The Wednesday Play: Contact (1984), Elephant (1989)

Alan Clarke's Contact

All good things must come to an end, and the various play strands on UK television were eventually replaced with TV movie strands instead. However, that didn’t mean an end to quality. Quite the contrary: Screen Two, BBC2’s film strand, produced some of the best movies/plays that British television has ever produced.

Fittingly, the first ever Screen Two production in 1984 was Alan Clarke’s Contact, based on AFN Clarke’s book of the same name. Hard though it is to believe in retrospect, but Northern Ireland was once a hotspot for terrorism in the western world, with the provisional IRA engaged in decades-long guerrilla warfare with the British army in Northern Ireland, while carrying out bombing campaigns there and on the mainland, too.

It’s a historical situation that was examined in many works, including ITV’s Shoot To Kill, almost all of which were controversial at the time. Contact, which was followed by a sequel from Clarke called Elephant, were the decade’s best attempts at capturing the nature of ‘The Troubles’ on film.

It follows a platoon of paratroopers patrolling ‘bandit country’ in South Armagh, a hotbed of IRA activity running along the unmarked border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It explores the trauma of soldiers living under the constant shadow of terror. With little in the way of plot, Contact is an examination of the dynamics of fear as much as it is a comment on the specifics of the Irish situation. Nevertheless, it re-opened the debate as to how television drama should address the Troubles.

Clarke took the stripped-down narrative approach of Contact even further in 1989 with Elephant. Without story or character, Elephant features 18 reconstructed and completely unrelated murders on the streets of Belfast. Clarke’s intention was to strip away any sectarian justification for killing by showing the harsh realities of murder.