January 2nd 1975 saw a show debut which was so unlike anything to come before it that it has been loved, parodied, referenced and adored for now over 40 years. It was Euston Films and Thames Television’s, The Sweeney.
Some shows take their place in the canon from a steady evolution of a genre and some just punch through as though out of nowhere – The Sweeney is definitely – defiantly – one of the latter.
From the opening of the first episode, ‘Ringer’, we are catapulted into a London not previously seen on British television. Famously filmed on 16mm, it’s like Ken Loach had decided that police dramas were his true metier. A villain seated in a car, smoking a cigarette, lowers a copy of The Sporting Life newspaper to reveal a green flat cap and natty sideburns. We cut to a point of view shot of a van – is it an ambulance? – speeding across an industrial wasteland.
Oh, the sky might be blue, the trees verdant green – but they frame nothing more than a concrete scar in the landscape, fringed by abandoned buildings with shattered windows. As the cars pull off, we get another point of view shot from inside the car’s cabin as now a mounted camera position allows us to feel the speed generated by the vehicles.
After a conversation, in which we are treated to handheld over the shoulder shots and sweeping nausea-inducing sweeps, we have revealed to us the gas masks and guns these gangsters are planning to use. There’s more conversation, more handheld camera antics, a light dash of humour with the villain who can’t count.
Then, and only then, do we cut to the title sequence.
These titles explode for the viewer – trumpets blaring over a thumping soundtrack as a Ford comes haring towards the camera with a staccato movement created in the edit. This is the most literal arrival of the boys in blue one could envision.
All of which presents a stark change from the world of Dixon of Dock Green, which (unbelievably) was still running when The Sweeney made its debut, (and, indeed, would run for another year afterwards, till 1976). One thing was for sure: this wasn’t your Daddy’s police force.
The origin of the series can be found in the one-off drama called – not with sparkling originality – Regan written by Ian Kennedy-Martin for ITV’s Armchair Cinema strand of programmes as a vehicle for John Thaw, with whom he had worked in Redcap.
The relationship between Thaw, playing Jack Regan, and the young Dennis Waterman as George Carter is the central heart of the series. The older colleague mentoring the youngster, whilst they both have to overcome their professional and personal vulnerabilities remains as powerful as when, albeit in a very different form, it was repeated in the more cerebral Inspector Morse (1987)
However, what concerns one now is the way that The Sweeney has come to be seen as a beacon for reactionaries who mythologise its perceived homophobia, racism, casual sexism and other areas now seen as attractive to the unreconstructed. This is simplistic to say the least. The show does have elements of all of these, it is after all an historical document of a particular time, but to say that it is more, vastly more, sophisticated than this suggests is to dance a quick step with understatement.
The character of Regan is not that guy. He wrestles with dilemmas; he is straight in a corrupt world. These are characters that inhabit a bleak world – both at work and at home – and who have to regularly make choices which are unpalatable. Thaw is a cut above the average actor in showing the self-determination wrecking his soul as he torments himself with his self-disgust, whilst Waterman was never better at playing the enthusiastic conscience for his damaged mentor.
All of which makes both the simplicity of the Gene Hunt character in Ashes to Ashes and the humourless, clod-footed Ray Winston reboot The Sweeney debacle all the more disturbing for the viewer who appreciates the importance of what this show tried to do in the period.
There’s a lot been written about the show – the bust up between creator Ian Kennedy-Martin and Ted Childs (which Kennedy-Martin discusses in a blog post) – means that the show has been subjected to a lot of analysis. There are the movies, Sweeney! (1977) and its likeable, if at times harrowing, sequel Sweeney 2 (1978) but, at the end of the day, for humour, action, emotion and drama – there’s rarely been anything better on UK television and it deserves to be revisited.