The film, written by Michael Eaton and directed by Peter Kosminsky, was made by the ITV company Yorkshire Television, and screened in two parts over successive nights in June 1990. However, the programme was not broadcast in Northern Ireland itself, a precaution that Ulster Television said reflected legal advice that it might prejudice future inquests on the deceased, which had been suspended.
The programme was made with the co-operation of John Thorburn, Stalker's deputy with day-to-day responsibility on the inquiry, and was said to reveal significant new information about the underlying events and how the inquiry had progressed.
The first two-hour part dramatises the events in late 1982 that lay behind the inquiry: the killing of three policemen by a massive landmine at Kinnego embankment in County Armagh; the fatal shooting of three members of the IRA, who turned out to be unarmed, in a car at Craigavon; the shooting dead of civilian Michael Tighe and wounding of Martin McCauley, also found to be unarmed, at a hayshed in Ballyneery near Lurgan; and the killing of two INLA members, again discovered to be unarmed, in a car at Mullacreavie Park, near Armagh; along with the creation of adjusted or fabricated accounts of the actions of RUC Special Support Unit members in the events, some of which unravelled in court in March 1984.
The second part shows Stalker, his second-in-command Thorburn, and the inquiry team, as they dig out more and more of what really happened, faced with a complete lack of encouragement from the RUC, a clash of views as to what was acceptable, and ultimately Stalker's removal from the inquiry before its conclusion.Jack Shepherd, as DCC John Stalker, Greater Manchester Police
David Calder, as DCS John Thorburn, Greater Manchester Police
T. P. McKenna, as Chief Constable Sir John Hermon, Royal Ulster Constabulary
George Shane, as DCI Samuel George Flanagan, RUC Special Branch tasking and co-ordination
Patrick Drury, as Detective Inspector, RUC Special Branch
Richard Hawley, as Constable John Robinson, RUC Special Support Unit
Tony Clarkin as Sergeant William Montgomery
Gary Whelan, as Constable David Brannigan, RUC Special Support Unit
Ian McElhinney, as Assistant Chief Constable Trevor Forbes
Daragh O'Malley, as Constable "Y", RUC Special Support Unit
Stevan Rimkus, as IRA informer
Barry Birch, as Michael Tighe
Breffni McKenna, as Martin McCauley
Christopher Macey, as Police Driver
Yorkshire Television's First Tuesday documentary strand had long been considering making a programme on the Stalker Inquiry and the so-called Shoot-to-kill allegations. Kosminsky, who had producer-directed the documentaries The Falklands War: the Untold Story (1987), Cambodia: Children of the Killing Fields (1988) and Afghantsi (1988) for the strand, was keen to take the subject on. However, Kosminsky found that there was nobody he could talk to on-camera: "They were either dead, disappeared or not allowed to talk to us." Many serving or past officers were silenced by the Official Secrets Act. "The only thing to shoot was a few guilty buildings, there really was nothing." Although Kosminsky distrusted "faction", and had told the press he "hated" this "evil form", he began to think of putting the research that had been gathered into a drama format, to make best use of the contacts that had been achieved.
At the same time Zenith Productions were also considering a possible drama on the Stalker affair. Zenith was a production company that had been involved with a number of British cinema films in the mid-1980s, and was also making the Inspector Morse series for television. Zenith's plans came to the attention of Yorkshire Television's head of drama, Keith Richardson, who suggested merging the two projects; which ultimately led Yorkshire into the unusual position of commissioning its biggest and most prestigious drama of the year from an independent. From Zenith came experienced producer Nigel Stafford-Clark who had recently moved to the company, while Kosminsky was set to direct.
A turning point for the production came when the recently retired John Thorburn agreed to act as consultant. Detective Chief Superintendent Thorburn, a former head of the Manchester murder squad, had been Stalker's number two on the investigation, in charge of the day-to-day running of the inquiry, while Stalker flew in from time to time to supervise as required. Thorburn had never spoken to the press about his role, despite the best efforts of both Kosminsky for Yorkshire's First Tuesday, and Peter Taylor of the BBC's series Panorama, to persuade him. However, in January 1988 the Attorney General, Sir Patrick Mayhew, announced to Parliament that despite evidence that RUC officers had obstructed and perverted the course of justice, he had advised the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland that it would not be in the public interest for those officers to be prosecuted, for reasons of national security. This changed Thorburn's mind. According to Kosminsky, "He didn't do it for the money... I just happened to hit him at a time when his frustration hit a peak."
Stalker himself published his own book Stalker on the subject in February 1988, and the production team considered taking out an option on it. But Michael Eaton, who they approached to dramatise it, suggested that he "did not want to write a film just centred around one policeman. It was as important to make a film about everything that led to the inquiry as it was to make a film about the inquiry itself." This was also the view of the rest of the team, and so the production went ahead on the basis of the material and contacts they already had. Given the amount of research that had already been done, and the need to be led by it, Eaton said of his role and that of writers working on similar projects "We are structuralists rather than dramatists − producers want us to supply form and structure." Dramatists also did not usually face the challenge, according to Eaton, of having all three of their main characters being called John.
It was "unconventional" to choose to have the main protagonists, Stalker and his team, not to appear at all for the first hour and three-quarters; but Eaton felt this added to the audience suspense, knowing what there was for the inquiry to find, but not knowing which paths the inquiry would take, and whether it would be uncovered. The script ultimately went to ten drafts, with Yorkshire Television's lawyers demanding the justification for every line. Stalker himself kept a distance from the project, although Eaton and Kosminsky talked to him "at some length"; but after a pre-transmission screening Stalker described it as "a faithful reproduction of Northern Ireland events". He was also said to have told his wife that he considered it "well acted and fairly accurate".
Filming began in October 1989 and lasted until Christmas, in a "relentless" shoot to achieve almost 400 scenes in ten weeks. The production was based at the Yorkshire TV facilities in Leeds, with the nearby hills of West Yorkshire standing in for the rolling countryside of County Armagh.
For Kosminsky it was his first experience of directing a television drama, an undertaking that, with a budget of £1.5 million, a cast of 125, a crew of 80, and 500 extras, was on an altogether bigger scale than the investigative documentaries he had previously made. Having never shot a frame of drama before, he described the first day as one of the scariest challenges of his life. "I just literally did not know whether I could do it." He was later to call it his "big break", and it became the first of many hard-hitting research-led dramas, including No Child of Mine (1997), Warriors (1999), The Government Inspector (2005) and The Promise (2011).
Throughout, the team was committed to put the factual research first in the making of the film, ahead of purely dramatic considerations. "We strove very hard to not to sacrifice reality to the demands of good television", according to the producer Stafford-Clark.
According to Kosminsky, the objective of the programme was not "trial by television" or "naming the guilty men". Although the programme did use real names, these were all already known to the public through Stalker's book and the extensive journalism the affair had already attracted. Rather, Kosminsky said he wanted the film to reveal a lot of "new information, which is not so far in the public domain, largely from the experiences of John Thorburn"; and he said that his aim was that "whatever view the audience comes to about the rights and wrongs of the issue, they will at least know the events, the facts − what happened".
This information, according to The Times, included new details of how the operation against Dominic McGlinchy had ended in a "murderous farce", building on what had come out at the trial of RUC Constable John Robinson. More widely, the newspapers identified questions arising from what the programme presented of the role of the RUC's informant in the IRA. It appeared that, simply on his say-so, he had been able to get the RUC to target, with lethal consequences, the men he claimed were responsible for the Kinnego embankment explosion. Allegedly he had also been in a position to send these same men out on an operation to kill an RUC reservist, into the line of fire of a police ambush, making him an agent provocateur and, as Hugh Hebert put it in The Guardian, "creating the conditions in which assassination is inevitable". Darker still were questions around how the explosives used at Kinnego had got out of a hayshed that was supposedly being monitored. Had it just been an equipment failure? The film suggested that the inquiry had seriously considered the possibility, voiced by the Thorburn character, that the explosives might have been deliberately allowed out of the hayshed, and the three uniformed policemen deliberately allowed into a dangerous area leading to their deaths, to preserve the credibility within the IRA of the Special Branch source.
On the question of the alleged "shoot-to-kill" policy itself (described perhaps more precisely by Tom King, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as allegations of a policy to "shoot on sight, or without proper warning, or without observing the correct procedures for the use of force"), the programme was elliptical. What it did represent was a particular SAS-style training exercise undertaken by the RUC Special Support Unit, emphasising its mantra of "Firepower, Speed, Aggression", with a briefing to the participants about what they should and shouldn't do: "1. Don't stop to think about it. Take out the terrorists before they can take out the hostages. 2. No warnings. When did you see the IRA hold up a yellow card? 3. Go for the trunk. Double tap. Your aim is to eliminate the threat completely. Now take those bastards out of action."
The programme then showed a briefing which played on the men's feelings for their colleagues murdered at Kinnego, and emphasised that Eugene Toman, Sean Burns, and Martin McCauley were the men believed "from an impeccable source" to be responsible, before knowingly concluding: "When you get the word from E4a, I want a Vehicle Control Point set up and I want these men stopped. No mistakes. Remember: firepower, speed, aggression. Show me what you've learnt..." This presentation could be read as consistent with John Stalker's view, expressed to The Times in February 1988, that "I never did find evidence of a shoot-to-kill policy as such. There was no written instruction, nothing pinned up on a noticeboard. But there was a clear understanding on the part of the men whose job it was to pull the trigger that that was what was expected of them."
But Kosminsky was keen that the RUC side of the argument too should be fairly represented. "I've bent over backwards not to pretend that there are black and white solutions to these problems. And secondly to try and make the RUC case make sense – because they have a case." "I'm not trying to present Stalker as a white knight on a white charger and the RUC as fascists. I'm trying to present a faithful picture with the grey areas deliberately left grey." Kosminsky said of the film as a whole that "I hope it won't give any succour to terrorist forces, but I hope it will bring out the question of RUC accountability from beneath the carpet where I believe it was swept".
The film was called in by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), the regulator of British independent television at the time, for a formal screening before the full board, after IBA staff members who had been shown a preview copy flagged up concerns about the title and the extensive use of actual names in the programme. This was a highly unusual step, which had not been taken for many years. For example, similar action had not been taken before the showing of Thames Television's controversial Death on the Rock in 1988, nor for Granada Television's drama-documentary Who Bombed Birmingham? about the Birmingham Six earlier in the year.
The Board viewed the film on 17 May, a little over two weeks before the planned broadcast. In the event however, they stipulated only that the film be preceded by a caption to say that it was a drama-documentary; and that some adjustment be made to the wording of a final caption noting the statement to Parliament by the Attorney General Sir Patrick Mayhew in January 1988, that although there was evidence of RUC officers obstructing and perverting the course of justice, he had advised the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland that due to considerations of national security a prosecution of those officers would not be in the public interest. Subject to those two provisos, the Board cleared the programme for transmission.
A preview screening was also held in Belfast on 21 May, at which the former RUC Chief Constable Sir John Hermon (who had retired in May 1989) and a number of senior RUC officers were described as having "sat impassively, and made no comment". However, in an interview on 31 May, three days before transmission, Sir John accused the film of containing false and inaccurate information and giving neither a factual nor objective portrayal of the shootings.
Within hours Ulster Television (UTV) announced that it would not show the film. UTV said it had taken legal advice, that the film might be prejudicial to legal inquests that were still suspended into the six deaths. The company refused to comment as to whether or not its decision had been linked to Sir John's criticism. The decision was attacked by the local MP for Armagh, the Social Democratic and Labour Party's (SDLP) Seamus Mallon; and also by the production company Zenith, who called it "appalling and shameful" that the people most affected by the issues in the programme would be prevented from seeing it. Kosminsky said he found it hard to understand, given the amount that had already been published on the Stalker case, how UTV could accept legal advice that the programme could prejudice juries at inquests that might not be held for at least a year.
Across the rest of the ITV network the film duly went out as planned on Sunday 3 and Monday 4 June, and drew an audience of 9 million viewers − as Kosminsky later noted, rather more than the 1.2 million who had watched Afghantsi, for which he felt he had put his life in danger. In Northern Ireland, UTV found that it was unable to prevent the reception of centrally-originated teletext subtitles for the programme, so blacked out the entire Oracle teletext information service for the duration of the broadcast.
As was the norm for controversial programmes at the time, the second part was followed by a half-hour studio discussion called Shoot to Kill: The Issues. Chaired by Olivia O'Leary, the regular presenter of First Tuesday, the discussion featured Kosminsky with the MPs Ian Gow of the Conservative Party (assassinated by the Provisional IRA two months later), Seamus Mallon of the SDLP, and David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party, along with Larry Cox of Amnesty International. Sir John Hermon was also invited to take part, but declined. Trimble particularly objected to a rhetorical line that what had been going on was "not Dixon of Dock Green − it's more like some death squad out of a banana republic", said by Stalker in the film, apparently for the benefit of the RUC eavesdroppers who were listening in. Gow and Trimble also charged that viewers would be left not knowing what had been real and what had been invented. Kosminsky retorted that there was "absolutely nothing" in the film that didn't happen, and was backed up as to its general veracity by Mallon and Cox.
The programme was well received. It was nominated for a BAFTA award in the Best Single Drama category, and won the 1990 award in that category from both the Royal Television Society and the Broadcasting Press Guild. The Sunday Times critic Patrick Stoddart described it as Kosminsky's "first and massively impressive drama". Chris Dunkely of the Financial Times said it was "the sort of programme that makes me want to stand up and cheer", calling it "admirable" and "remarkably even handed", with "splendid performances... and very superior camerawork and editing. Given that Kosminsky has never made a drama before it is an astonishing achievement. But above all a heartening one".
Ian Christie in the Daily Express called it remarkable and gripping, concluding that "the film was compelling, the script and direction incisive, the performances first rate". The technical qualities of the film were widely applauded. Mark Sanderson in Time Out noted the challenges the film makers had faced − a vast amount of information to convey, a huge number of real people to present with hardly any time to develop characterisation, an outcome that everybody knew − and considered that writer Michael Eaton had succeeded "triumphantly", using the tense and smoky style of a thriller to establish a nation under siege, "where the spools of the tape recorders never stop turning". Nancy Banks Smith in The Guardian compared the "sense of tension and throttling pressure" of the second part to that of a "Western by a great master... Will he get them before they get him? Even though you know he won't, you feel he might."
Critics also applauded the dramatic space given to the two contending sides. Sheridan Morley in The Times described "Stalker and Sir John Hermon of the RUC, two giants superbly played by Jack Shepherd and T. P. McKenna. Both men are fighting for what they believe to be paramount: Stalker for the objective truth, Hermon for the honour of a police force in what he describes as a jungle". According to Mark Sanderson in Time Out, "both sides are fairly represented". Patrick Stoddart in the Sunday Times agreed: T. P. McKenna as Sir John Hermon had been "forceful", and the film-makers had been "wise" to demonstrate that they "understood the stresses facing members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary" and to "set the investigation against that backdrop". In the end, according to Stoddart, it was "the cock-ups and the cover-ups that really exercised the investigators".
The Guardian's Hugo Young, writing a few months later, called the drama "a brilliant programme... seductively watchable, beautifully filmed, spaciously elaborate in its slow build-up of the characters and evidence on each side of the argument".
But for Young, dramatic balance was not enough, and the skill of execution made the problem he saw even more acute. The drama was not just making an "observation on human affairs as these illuminated the human condition", rather "it purported to be a faithful rendition of events, and the purpose of it was to conduct a forensic inquiry into the moral quality of those events." "[A]ctors playing scripted parts: Sir John Hermon, the RUC chief, Stalker himself, were displayed as if wholly and completely real." He worried that such techniques could be "capable of fatally blurring the line between what is true and what is televisually convenient".
Other critics too had niggling worries about the reality. For example, as Melinda Witstock noted later in The Times, when the film showed an MI5 chief promising to help Stalker, then reaching for a telephone and saying "We have a problem" once Stalker had gone, who could have been present to witness such a call? Or as Hugh Hebert asked in The Guardian, when the film showed a battery genuinely stolen to lure the uniformed RUC men to their deaths, but Stalker's book said the call had been made by a farmer under duress, who is the viewer to believe? For the television dramatist G. F. Newman in Time Out the film did not show the truth − it was Thorburn's truth; and Sheridan Morley cautioned that the film was a drama, not a documentary: "we have no absolute guarantee that it has given us the whole truth".
Nevertheless, along with other critics, Morley appeared to accept the main thrust of the programme, considering that the "contemptuous lack of co-operation by the RUC is indeed terrifying" and the programme usefully illustrated "the contrast between acceptable police behaviour 'on the mainland', as Stalker puts it, and in Ireland, where other laws would seem to obtain."
In the wider debate the broadcast generated rather little controversy or reaction. Perhaps, as Hugo Young wrote, this was because "even the most sensational television programme is dependent on the print media for an afterlife, and the sensible politician understands that by far the most effective neutering tactic is simply not to complain". Patrick Stoddart suggested, calling it a gloomy view, that perhaps simply much of the public was relatively unconcerned about the killing of perceived IRA gunmen, whether or not appropriate warnings had been shouted first.
The former RUC Chief Constable Sir John Hermon continued to dispute the programme's reconstruction of events. The day after transmission he told ITN's lunchtime news that the programme was "not at all accurate" and "totally without any credibility". In October 1990 he filed suit for libel against Yorkshire Television over the way he personally had been portrayed. According to Kosminsky the action eventually boiled down to "how much cold tea we had put in Jack Hermon's brandy glass". The suit was finally settled out of court in June 1992, Yorkshire Television reputedly having agreed to pay Hermon £50,000. Shoot to Kill has never been re-shown, nor released on video or DVD. ITV refused to allow it to be included in a retrospective season of Kosminsky's work at the British Film Institute in 2011.
Stalker had submitted an interim report, setting out the inquiry's progress to September 1985, which ran to 15 bound volumes. It was said to have contained over 40 draft recommendations for changes to operating procedures; and criminal or disciplinary charges against up to 40 members of the RUC. The final Sampson report was submitted in October 1986 and April 1987. As of 2011 the Stalker and Sampson reports have never been released; but in May 2010 Northern Ireland's senior coroner, who has re-opened an inquest on the killings, had his direction upheld by the High Court to have redacted versions of the reports given to the families of those shot.