-court in a libel action against Yorkshire TV. Shoot to Kill was broadcast across ITV - but not in the Ulster region - after the IBA's full board previewed it. They requested audience warnings about its drama documentary status and diluted a caption regarding the Attorney General's announcement that RUC officers would not be prosecuted despite evidence suggesting they had perverted the course of justice.

As required with controversial material, a discussion programme followed transmission. Shoot to Kill: The Issues (ITV, tx. 4/6/1990) featured an Amnesty International representative, a Conservative MP, Nationalist MP Seamus Mallon (mentioned in news footage in Shoot to Kill), Unionist MP David Trimble (whose criticisms included dialogue that compared the RUC with a "death squad in a banana republic"), and Kosminsky, whose subsequent career would be dominated by similarly hard-hitting drama documentaries.

Dave Rolinson

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Video Clips
Hidden Agenda (1990)
Nineteen96 (1989)
Kosminsky, Peter (1956-)
Drama Documentary