Alan Clarke‘s TV drama Elephant didn’t fuck about. Thirty-nine minutes of screen time, three lines of dialogue, eighteen killings. No structure. No narrative. No plot. Just one bloody assassination after-the-other. And yet, it was one of the most powerful and disturbing films made by the BBC during the 1980s - and there has been nothing like it since.
Inspired by writer Bernard MacLaverty’s oft-quoted line that described the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland as like “having an elephant in your living room,” that everyone ignored, Clarke’s film presented the relentless killing that was part everyday life in the 6 Counties at that time.
Clarke was no stranger to controversy - his 1977 TV drama Scum, on the brutality of the Borstal system, had been banned, while Made in Britain, starring Tim Roth, caused an outcry over its complex depiction of a racist skinhead abandoned by the education system. Elephant was conceived by Danny Boyle, later the director of Trainspotting and written by MacLaverty, but it was Clarke’s skill as a film-maker that made Elephant so effective - long walking shots on Steadicam of anonymous killers in deserted urban landscapes; the quick, almost off-hand nature of the violence; and the lingering images of the victims. As one of Clarke’s regular collaborators, the writer David Leland said:
I remember lying in bed, watching it, thinking, “Stop, Alan, you can’t keep doing this.” And the cumulative effect is that you say, “It’s got to stop. The killing has got to stop.” Instinctively, without an intellectual process, it becomes a gut reaction.