The Sweeney — Killer TV No.35

1975-78, ITV
‘We’re the Sweeney. We kill you – nothing. You kill us – 30 years.’ – Jack Regan
John Thaw (DI Jack Regan), Dennis Waterman (DS George Carter), Garfield Morgan (DCI Frank Haskins)
Identikit: Two members of the London Metropolitan Police service’s Flying Squad use robust methods (fists, fabricating evidence, kidnapping) to take on the capital’s armed robbers and other violent villains.

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Sweeney Todd – Flying Squad, for all you non-East London geezers. The 1970s drama about two no-nonsense detectives, Jack Regan and George Carter, showcased a period when the Metropolitan Police bent the rules and did whatever it took to nail the bad guys. Though our fictional heroes certainly were not as out of control as the real thing, Regan did use his fists, arrange kidnappings, open mail illegally and fabricate evidence, but he didn’t take backhanders. The coppers all drank and smoked too much and often looked like they had a hangover – no pretty boy actors in this cast. The British crime series had come a long way since Dixon of Dock Green (which only wrapped in 1976, when its star Jack Warner was an implausible 80 years old). His successors on The Sweeney were not the paragons the authorities liked to hold up. Produced on 16mm film stock at real locations, the series still looks vibrant and immediate. The accent was on action – London looks pretty dowdy and washed out – and the show was a huge hit, spawning two movies, Sweeney! (1977) and Sweeney 2 (1978), along with the 2012 Ray Winstone reboot. It was also fondly, obliquely recalled in the character of Life on Mars‘s Gene Hunt. It grew out of an Armchair Cinema film (1974) that firmly established the characters and what became the drama’s catchphrase – ‘Get yer trousers on, you’re nicked!’ Regan is the Met’s leading thief taker, often kicking against red tape, and with a messy personal life. And then there is Carter, who’s been lured reluctantly back to the squad by Regan, having previously left for family reasons. Everyone from Diana Dors and Lynda La Plante to Morecambe and Wise appeared, while in addition to the spin-off movies there were books, comic strips and mentions in pop records (Kate Bush, Squeeze) and parodies (The Comic Strip Presents…). Drinking, punch-ups, womanising and haring around town in a Ford Consul. ‘Nuff said.

Classic episode: Taste of Fear from series three introduced psychopath Tim Cook, reckoned by aficionados to be the show’s most formidable baddie. A much-admired episode mixing drama, tragedy and a riveting performance from the ironically well-named actor George Sweeney as Cook.
Watercooler fact: As a teenager ‘Raymond’ Winstone had a small role as ‘2nd Youth’ in TV’s The Sweeney before going on to emulate ‘icon’ John Thaw (‘one of my favourite people’) in the underwhelming big-screen remake.

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