Right you lot, pin your ears back and listen. No cop series now or in the future will ever match up to The Sweeney, and if you’re thinking even for a second of arguing about it, SHUT IT, YOU SLAGS!
Now we’ve got that out of our system I’ve got to tell you I’ve been dipping into my 16-disc Complete Sweeney box set. It only took a few episodes to get me chain-smoking, reminiscing about the positive virtues of flares and Cortinas, and drinking heavily, straight out of the bottle.
Can it really be over 40 years ago that it was first on? A dead giveaway is the lack of swearing. No F’ words in this show, but they didn’t need them because the language was colourful enough anyway. How many times did Regan get called an evil bastard? Then there was always the obligatory scene where they broke in on some hardcase blagger while he was in bed with some brass: “Look slag, I don’t give a toss who you have in your bed… Get your clothes on, you’re nicked!” Season 3 episode May had Regan saying, “If you weren’t who you are I’d kick your arse up to your shoulderblades.” Sheer poetry.
BIRTH OF A MAVERICK
The Sweeney came about not long after Thames Television set up Euston Films Limited at the beginning of the 70s. One of their first projects was a series of 6×90 minute TV movies Each film was budgeted at £85,000, quite a lot at the time, but they made their money back in international sales. Most popular of the lot was a show called Regan, written by Ian Kennedy Martin, with John Thaw as the central character, a maverick Detective Inspector of the Flying Squad, the Metropolitan police’s elite armed-robbery unit,
The film was quickly spun off into a 13-episode series which derived its title from the Cockney rhyming slang for Flying Squad – “Sweeney Todd” – and TV history was made.
The Sweeney was like nothing that had ever appeared on British TV before, a hard-hitting, action-packed 48 minutes with dog-eared cops breaking all the rules to bring down some very nasty bastards.
Think back to the series as a whole and the memories that surface are the boys piling out of the back of a transit, mob-handed, to take on the blaggers at the scene of their crimes. Inevitably Dennis Waterman’s George Carter gets a bloody nose – “looks like it’s schnozzle’s birthday again!”
The show was actually made at a lightning pace. Throughout The Sweeney’s four series, writers were apparently given a month to write each script, but many were delivered in just a few days. With only a ten-day shooting schedule it’s amazing they managed to keep the quality so high throughout the entire 54 episodes.
It’s easy to see that The Sweeney was influenced by contemporary cop shows like The French Connection and Dirty Harry. Regan and Carter weren’t much different from the villains they were out to catch, and their off time was spent drinking and womanising.
One of the first shows that set the tone was the classic episode, Ringer. While Regan is ‘on the nest’ with his latest bird, a small-time criminal nicks his car, which has a series of surveillance photographs in the boot. The bad lad takes them to their subjects – top local gang boss Brian Blessed and his tough henchmen Ian Hendry and Alan Lake. When Regan and Carter arrive at the dodgy garage where the stolen car has been taken, they put the frighteners on the thieves.
“Who are you anyway?” asks the lad with lots of false bravado, prompting Regan’s now-legendary reply: “We’re The Sweeney son, and we haven’t had any dinner!”
Of course the series provoked a lot of controversy, giving the public an image of the police that was a helluva way from Dixon of Dock Green. Mind you, it was probably more accurate – at the time of transmission, a prominent officer in the Squad was under investigation and was eventually imprisoned for corruption.
The Sweeney was shot on location around London on 16mm film, which gave it a grainy and realistic look. Unfortunately the shows don’t look anywhere near as good as, say, the ITC shows like Danger Man, The Saint and Man In A Suitcase that were shot in studios on 35mm, but you can get them on Blu-ray these days my son.
THE ONES TO WATCH
Some of my favourites? Well, I reckon The Ringer is number one, and the one where Morecambe and Wise guest star is also a lot of fun, as is Stoppo Driver, where Billy Murray (of EastEnders and The Bill) plays a maverick cop who becomes Regan’s temporary driver. He’s so good at driving cars at high speeds that he’s ‘recruited’ by a local criminal gang. Of course Regan and Carter think that Billy’s gone bent, but he has a plan of revenge that isn’t uncovered until the explosive finale – which involves that old standby of smashing through piles of cardboard boxes at speed!
Another great one is Night Out, written by Troy Kennedy Martin. A team of villains are out to raid a bank vault, and the glory boys of CID want to be there when it happens. They are going to make their getaway through the cellar of a pub, and Regan is sent in there to wait for them. Will he be sober by the time they arrive? Leave it out, guv!
Another top show is Abduction, in which Jack Regan is on the track of a gang of blaggers as per usual, but this mob is so worried about him that they kidnap Regan’s daughter to use as a hostage until the job has been successfully pulled. Jack goes against his ex wife and his superiors to rescue the girl in one of the most suspenseful and exciting episodes of the series.
In Hit and Run, it’s George’s turn to suffer a personal tragedy when his wife Alison is killed by a hired assassin. It turns out that the murder is a case of mistaken identity, but George won’t accept that as an excuse when it comes to doling out retribution. “Kick him, George!”
Emmerdale’s Patrick Mower had a great recurring role in The Sweeney as an Aussie robber. He and comedy actor George Layton played Colin and Ray, a couple of cheery baddies who outsmarted Regan and Carter in an episode called Golden Fleece. It was unheard of for the crims to get away with it in these days, but they didn’t really, because they returned to get their comeuppance in an equally good episode entitled The Trojan Horse. This was the one where Sweeney boss Haskins (Garfield Morgan) was framed for corruption and Jack and George set out to clear his name even though he was a boring bastard.
Bad Apple also gets a top rating from us. The plot of this one has our boys going undercover to track down a group of bent coppers. We’d also thoroughly recommend Hard Men, the episode where James Cosmo played a tough as nails Glasgow cop who came down to London to help Regan and Carter pursue some Scottish villains. Cosmo would have been great as a regular character, unlike Norman Eshley (of George and Mildred fame), who joined the Sweeney in another cracking show, The Taste Of Fear. He was a bullying ex-soldier who lost his bottle when the bullets started flying and was found gibbering away in a phone box!
We always liked the shows where one of the lads went undercover, and the best of these by far was One Of Your Own, where George Carter did some time in prison to get close to small-time criminal Michael (Boon) Elphick. He actually does get to like him, and vice versa, leading to an interesting conflict of loyalties. This is the show where Regan meets Jenny, a barmaid who is especially attracted to policemen, particularly when they are in uniform!
We could go on, but really there were hardly any dud episodes of The Sweeney. I guess Contact Breaker gets the vote for the worst, but even that wasn’t too bad.
There were also two movies of The Sweeney that are readily available on DVD. The first is good, but it sort of misses the feel of the TV show because it so wants to be a big screen project, pitting Regan against a team of international assassins who think nothing of shooting bobbies in the head in the street. Still, Colin Welland gets blown up by a bomb and Diane Keene gets her tits out, so what’s not to like?
Sweeney 2 was much more like it, with our boys on the track of a team of highly organised blaggers who nip over from Spain on a regular basis to pull violent armed robberies. Aside from the main plot, the movie throws in fun scenes where the team get pissed at a brewery and a bit where poor old George is dressed up as a waiter and sent into a hotel room to apprehend a possible terrorist – “Nobody told me he was armed and dangerous!” Meanwhile Jack is boozing it up in the hotel bar with Special Branch and MI5!
Enjoy, and be lucky, son!