Jack The Lad
Tripwire continues its list of its Top 30 Crime and Police shows, selected by its editor-in-chief and senior editor. Here’s its 24th entry, ITV’s The Sweeney…
24. The Sweeney
Creator: Ian Kennedy Martin
Stars: John Thaw, Dennis Waterman, Garfield Morgan
Barely known outside the U.K., The Sweeney was a breakthrough show on British television that was also quintessentially 1970s. It was a program that showed that English policemen, rather than being at the heart of the community (as they had been positioned in such shows as Dixon of Dock Green or Z Cars) were often as morally ambivalent, devious and venal as their criminal counterparts, most of whom they knew well enough to have nicknames for them. Its focus was on the plain-clothes cops from The Flying Squad unit of The Met who primarily chased armed robbers, frauds, extortionists and other ne’er do wells, and were not shy about using guns or administering violence.
As important a show as any from that era, it unsparingly depicts London at its very seediest (the London of that time was in desperate need of a facelift, but retained a certain run down, post-war charm) and has become a source book for fans – the bell-bottomed trousers, big lapels, straggly hairdos, ‘taches, loud shirts and parkas are a nostalgist’s dream ticket, not to mention the constant ciggies and treble whiskies in grimy pubs. American viewers would be familiar with such atmospherics due to the success in the U.S. of the original Life on Mars series from 2006, which was almost a direct lift from The Sweeney. Philip Glenister’s gruff, macho Gene Hunt was very much an analogue for John Thaw’s lead from forty years earlier.
It also had a cast that was a roll call for every character actor worth his or her salt at that time, most of whom were playing shifty snouts (grasses), thuggish criminals and their molls, supercilious senior officers or bureaucrats. However the actors that unquestionably carried the show were its leads – John Thaw’s Detective Inspector Jack Regan, and Dennis Waterman’s Detective Sergeant George Carter. Both were seasoned actors with range, and understood the need to leaven their hard-bitten onscreen personas with humour and humanity – ultimately they were contemptuous towards the system but stayed within it.
Of course, it was not without its flaws – the two leads were, like the times they were living in, unreconstructed, while there were only so many plots one could have involving The Flying Squad tracking the career villains whose prime motive was to stitch up Regan after a stint doing “bird”. The action generally took place in or around Hammersmith, West London, with the occasional detour to Hatton Garden or The West End if the episode featured a slightly more white collar scam, or a derelict warehouse area, usually in Battersea or Heathrow, where car chases were always filmed (due to budget constraints). Some of the plots were clunky or at times just plain weird – I put this down to the limitations of the primitive technology available back then, which just couldn’t sustain some of the concepts involved. And every so often, despite all the quality at the producers’ disposal, the acting was simply below par.
However, regardless of how this series may seem somewhat clichéd to modern viewers, it is because it wrote the book for British police procedurals thereafter. It dealt expertly with the invasive and excessively dangerous nature of the leads’ careers and how such issues would affect their domestic lives (especially in the case of Carter) – something that had never been done before but would certainly feature from thereon. The naturalism of Thaw and Waterman’s performances meant that this wasn’t simply a cop show – Regan and Carter were manifestly believable characters, their relationship tight but frequently fractious, often underpinned by politics within the Squad. Above all else its remit was to entertain within its rigidly structured, three act, 48 minute episodes. One knew what to expect, and how events would progress, even if there were exceptions (such as when Regan and Carter chase bank robbers turned hostage-takers) – yet sometimes they would fail, and the crooks would get away. Its timeliness (The real-life Flying Squad was under investigation for widespread corruption during the making of the show) was remarkable, and for such a shoestring effort it did as well as any ‘70s crossover property, with two movie spinoffs.
Then of course there’s the ever-present beige Ford Consul / Granada, and the wonderfully downbeat closing theme music, which acted as a counterpoint to the brash opening credits. Compulsive viewing that is both dated and timeless.
The Sweeney is on now on ITV4 in the UK and on Britbox In The US