The very first scene in Regan, the pilot film of the much-loved and iconic ‘70s British TV police drama The Sweeney, features an elderly pub singer belting out cockney standards to a saloon bar full of punters. In 1974, the year Regan was produced, such East London entertainers were a dying breed, a signifier of a type of vaudevillian music hall entertainment that was out of step with popular culture at the time.
Now, 36-years later, it’s fairly appropriate to draw an analogy between the aging pub crooner and the outmoded, politically incorrect world of The Sweeney, at least as far as contemporary cultural critics are concerned. Appraising the show (which was commissioned proper following the success of Regan) from this rather more enlightened side of the millennium, it’s hard not to focus initially on aspects of the series that are indicative of a bygone social and televisual era: chiefly, the unconventional and maverick methods of the tough and very violent police officers, and the often patriarchal focus on short-skirted young women as peripheral sexual objects (you’d better believe that pure testosterone fuels The Sweeney).
That said, despite containing certain sexual and cultural insensitivities typical of the period, there is much to recommend and admire in The Sweeney (the title of which is derived from a truncation of the cockney rhyming slang for the London Metropolitan Police’s Flying Squad – ‘Sweeney Todd’), not least the fact that it’s an absolute Babylonian feast for ‘70s TV nostalgia buffs: kipper ties, whiskey bottles in the work desk, the Ford Consul GT, flares, funny hair, pints of beer for a handful of small change – it’s all here in this bumper five-disc DVD set, and all with digitally restored sound and picture too.
The two main protagonists in The Sweeney are Detective Inspector Jack Regan (the late, great John Thaw) and his deputy, Detective Sergeant George Carter (the equally impressive Dennis Waterman), and they are like the British version of The French Connection’s Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo. They don’t take any sh*t, but they dole plenty out.
Between 1975 and 1978, The Sweeney was hugely popular with UK audiences, primarily for its tough, action-packed depiction of law enforcement and criminality in London. Head screenwriter Ian Kennedy-Martin’s scripts for each episode are generally excellent, being lean and bold (and innovative, in their time) in their exploration of the seedier and rather brutal side of police procedure (although failing to follow correct procedure was one of the hallmarks of Regan and Carter), and his writing also displays a keen ear for the realistic dialogue of all manner of shady, marginalised and small-time underworld figures, often brought colourfully to the screen by an impressive roster of British acting talent (the first episode alone features Brian Blessed, Ian Hendry and a pre-Dot Cotton June Brown in supporting roles).
Regan, the genesis of the series, was produced as a one-off for the Armchair Cinema strand on ITV, and it’s a sparse, gloomy and fairly bleak 16mm film, possessing qualities The Sweeney would come to embody for the duration of its run. In contrast to the old-fashioned, safe and cosy British TV police shows that preceded the series (like Dixon of Dock Green, Z Cars and Softly Softly), The Sweeney blazed onto the small screen like little fifty-minute weekly rounds of boxing, and had, at the time, a huge impact on the unprepared audience (The Sweeney’s violence caused outrage amongst self-appointed moral arbiters of the ‘70s, such as Mary Whitehouse).
Regan’s reliance on genuine urban shooting locations – a tradition continued into The Sweeney – affords it a palpable sense of reality, and it’s in this respect that the show is reminiscent of another great urban British thriller of the ‘70s, Get Carter. In fact, although Regan’s director Tom Clegg states in his DVD commentary that the film’s music was merely library-sourced, it nevertheless sounds uncannily like composer Roy Budd’s terrific and haunting leitmotif from Get Carter, which adds to the overall stylistic similarity—certainly no bad thing.
The Sweeney is not without humour either, with plenty of belly laughs and snappy dialogue to break up the action. It’s also testament to show’s influence and popularity that a few of its phrases and lines of dialogue have found their way into the lexicon of modern British slang: “You slag!” as an admonishment, plus Regan’s famously tired and irritable response to a criminal who asks he and Carter who they are: “We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner!”.
The best thing about The Sweeney, however, is its main star. Thaw – who shares a terrific chemistry with Waterman from the very beginning – was a classically-trained actor with Mancunian working class roots (hints of which peek out now and again from behind Regan’s gruff London accent), and he imbues Regan with an air of vulnerability and, on occasion, even kindness, both qualities that nicely juxtapose with his tough and violent side. It’s the glimpses of humanity and fallibility that give the character such great complexity.
In lesser hands, Regan would have been a thick-headed tough guy, a one-dimensional fist-swinging cartoon, but Thaw’s acting ability elevates the performance way beyond stereotype (during close-ups, watch how he uses his eyes so expressively, to great effect). Thaw inhabits the character completely, and so iconic a figure is Regan that he and Thaw are almost inseparable in the memories of The Sweeney’s fans (even long after playing the titular detective in the BAFTA-winning Inspector Morse, to most Brits Thaw will probably always be Regan).
Ironically, the coarse cops ‘n’ robbers world of The Sweeney still lingers on in popular culture, though often as parody, nowadays tipped a postmodern wink by filmmakers such as Guy Ritchie, whose Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels combines to great effect an inventive mix of the contemporary and no-nonsense period crime drama (despite being set in the modern day, some of the film’s characters drive ‘70s cars and dress accordingly, giving the film a distinctly retro ambiance), the BBC’s Life on Mars, and by the creators of the comic Viz, whose long-running character Big Vern embodies all that is titillating about the guilty pleasures offered by The Sweeney, right down to corrupt cops, sheepskin coats, sawn-off shotguns, generous amounts of violence, and honourable East End villains who wreak havoc only amongst themselves.
There are some great extras on this large DVD set, including extensive commentaries with the various directors, writers and several key actors involved in the series, a couple of interviews with the show’s creator Kennedy-Martin, technical information on the digital restoration of The Sweeney, and optional Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound.