Sunday 6th January, 1985. BBC2 10:10. A platoon of British soldiers aggressively descend upon a car on a Northern Irish border roadside and promptly execute the driver and apprehend the passenger.
This was the dramatic scene used to launch the channel's Screen Two series of plays. This was Alan Clarke's Contact.
As well as earning its place in history as the very first Screen Two drama (the sister of Screen One and contemporary child of Play For Today as well as the rival to Film 4) Contact is also notable as being the first of Clarke's one word title 80s films which would see him essentially distill his technique and strip back the narrative to its barest bones. Contact followed by Christine and ultimately Elephant, the pinnacle of this style, clearly show a marked, easily visible progression in this approach.
Contact is based on a novel by A.F.N. Clarke (emphatically not the director Alan Clarke, contrary to popular opinion) which detailed his experiences as a sergeant in Northern Ireland. In adapting the memoir, Clarke eschews much of the action, notably the author's recounting of time served in Belfast to focus solely on his duty of border patrols in the so called 'bandit country' of Crossmaglen, South Armagh. He also pared down much of the script too, jettisoning dialogue (the film is often virtually silent) and exposition as well as the potential for stereotypical camaraderie, one dimensional squaddies and war film tropes to create something tensely episodic, disorientating, strange and psychologically gripping.
For the unobservant, overly critical or just those with a short attention span its easy to suggest Clarke in this stage of his career was effectively trolling his audience with this form of film making. As long silent periods of limited action with little or no motivational detail fill the screen to be replaced occasionally be brief and dramatic spurts of action, I can well understand this argument. It is easy to suggest that, but it would also be unfair and untrue.
It's the stillness of many of the scenes, the perfect and existential evocation of the unremitting, monotonous life of a troop on patrol, often captured ethereally through bilious night vision lenses (in contrast to the lush green of the potentially dangerous scenery the troop stalk through during the daytime) that created the creeping all pervading air of tension that caused friend and collaborator David Leland to remark in his introduction of the film for the BBC's 1991 Alan Clarke season shortly after Clarke's death that Contact had more tension "than even Arnold Schwarzenegger could muster in the jungles of Predator"
The lack of dialogue and detail can also be seen as a metaphor for the inherent problems with the secondment structure the army employs; with troops only being stationed there for six months they have an inability to read the community and its dangers - or indeed its innocence - effectively. This is equally effective in how Clarke chooses to film the Irish as 'the others', a silent and often unseen body who only appear in relation to the platoon either to return fire during attack, stumble across or briefly question. Even the title, Contact, can be seen to have ironic weight to how Clarke chooses to tell his tale; the soldiers having limited contact beyond attack, being situated in the white limbo of their featureless, rather clinical looking base and even in the warily observant way Clarke's camera chooses to approach Sean Chapman's Platoon Commander, who is essentially our only point of identification.
I'd go so far as to say this is the finest performance I have seen from Sean Chapman, who was something of a Clarke regular. Interestingly, the part was originally offered to Tim Roth, who had been directed by Clarke previously in Made In Britain (which Chapman also starred in) but he turned the role down. Much as I love Roth, I think it was for the best as Chapman being altogether less starry then and indeed now offers the audience much more of a blank canvas from which his character's implicit deteriorating mental state can be brilliantly gleaned. Some close ups (which Chapman is on record as saying he was unaware of; Clarke shooting surreptitiously from distances) capture a pallid and vacant, thousand yard stare expression which eerily suggest the character's impending breakdown. It raises an interesting point about military command - do you become mad from risking your life and the lives of your men on a daily basis or is that madness what set you apart from the rank and file in the first place? Some of Contact's most tensest scenes signify the mental absence of the commander - the long shot as he determines whether an abandoned car on a roadway is a trap wired to detonate or simply abandoned, out of petrol and the subconsciously sexual posturing he employs as he stands over a prone and captured gunrunner, forcing his rifle into the man's mouth. That his eyes are vacant as he undertakes this dominance speaks volumes far more than pages of dialogue ever could so maybe it was right Clarke discarded such a traditional device? Ultimately it is Clarke's direction and the performance from Chapman that allows us to join the dots for ourselves, finding the wider picture and the previous critical points that may lead to this worrying declining mental fragility.
As the film ends with Chapman's commander staring into the distance, clearly haunted, you know that like him the events of this film will continue to linger in your own memory long after the titles have rolled.
This film remains unavailable on DVD and can only be watched on YouTube. It's rather ridiculous that one of the UK's finest directors has so much of his work under appreciated/little screened.
To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic TV plays please sign the petition I started here