1 9 7 5 – 1 9 7 8 (UK)
53 x 50 minute episodes
2 x 90 minute movies
“Get yer trousers on – you’re nicked!”
The Sweeney was the top-rated British police series of the 1970s, bringing a new level of toughness and action to the genre, and displaying police officers bending the rules to beat crime.
Think big clumpy shoes pressing down on the accelerator pedal of a brown Ford Grenada and you’re halfway to remembering The Sweeney.
Like a nastier, alcoholic version of The Bill, the hard-faced coppers from the Flying Squad collared villains in a time of power cuts and phones that rang with a bell.
Debuting on Thursday 2 January 1975, The Sweeney, focused on the exploits of Jack Regan, a hard-working, hard-drinking and impatient Detective Inspector attached to the Flying Squad, the Metropolitan police’s elite armed-robbery unit – and the arm of the force that was supposed not to beat about the bush in catching criminals.
The character of Regan was perfectly portrayed by John Thaw, a young actor with a lived-in face, already known from Red Cap.
The programme – which derived its title from “Sweeney Todd” the Cockney rhyming slang for “Flying Squad” – was a spin-off from the successful 1974 TV film, , that had first introduced the protagonist, and also established his professional relationships with his cockney Bermondsey-boy assistant, Detective Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) and his “governor” Detective Chief Inspector Haskins (Garfield Morgan).
Each episode in the series adopted the same basic narrative format – a three-act structure (with acts separated by adverts) preceded by a prologue that triggered the crime narrative. The first two acts were devoted to obtaining intelligence about a forthcoming robbery, often through tip-offs from informers or surveillance.
The third, was devoted to the capture of the robbery gang, characteristically involving adrenalin-pumping action with car-chases, screaming tyres, spectacular smashes and hand to hand fighting.
The narrative was often further complicated through the addition of an anti-authority thread as Regan challenged Haskins’ “rule-book” approach and/or through the introduction of casual sex relationships, as one of the detectives became involved with an available woman.
The series was created by Ian Kennedy-Martin, made by Euston Films, and went out mid-week on ITV. Euston was a group of like-minded producers, directors and writers allowed to do their own thing by Thames Television – so long as it didn’t cost much.
They worked out of Colet Court, an old school in Hammersmith, using the phone in the pub across the road, and often buying the props they needed for the next scene with whatever ‘readies’ the producer happened to have in his back pocket.
In the first series each episode was completed in only ten days and on a budget of around £40,000. Today it would cost at least ten times that much.
The programme’s realism was considerable, and few other crime series have achieved so authentic an impression of the policing of London’s underworld. The series relied on detailed inside knowledge of the actual circumstances in which the Flying Squad operated and of the sometimes rather dubious means used to secure prosecutions.
A former Flying Squad officer, Jack Quarrie, advised the writers on police procedures, but inevitably the big boys in blue objected to this convincing image of detectives whose idea of questioning suspects was to hold them up against a wall and punch them.
Regan and Carter are shown inhabiting the same sleazy world as the criminals, mixing with low-life to obtain their leads, and adopting the same vernacular. Both law-enforcers and law-breakers indulge in womanising and heavy drinking, and use physical violence to achieve their objectives.
The extent to which Regan is prepared to bend and break the rules to nick villains was well established in the pilot film when he threatens a suspect with a longer sentence if he does not co-operate: “My sergeant is going to hit me, but I am going to say it’s you”.
Unsurprisingly the series provoked fierce controversy, chiefly because of its potential to influence the public image of the police at a time of considerable social upheaval.
However, the dark moral world that the series represented was difficult to fault on purely realist grounds as, at the time of transmission, a prominent officer in the Squad was under investigation and was eventually imprisoned for corruption.
Harry South’s memorable theme tune can still trigger Pavlovian anticipation of impending violence.
“We’re the Sweeney son . . . and we haven’t had any dinner!”
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DI Jack Regan
DS George Carter
DCI Frank Haskins