Lost Gems: Shoot to Kill (1990)

One of the best drama-documentaries ever made

Shoot to Kill

‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland were a pretty bloody time. Over 3,600 people were killed in what became a war between the provisional IRA, the British government and other terrorist groups. Although the 70s brought us things like Internment, some people suspect that during the 80s, the British government began to operate a “shoot to kill” policy, letting groups such as the army’s SAS special forces regiment and the Royal Ulster Constabulary kill people without warning if they were suspected terrorists.

In 1982, six terrorist suspects were killed in three separate incidents Northern Ireland by the RUC, allegedly without warning. After an initial internal RUC inquiry which revealed that one police offer had been told to lie in his statements, another inquiry, headed by John Stalker of the Greater Manchester Police, was convened. Between 1984 and 1986, Stalker investigated the shootings but just before he could make his final report, he was removed from the inquiry and suspended from duty after allegations were made he associated with criminals. Colin Sampson of the West Yorkshire Police then took over the investigation, but his findings were never made public. Stalker alleges that during his inquiry, he was repeatedly blocked, his offices bugged and there was attempts to cover up an informal but unwritten shoot-to-kill policy.

In 1990, Yorkshire Television dramatised the investigation as Shoot To Kill, a brilliant and engrossing four-hour drama documentary directed by Peter Kosminsky (who recently directed The Promise for Channel 4). The film had originally been intended to be a straight documentary as part of ITV’s First Tuesday strand. However, no one was willing to appear on-camera, partly because of the Official Secrets Act – as Kosminsky put it “They were either dead, disappeared or not allowed to talk to us.” Simultaneously, Zenith, the production company behind Inspector Morse, was looking into making a drama about the inquiry so Yorkshire Television’s head of drama, Keith Richardson, suggested merging the two projects. When Detective Chief Superintendent John Thorburn – Stalker’s number two on the investigation and the man who was in charge of the day-to-day running of the inquiry – agreed to act as a consultant, the dramatisation got the go-ahead.

Despite its four-hour run-time, the drama was utterly gripping. Starring Jack Shepherd as John Stalker, David Calder as John Thorburn and TP McKenna as Sir John Hermon (yes, three guys named John), 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”. 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.”

However, despite the plaudits, Shoot to Kill has never been repeated or released on video or DVD. Why? Well, in October 1990, John Harmon sued Yorkshire Television for libel over how he’d been portrayed – according to Kosminsky, the libel action eventually boiled down to “how much cold tea we had put in Jack Hermon’s brandy glass”. Yorkshire settled out of court in June 1992 for £50,000 (allegedly) and suspicion is that one of the terms of the agreement was that there should be no repeats – or maybe Yorkshire just didn’t want any more trouble.

Whatever the reason, that was before the Internet and some enterprising young gentleman somewhere has uploaded all four hours of Shoot to Kill to YouTube and you can watch it below. Quality is VHS grade, unsurprisingly, but Shoot to Kill itself is still one of the best drama-documentaries ever made on British TV. Oh, and the final report of Stalker Inquiry, with up to 40 members of the RUC allegedly accused of criminal or disciplinary charges? Still not released.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.