The hard-hitting 1970s police drama, The Sweeney, is a legendary series focusing on two tough cops, Jack Regan and George Carter, whose relationship as both colleagues and friends made The Sweeney the earliest example of a “buddy” cop show.
The plots made the characters believable, exploring their individual personalities in depth and showing them as being fallible themselves. The show wasn’t afraid to portray topics previously deemed taboo, including police brutality in breaking down serial criminals. Regan and Carter worked with a disregard for “the system”, as long as the job got done.
The genre further developed with the launch of programmes such as Starsky and Hutch in 1975, The Professionals in 1977, Cagney and Lacey and TJ Hooker in 1982, Miami Vice in 1984 and Rush Hour and Lethal Weapon in 2016, but The Sweeney was the first gritty British drama to feature two maverick cops who weren’t afraid to break the rules to bring the bad guys to justice.
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Scriptwriter Ian Kennedy Martin began his TV career working on scripts for police series in the 1960s. He was 32 when he was appointed script editor on military police drama, Redcap, in 1964. He formed the idea for The Sweeney in 1974 and initially wrote a made-for-TV film called Regan.
The lead character, Detective Inspector Jack Regan, was played by John Thaw, 32, who had established himself as a serious actor playing roles such as Will Oldroyd in the 1967 ITV drama, The Inheritance.
As a one-off movie, Regan scored highly in the viewing figures and was commissioned as a series, with Dennis Waterman, 27, playing Regan’s sidekick, Detective Sergeant George Carter.
Waterman was also an established actor, having played roles such as Simon Carlson in the famous Hammer horror movie, Scars of Dracula, in 1970, when he was the hero who impaled Dracula on a stake.
The new cop series was to be called The Sweeney, as Sweeney Todd, in Cockney rhyming slang, means Flying Squad – the Metropolitan Police branch that focuses on fighting violent crime around London.
Unfortunately, television chiefs weren’t happy with Martin’s script for the new series. They felt it had too much dialogue and not enough action, which was in contrast to his original TV film. Series producer Ted Childs voiced his dissatisfaction and as a result, Martin left the project.
However, after a new team of scriptwriters took over The Sweeney, with strict guidelines on how the plots should progress, filming began. Each episode took ten days, with a different location used every day.
The Sweeney’s debut
Produced by Thames Television, The Sweeney was screened on ITV from January 1975 until December 1978. It stuck to a strict format, with every episode being around 48 minutes long, starting with a three-minute “teaser”.
Then, the familiar opening theme would kick in. Each episode was split into three acts.
In the 1970s, drama programmes were usually shot on video tape, but The Sweeney was shot on 16mm film by Thames Television’s film division, in collaboration with Euston Films, to give it more realism.
In keeping with the show’s guidelines, it also enabled it to be shot almost totally on location, which was to put the emphasis on all-action scenes, with few static scenes at the police station. Subsequently, only ten minutes of each episode was set in the office environment.
The Sweeney was a massive hit and became compulsive viewing, with the relationship between Regan and Carter being pivotal to the show, which ran for 53 episodes, spanning four series in total.
Regan is a tough police officer, originally from Manchester, who is permanently angry at having to fight Scotland Yard’s red tape, rather than fighting crime. He breaks the rules continually, as long as it produces results.
South London boy Carter is equally tough, as he’s a former amateur boxer. He always calls Regan “guvnor” and isn’t as aggressive as his senior officer in their pursuit of criminals. He is often the “good cop” in the “good cop, bad cop” scenario.
Both men like to drink and they are hard-working buddies. Outside work, they call each other by their first names.
Regan’s supervisor, Detective Chief Inspector Frank Haskins, is an ex-serviceman who advocates doing things “by the book”. Consequently, he is frequently disputing Regan and Carter’s methods of policing the neighbourhood.
Exciting action scenes and human drama fuelled every episode, justifiably earning The Sweeney a place in the history books as a ground-breaking British police drama series.
There are plenty of daring car chases, such as in the 1978 episode, Money Money Money, when a former robber wins the pools and is blackmailed, despite having “gone straight” years earlier. Regan and Carter recruit a former criminal gang member to solve what turns into a murder investigation.
In another 1978 episode, called Messenger of the Gods, the famous British actress, Diana Dors, guest stars as the fearsome Lily Rix, who directs her wrath at Regan when the cop arrests her future son-in law, Lukey Sparrow, for the theft of £30,000 worth of goods.
Rix is determined the wedding will go ahead at all costs and it turns out Sparrow has an alibi, but unfortunately for the would-be lothario, he can’t make it public on the day before his wedding, as he was in bed with another woman! Dors turns in a wonderfully comic performance as brassy Rix.
In 1975, in an episode called Trojan Bus, Linda Bellingham guest-stars as upper-class criminal Nancy King, who runs an art gallery. She is about to flee to the Netherlands after an art theft goes wrong and a victim is murdered, but Regan and Carter burst into her art gallery – letting her know she won’t be going anywhere, except for a spell behind bars.
The Flying Squad today
The real Sweeney, the Flying Squad, celebrated its centenary in 2018. Regan and Carter would see a lot of changes in the modern police force since their day in the 1970s. Their unorthodox methods have gone out of fashion and Scotland Yard now embraces diversity and political correctness.
Like all workplaces, Scotland Yard is a “no smoking” building in the 21st century, so Regan’s heavy smoking habit would also have been banned in the office.
However, in celebrating 100 years of the force, Detective Chief Sergeant Mick Gallagher revealed old-fashioned policing was still crucial. Using undercover police officers to infiltrate organised criminal gangs remains important, although the police are dealing with terrorist cells as well.
The Sweeney remains an iconic British brand that has left its legacy, thanks to its authentic feel, believable characters, exciting car chases and gritty action. It remains a snapshot of life in the 1970s. In 2005, The Sweeney was rated number four in the top 20 ITV shows of the past 50 years in a viewers’ poll by the magazine Campaign.
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