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Nineteen96 (1989)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Nineteen96 (1989)
BBC TV, tx. 17/9/1989
93 mins, colour
DirectorKarl Francis
Production CompanyBBC TV
ProducerRuth Caleb
ScreenplayG.F. Newman
PhotographyRuss Walker
EditorChris Lawrence
MusicMichael Storey

Cast: Keith Barron (Cdr Jack Bentham); Alun Armstrong (Det. Supt Frank Burroughs); Tom Marshall (Det. Insp. Bill Senior); Dudley Sutton (Dep. Commissioner Sir Harry Streeter); Gillian Eaton (Maureen Fry); Keith Allen (Det. Supt Alan Horsefell)

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Britain in the mid-1990s: a divided, violent nation where civil disorder and urban terrorism are on the increase. Scotland Yard detective Commander Jack Bentham is seconded to Wales to look into a series of shootings by police officers, and uncovers a complex web of deceit and corruption.

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Nineteen 96 is based on G.F. Newman's 1987 novel The Testing Ground, in which a senior policeman investigates RUC officers accused of murdering IRA suspects in a shoot-to-kill policy. The novel also described how senior officials in the province were involved in a sex scandal at a boy's home. When Newman came to adapt the novel, he originally planned to retain its contemporary Northern Ireland setting, but the BBC worried about real-life parallels to Deputy Chief Constable John Stalker's mid-1980s investigation into shoot-to-kill allegations (dramatised as Shoot to Kill, ITV, 1990), and consequently asked for the drama to be rewritten and set in a near-future Wales.

Nevertheless, reviewers immediately picked up on the parallels to the Stalker Inquiry, while a separate storyline in which a judge and a senior member of MI6 are depicted as paedophiles preying on the pupils of a boy's school was seen as a thinly disguised version of Belfast's early 1980s' Kincora Boys' Home scandal.

Commander Jack Bentham is the Stalker character, apparently fighting a heroic battle against wrong-doing by the police and, ultimately, a Conservative government that has just been voted in for a fifth term (in fact, the Tories managed four terms). Yet Bentham is compromised by his affair with a key witness and, at the end, does a somewhat surprising volte face, parroting the official line that three nurses shot dead at a demonstration were members of a terrorist group and stonewalling questions from journalists about his shoot-to-kill investigation.

Nineteen 96 epitomises Newman's brand of uncompromising radical drama, intent on exposing police corruption and government subterfuge. Yet there is a tendency to throw too many elements into the mix: Bentham is investigating the killing of 'radical' nurses on a demonstration in London and the rape of another nurse by a policeman in a police cell as well as the alleged shoot-to-kill policy in Wales and the sex scandal at a boys' school, and learns of the killing of a judge and a previous secretary of state by an evidently out-of-control MI6.

All these ingredients, with Bentham commuting between London and Cardiff, result in an over-complicated plot, and the final scene, in which Bentham returns to the fold and absolves the police of blame, is barely credible given his earlier efforts to expose the guilty men. Newman, however, would presumably argue that Bentham's capitulation is the inevitable consequence of the police policing themselves.

Lez Cooke

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Video Clips
1. Shooting to kill (3:23)
2. What's the point of this investigation? (1:21)
3. An unexpected source of help (5.17)
Guardians, The (1971)
Shoot to Kill (1990)
Francis, Karl (1942- )
Newman, G.F. (1946-)