The Sweeney was a British television police drama focusing on two members of the Flying Squad, an elite branch of the Metropolitan Police Service specialising in combatting armed robbery and violent crime within the Metropolitan Police area in London. The programme title derives from Cockney rhyming slang, in which the expression Sweeney Todd rhymes with (and stands for) 'Flying Squad'.
The programme, made entirely on film by Thames Television's film division, Euston Films, was originally aired on ITV between 1975 and 1978, starring John Thaw as Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Dennis Waterman as Detective Sergeant George Carter. Such was its popularity in the UK that it spawned two theatrically-released feature film spin-offs, Sweeney! and Sweeney 2.
A big-screen adaptation is currently planned for 2009. Ray Winstone's name has been linked several times with the role of Regan, although not officially. The film is scheduled to be directed by Nick Love and written by him and Ian Kennedy Martin. It is not yet known whether the film will be set in the 1970s or in the present day.
Currently the original series is being broadcast on digital channel ITV4 in various time slots.
The writers were given strict guidelines to follow: "Each show will have an overall screen time (minus titles) of 48mins 40secs. Each film will open with a teaser of up to 3 minutes, which will be followed by the opening titles. The story will be played across three acts, each being no more than 19 minutes and no less than 8 minutes in length. Regan will appear in every episode, Carter in approximately 10 out of 13 episodes. In addition to these main characters, scripts should be based around three major speaking parts, with up to ten minor speaking parts."
The Sweeney was the first really modern police-based series on British television. Previously, most dramas featuring the police had shied away from showing 'coppers' as fallible human beings. The police in The Sweeney were a world away from those of the BBC's Dixon of Dock Green or Z Cars. They were brutal and violent in dealing with London's hardened criminals, and prone to cutting corners and bending laws. The series showed a side of the police which often had a disregard for authority, rules and the 'system', as long it got the job done. Until The Sweeney this had been a subject largely whitewashed by British television.
It was a fast-paced edge-of-your-seat action series, depicting the Squad's relentless battle against armed robbery, but it nevertheless included a substantial degree of humour. It generated one famous humorous catchphrase, when Regan told a suspect in an early episode: "We're the Sweeney son, and we haven't had any dinner!", implying that they just might have him for their dinner if he doesn't co-operate. It was also famous for Regan's tendency to tell every smart-mouthed villain they met to "Shut it!"
For the time, it had a high degree of graphic on-screen violence, with villains frequently ripped apart by blasts from sawn-off shotguns, and the episodes usually had a high body-count (i.e. a high number of on-screen deaths). The language used was fairly graphic too, with armed robbers routinely described as "armed blaggers" and armed robberies as "blaggings". The dialogue was peppered with colourful underworld metaphors of the time, and Regan was always promising villains "a good kicking" if they didn't co-operate. It was a hard-nosed, honest depiction of a violent world.
Detective Inspector John 'Jack' Regan (played by John Thaw) is the Flying Squad's chief thief-taker. He's a tough, no-nonsense copper who is often frustrated by Scotland Yard's red tape. Originally from Manchester (like John Thaw himself), he has been in London for several years, so his accent has modified somewhat but traces of his Northern origins are still evident. He also refers to his Northern roots every now and again (his poor upbringing, his father's work on the Manchester Ship Canal) which brings mild ridicule from Londoner George Carter. A heavy-drinker and smoker (comically, he is more often than not seen stealing other people's cigarettes), Regan also has some success with the ladies - although not as much as Carter. He has an ex-wife, Kate, and a daughter, Susie. In the last episode of the first series, Abduction, Susie is kidnapped. Regan is a hard man but he is human: he helps out an ex-informer whose son is kidnapped in Feet of Clay (Series 4), and his sympathetic pushing enables his boss Haskins to ask for help when his wife goes missing after a breakdown in Victims (Series 4) - it is Regan who finds her. Regan repeatedly bends the rules in order to achieve the desired result - for example, fabricating evidence and arranging for a criminal to be kidnapped in "Queen's Pawn", and illegally entering private properties and threatening to lie about being attacked by a prisoner in order to get information in "Regan". Despite this, he is unwilling to cheat for purely personal gain: he delivers a sharp put down to a corrupt copper in "Bad Apple", and refuses to take advantage of a bung (bribe) in "Golden Fleece". Regan, during early morning raids upon "slags" (villains), would often kick in the bedroom door, tell the "slag" that "You're nicked, son", then proceed to tell his semi-naked wife to "Put them away, luv".
Regan invariably referred to Carter by his first name, whilst Carter referred to Regan as 'Guv' (or Guv'nor).
Regan was driven around in a Ford Consul GT, which was one of the most recognisable sights on television during the 1970s and still has cult status some 30 years later. Although he was seen driving various cars himself in the series, he always had a driver when using the Consul (and the similar Ford Granada models used in later series), which served as a Squad car: when the Squad travelled they always went 'mob handed'.
The main "Haskins episodes" are "Golden Fleece", where he is set up to be the victim of a corruption enquiry, and "Victims", where his wife suffers a mental breakdown due to memories of a miscarriage. Although he appeared in the opening titles of every episode, he did not air in all of them.
In later series, whenever Haskins was not present his role was taken by other superiors like Detective Chief Inspector Anderson, played by Richard Wilson.
Tom Daniels is the most prominent member of the supporting Squad. Other members include Sergeant Kent, DC Thorpe, and Matthews in the first series, Jerry Burtonshaw (Series 1-3), and Jellyneck (Series 4). Detective Chief Superintendent Maynon appears occasionally as a superior officer, and is seen as being more willing than Haskins to bend the rules in order to get a result in the episode "Queen's Pawn". With Haskins absent, a semi-regular superior officer named Braithwaite appears in Series 4.
Regan's ex-wife Kate appears in the episode "Abduction", after previously featuring in the pilot; and his daughter Susie appears in several episodes, most notably "Abduction".
Carter's wife Alison is seen attempting to prise him away from the Squad in the episode "Jigsaw", while her hostility toward Regan is apparent in the episode "Abduction". She is murdered in a case of mistaken identity in the episode "Hit And Run". In the DVD commentary for "Abduction" it is mentioned that the reason for this was that the actress was asking for too much money to continue to appear in the series. Her death was convenient for the show, releasing Carter to play a more freewheeling role, 'on the pull'.
Doreen Haskins plays a minor role in some episodes, although the penultimate episode "Victims" deals with her deteriorating mental health and returns to the theme of the job's impact on family life. One of Haskins' three children, Richard, also appears in that episode.
Each episode had an eight and a half week production schedule: two weeks pre-production (for casting, finding locations etc), two weeks shooting, four weeks picture editing (the first two weeks of which overlapped with the shoot), two weeks sound editing, and two and a half days dubbing.
Most of the locations used for filming The Sweeney were in West London - in particular in the Fulham, Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush districts, close to the Euston Films HQ at Colet Court in Hammersmith. However, other notable London loactions were also used for filming, including:
Highlights of the first series were "Ringer", where the team were attempting to prevent a criminal being sprung from prison, "Jackpot", "Stoppo Driver", and "Abduction", in which Regan's daughter Susie was kidnapped, focussing on the strains which the job caused to family life. "Night Out" subtly illustrated the backgrounds and family lives of Regan and Carter; parallels are drawn between the unhappy situation of the main villain's family and Regan's own domestic situation.
The early episodes feature a great degree of hostility and mistrust between Regan and his superior, Haskins, who in one episode attempts to separate Carter from Regan in order to help Carter's career.
The episode "Queen's Pawn" is a classic display of how Regan is willing to bend the rules in order to get a result, as he fabricates evidence, illegally opens private mail, and even arranges the kidnapping of one of the criminals in order to get the desired result.
Other highlights included a pair of tongue-in-cheek episodes, "Golden Fleece" and "Trojan Bus", featuring two cocky but likeable Australian villains, played by British actors Patrick Mower and George Layton; and the episode "Hit And Run", in which Carter's wife Alison is murdered.
Other episodes explored different themes: "Tomorrow Man" focussed on the clash between traditional policing methods and newer more technological ways of solving crime, methods which, in the real world, have ironically made crimes such as those depicted in The Sweeney - of villains in stocking masks carrying out wages snatches - seem anachronistic. "Bad Apple" dealt with police corruption and here Regan, despite being seen to bend the rules in other episodes in order to achieve convictions, is shown to hold the deepest contempt for the corrupt officers.
There was a two year gap between the third and fourth series. The title sequence was changed, and a number of other changes were also made, with Haskins being absent from a number of episodes. The final series has been criticised as the weakest, with episodes such as "Latin Lady", "Drag Act", and "Hearts And Minds" being singled out for particular criticism. This falling off in quality led John Thaw and Dennis Waterman to the realisation that the show was now in danger of running out of steam, and to take the brave decision to end it whilst it was still at the peak of its popularity.
The opening episode of the series, "Messenger of the Gods", divides fans, with some seeing it as wonderfully tongue in cheek and others viewing it as moronic comedy.
Other notable episodes include "Nightmare", which features a slightly experimental dream sequence as part of the plot. This is also the episode with the highest body count, and features another then-contemporary plot of two ex-IRA men committing a major crime in order to buy their way back into the organisation. "Bait" featured a strong performance by George Sewell, who had starred in The Sweeney's Euston Films forerunner series, Special Branch, as well as in the film Get Carter, which was a major influence on The Sweeney, and whose main character Jack Carter may have been the inspiration for the names of the two main Sweeney characters.
"Hearts And Minds", the last episode to be filmed, featured the popular comedians Morecambe and Wise, and was a quid pro quo for the appearance of Waterman and Thaw in a Sweeney-themed sketch in the 1976 Morecambe and Wise Christmas show on the BBC.
The final aired episode, "Jack or Knave", saw a slightly ambiguous ending, with the main character Jack Regan temporarily locked up after being implicated in a corruption scandal, of which he is finally exonerated. He then announces that he's had it with the Squad, and the series ends with him resigning in disgust.
The final scene left open the possibility of a further series, if the two stars could be talked into making it, but this was not to be. Both of them felt the high standards of the show could not be maintained over a fifth series. Dennis Waterman immediately walked into a new series with Euston Films, as co-star of Minder (with George Cole), which quickly became just as big a success.
At one stage 'Regan' shouts "Mark it!", which is slang for following a suspect, but in this case means "market" as 'Carter' drives erratically through a market place. 'Carter' tells 'Regan' to stop shouting — to which 'Regan' barks the reply "I can't!".
When they burst into the bank it turns out that the men are genuine painters and that 'Regan', their guv (or boss), is there to tell them that they have the wrong sort of white paint(!) 'Carter' says, "Think we'd better go back to the yard, guv, and get some more." "Shut up!"
One of the painters talks in a squeaky-like voice and is called "Squealer", which is slang for informant.
(This ad was the follow up to a hugely popular one spoofing The Professionals a year or so previously.)
The complete series of The Sweeney was released by Network on 16 discs in 2005. The pilot episode "Regan" was also released on DVD in November 2005. Both films, Sweeney! and Sweeney 2 have also been released on DVD.
But of all releases, the best set is the 2007 18 Disc Network release, which contains all four series, the pilot and both of the spin-off films. Along with all this, the boxset contains exclusive extras.
Below is a list of all the extras of the boxset:
Commentary with Dennis Waterman, producer Ted Childs and director Tom Clegg
Commentaries with Dennis Waterman, Garfield Morgan, producer Ted Childs, writers Trevor Preston and Troy Kennedy-Martin, directors Tom Clegg and David Wickes and editor Chris Burt
Episode introductions by guest stars Warren Mitchell, Wanda Ventham, Prunella Gee, John Forgeham, Billy Murray, Tony Selby and Dudley Sutton
Episode introductions by guest stars Bill Maynard, Gwen Taylor, James Booth, Ken Hutchison and Lynda Bellingham
Series Four: 'The Electric Theatre Show' interviews with John Thaw, Dennis Waterman and Ted Childs 'This Is Your Life - John Thaw' extract 'This Is Your Life - Dennis Waterman' extract Series 4 textless titles with dual sound Episode introductions by guest stars James Warrior, George Sewell, Jenny Runacre, Nick Stringer, Gary Morecambe and Peter Wight 'Sweeney 2' film trailer with introduction by Ken Hutchison and James Warrior 'Sweeney 2' promotional gallery PDF Out-takes 'The Sweeney' 1978 Annual PDF Stills gallery Extract from 'Behind the Sunshine' PDF, recounting the making of 'Hearts and Minds'
'Sweeney!' and 'Sweeney 2':
Series one is now available as a Region 1 (North America) DVD, but there are no plans for anymore series in the US.
A soundtrack album "Shut it! The Music of The Sweeney" is also available and features much of the incidental music used in the programme as well as many classic pieces of dialogue.
There is also a book called SWEENEY THE OFFICIAL COMPANION. This is a well respected addition for any Sweeney fan.