The Sweeney

1975 | United Kingdom

Tough, hard-hitting, uncompromising and the show which redefined the quaintly reassuring image of British television police forever, The Sweeney evolved from a play by the prolific Ian Kennedy Martin entitled Regan, which premiered on the ITV network in June 1974 as part of Armchair Cinema.

The show's title was derived from Cockney rhyming slang - Sweeney Todd = Flying Squad, and over the course of four staggeringly successful seasons between 1975-1978 and two spin-off feature films, helped transform experienced lead actors John Thaw and Dennis Waterman from mere household name's into genuine icons of a decade where dubious fashion sense held equal sway with a cynically violent grittiness, formerly unheard of in the genre of the TV police drama.

Unlike their higher budgeted glossy US TV counterparts, Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Detective Sgt George Carter were troubled heroes with feet of clay, as hard drinking, excessively violent and ruthless as the criminals they stalked. So successful was the chemistry between the two stars that the producers saw fit to kill off Carter’s wife early on to enable him to spend more time with his ‘guvnor.’ Following creator Kennedy Martin's stark ‘warts and all’ original format undeviatingly, the series time and again took delight in shattering the cosy illusion of the guardians of law and order as reassuringly avuncular Dixon of Dock Green figures, which had dominated television screens for decades, and instead presented the viewers with police who were forced to fight fire with fire. Although the authorities tried to deny that such characters existed within the police force there were many who acknowledged the series realism, and indeed the series technical advisor was former Flying Squad officer Jack Quarrie. 

The Sweeney

Adding to the over-all reality of the series was the decision by Thames Television subsidiary, Euston Films, to shoot entirely on film at a modest budget of £40,000 per episode. This basic economy, allied to the imaginative early use of hand held cameras to put the viewers in the middle of the action, gave the series an immediacy and intimacy of action which was almost documentary-like in its illusion of reality. At the height of its popularity the series was attracting a weekly audience of 19 million viewers and attracting guest stars who represented the cream of the British acting profession such as Diana Dors, John Hurt, Brian Blessed, Russell Hunter, George Cole and astonishingly, the beloved and legendary Morecambe and Wise.

Apart from the fact that The Sweeney was a prime example of consistently exciting, expertly produced, written and acted police series at its finest, it was even more important as the catalyst for an entirely new direction in the evolution of dramatic programming in this genre. And that in itself is about as good a definition of the term 'classic' as you're likely to find on this particular manor, squire.

Published on February 5th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus & Steve Hulse "Get your trouser on - you're nicked!" (2000) for Television Heaven.