Wednesday 20 January 2016

The Sweeney, season 1 (1975)

In 1971 Britain’s Thames Television set up a production company called Euston Films. The idea was that the company would pioneer a new style of British police action TV series. They would abandon completely the traditional shot-on-videotape style of British TV. They would be shot entirely on film, with lots of location shooting and a fast-paced, hard-hitting approach. For their first production in 1973 they revived Special Branch which had originally aired for two seasons in 1969-1970. The new version of Special Branch (which bore no resemblance to its earlier incarnation) was reasonably successful. Euston really hit pay dirt with their next attempt, The Sweeney, which ran for four seasons from 1975 to 1978.

The Sweeney was like no previous British cop show. It was much tougher, much more violent, much more action-oriented, much grittier and it moved a whole lot faster. The end result was one of the greatest cop shows of all time.

The pilot episode, entitled Regan, was made as part of the Armchair Cinema series and introduced viewers to Detective-Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw). Regan was in the grand tradition of the maverick cop who breaks all the rules but gets results. The pilot was successful and the series got the go-ahead.

Apart from its revolutionary style the series also owed much of its success to the performance of John Thaw. Thaw was by no means an unknown, having already starred in the fairly successful series Redcap. The Sweeney would make him a television legend and he would of course go on to even greater fame in the late 80s with Inspector Morse.

Jack Regan could have been just another maverick cop but as well as making him a very convincing tough guy Thaw adds unexpected touches of warmth and a wry sense of humour. Dennis Waterman as Detective-Sergeant George Carter is the perfect foil for Thaw. Garfield Morgan is superb as their boss, Detective Chief Inspector Haskins, another character who could have been a mere stereotype but becomes an interestingly complex personality.

The Sweeney is certainly gritty and it’s also at times very dark and with a fair leavening of cynicism. Regan and Carter don’t always get their man. Sometimes things go wrong; sometimes things go badly wrong. However The Sweeney avoids the excessively cynical and even nihilistic tone that makes some British series of the era very heavy going. There are moments of humour in every episode and there’s the occasional episode that is played in an almost tongue-in-cheek style. And while Regan and Carter don’t solve every case they do solve a lot of them. Sometimes the good guys do win.

The Sweeney attracted attention at the time for its violence and its toughness but its success had a lot to do with finding just the right balance. It wasn’t too pessimistic. It portrayed a criminal justice system that was far from perfect but that did work a lot of the time. The police could be brutal but they were dealing with brutal criminals. If society expects to be protected from brutal people then we have to accept that policemen can’t always be Boy Scouts. The 1970s was a period of social disintegration. This was no longer  the kind of England that could be policed by loveable kindly bobbies like Dixon of Dock Green.

Jack Regan is prepared to bend the rules when he needs to and on occasions he bends them quite a bit. In spite of this he is unequivocally an honest cop. And while he is happy to break a few heads when dealing with the nastier sort of villains he is not without human feelings. Regan does a job that he believes in and he does it as efficiently as he knows how. He’s not a mere thug or a vigilante. 

In The Placer Regan goes undercover investigating a series of lorry hijackings. It’s an episode that demonstrates the series’ ability to take a fairly routine crime story but make it memorable due to the fact that the execution is top-notch. Stoppo Driver starts with a robbery gone wrong in which the getaway driver is killed, leaving a criminal gang in search of a new driver whom they find in a rather unexpected place.

Cover Story is one of many episodes in which Regan gets personally involved in a case, usually too personally involved. This time it’s a beautiful female crime reporter, but does she just report crime or does she actually get involved in the crimes she reports on? Regan’s human side is very much in evidence in this one.

Abduction deals with a theme that is somewhat overused in TV cop shows - criminals targeting a police officer and/or his family. However it’s done well in this episode. It offers another opportunity to see Regan’s human side. More importantly it fleshes out the relationship between Regan and his boss, DCI Haskins. Haskins often disapproves of Regan’s methods and in this case he disapproves very strongly but he finally realises where Regan is coming from and his disapproval changes to respect. It’s typical of the complexity of this series that Haskins, a secondary character, is a fully rounded character who has his weaknesses and his blind spots but also has the ability to admit to being wrong and the ability to try to understand Regan even though the two men are temperamentally poles apart. 

Interestingly enough in the episode Contact Breaker it’s Jack Regan who has to admit that he’s been wrong about Haskins. These are two men who find it very difficult to admit to making mistakes but, just as in the real world, sometimes you have to learn to do just that. This is a cop show for grownups - it avoids easy stereotypes about people and their inter-relationships. Contact Breaker also shows Regan having to put aside his prejudices. He has enough evidence to make an arrest and the suspect is a known villain but Regan has a niggling suspicion that he might be innocent. As much as he dislikes professional villains he dislikes the idea of sending an innocent man to prison even more.

In Golden Boy Regan and Carter just happen to come across Harry Fuller in a pub. Harry is very drunk and he has a lot of money to throw about. Which is odd, since a week earlier he was penniless. Harry sells information, to the police and to anyone else who pays, but he’s small-time. To have that much money means he’s sold some important information and he hasn’t sold it to the police. Carter thinks there’s nothing in it but Regan has a hunch there’s something big behind it. And he’s right. Regan gets his big break on this case when a successful young CEO reports his car stolen. This seems to have no connection with a major crime but Regan is sure it just doesn’t smell right.

Big Spender starts with Regan and Carter being ordered to find evidence, any evidence, that will put away three clever but vicious criminal brothers. Their prospects don’t seem promising until they stumble onto a connection with a multi-storey car park, a mild-mannered accountant with way too much money and a very high-class courtesan. There’s the touch of sleaze that you expect in mid-70s British TV, and some dark humour courtesy of Warren Mitchell’s outrageous performance as the errant accountant.

Network have released the entire series on DVD and it looks extremely good. More recently they have released season 1 on Blu-Ray.

The Sweeney has aged remarkably well. If you ignore the sometimes embarrassing 1970s fashions this series still comes across as tough, fast-moving, action-packed and exciting with a leavening of wry humour and flashes of human warmth. And a great deal of style.

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