Home Television Drama Shoot to Kill

Shoot to Kill

1 9 9 0 (UK)
1 x 120 minute episode
1 x 60 minute episode

This dramatised documentary reconstructed police shootings of suspected terrorists in Northern Ireland and the obstacles faced by the subsequent Stalker Inquiry.

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.

Broadcast on consecutive nights on 3 and 4 June 1990, the first part dramatised the shootings, debriefings and the Stalker team’s arrival, and the second part depicted the team’s investigations, led by Stalker (Jack Shepherd) and Detective Chief Superintendent John Thorburn (David Calder), and their interactions with the RUC’s Chief Constable, Sir John Hermon (T.P. McKenna).

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 overdramatic devices.

Writer Michael Eaton faced legal scrutiny, minor annoyances (several major characters called John) and masses of research – Stalker’s memoir detailed many interviews and complex procedures, such as the real negotiations for a vital MI5 tape – that required dramatic structuring and sensitive compression.

The programme repeatedly voiced balancing arguments, mainly the RUC’s particular challenges in combating terrorism, but the real Sir John 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 on 4 June 1990.

Shoot to Kill: The Issues 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 Shoot to Kill Director Peter Kosminsky, whose subsequent career would be dominated by similarly hard-hitting drama documentaries.

Deputy Chief Constable John Stalker
Jack Shepherd
DCS John Thorburn
David Calder
DCI John Simons
John Ryan
Chief Constable Sir John Hermon
T.P. McKenna
DCI Samuel Flanagan
George Shane
DS Eileen Scarrett
Jane Cunliffe
Assistant Chief Constable Trevor Forbes
Ian McElhinney
DS Thomas Anderson
Oliver Maguire
Constable John Robinson
Richard Hawley
Constable David Brannigan
Gary Whelan
Sergeant X
Aaron Harris
Constable X
Daragh O’Malley
Constable Z
Dick Holland
MI5 officer
Peter Cellier
Martin McCauley
Breffni McKenna
Michael Tighe
Barry Birch
Mr Tighe
Peadar Lamb