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Alan Clarke and Northern Ireland

Alan Clarke's two controversial snapshots of the Troubles.

Main image of Alan Clarke and Northern Ireland

The technique of exploring broader social issues by focusing on individuals whose lives are affected by them is typical of Alan Clarke's work. During the 1980s Clarke applied this favoured technique to the situation in Northern Ireland. The resulting two television dramas, Contact and Elephant were among the decade's best attempts at capturing the horror of the province's "troubles".

Contact follows a platoon of soldiers patrolling the "bandit country" of South Armagh, a hotbed of IRA activity running along the unmarked border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It explores the trauma of fighting men who live under the constant shadow of terror as they edge ever closer to the play's inevitably tragic end. With little in the way of plot, Contact is as much an examination of the dynamics of fear as it is a comment on the specifics of the Irish situation it nevertheless re-opened the debate as to how television drama should address the Troubles.

Clarke took the stripped-down narrative approach of Contact even further with Elephant. Without story or character, Elephant features eighteen reconstructed and completely unrelated murders on the streets of Belfast. Formally Clarke's most challenging work, his intention was to strip away any sectarian justification for killing by showing the harsh realities of cold-blooded murder. The relentlessness of the executions serves as both a reflection of the cycle of violence in which the province became trapped during the period, and an attempt to undermine the neutralizing effect of sanitized TV news coverage.

By deliberately refusing to be drawn into discussions on the moral, religious or political dimensions of the situation, Contact and Elephant are able to offer a fresh perspective and express in human terms the appalling cost of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Justin Hobday

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Contact (1985)

Contact (1985)

Alan Clarke drama about a platoon on patrol in Northern Ireland

Thumbnail image of Elephant (1989)

Elephant (1989)

Eighteen people are randomly murdered in Northern Ireland.

Related Collections

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)

Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)

Director, Writer, Producer