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
DCS John Thorburn
DCI John Simons
Chief Constable Sir John Hermon
DCI Samuel Flanagan
DS Eileen Scarrett
Assistant Chief Constable Trevor Forbes
DS Thomas Anderson
Constable John Robinson
Constable David Brannigan