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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Life on Mars — Killer TV No.36

BBC, 2006-2007
‘A word in your shell-like… Don’t ever waltz into my kingdom playing king of the jungle.’
– DCI Gene Hunt
‘Who the hell are you?’ – DI Sam Tyler
‘Gene Hunt, your DCI, and it’s 1973, almost dinner time, and I’m having hoops.’ – DCI Gene Hunt
John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White, Dean Andrews
Identikit: A detective has an accident and is plunged 33 years back in time to an era when policing was more ‘robust’.
HIGH-CONCEPT crime drama – time-travel being the concept – that won a following through its freshness and cheekyness, principally in the character of Gene Hunt, the 1970s cop with unenlightened views on everything from women to coppering. Played with gusto by Philip Glenister, this throwback to 70s shows such as The Sweeney was the show’s star, making a straight man out of John Simm’s Sam Tyler, the contemporary cop pitched back in time. Sam, circa 2006, is distracted when his girlfriend, also a detective with Greater Manchester Police, is abducted by a killer. While David Bowie’s Life on Mars plays on his iPod, he is hit by a car – and wakes up in flares and butterfly collars on his shirt, with Life on Mars again playing, this time on an 8-track tape in his new car, a 1970s Rover P6. ‘I need my mobile,’ he tells the PC who finds him. ‘Mobile what?’ Plod responds. And so Sam finds himself part of Gene Hunt’s team, investigating a killer who may be related to the killer who has abducted his girlfriend in 2006. The first series is great fun, with Sam struggling with voices coming from his telly, apparently from a doctor treating him while he is in a coma in 2006, dealing with Hunt’s instinctual approach to crime solving – ‘Anything you say will be taken down, ripped up and shoved down your scrawny little throat until you’ve choked to death’ – and trying to find his way back to the present day. The culture clash between Sam, used to do everything according to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, and bullying, bigoted, boozing Gene was beautifully written and played. The series – created by Tony Jordan, Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh – juggled its crime plots and Sam’s story well, but is best-remembered for the chance it offered to chortle at the good old/bad old days when women were ‘birds’, offices were thick with fag smoke and fingerprints took two weeks to process. Forgotten how we used to booze heavily at work? Gene reminded us – ‘I’ve got to get down the pub and give the papers a statement, and if I don’t get a move on, they’ll all be half cut.’ Two series of Life on Mars were followed by three further series of 80s-set Ashes to Ashes, with the focus on Keeley Hawes’s Alex Drake, but the retro-novelty and humour deflated during this run. Still, inspired mergings of the crime and sci-fi genres are rare, particularly ones with characters as memorable as Gene Hunt – ‘What I call a dream involves Diana Doors and a bottle of chip oil.’ It won an International Emmy for best drama in 2006 and 2008.
Classic episode: The finale of the first series was emotional and clever, with Sam coming across his parents in 1973 and trying to prevent his father, Vic, from running away, which he thinks will enable him to emerge from his coma. Gene reveals that Vic is a ruthless gangster, and Sam’s flashbacks through the series are revealed to be memories of his younger self that he only now remembers.

Watercooler fact: Life on Mars was remade in America, lasting one season; in Spain, where it was called The Girl from Yesterday; and Russia, which gave it the title The Dark Side of the Moon.

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This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper — Killer 50 No.37

ITV, 2000
‘You mean he’s going for innocent women now’ – Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield
Alun Armstrong, Richard Ridings, James Laurenson, John Duttine
Identikit: Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield takes over the police investigation into the hunt for the 1970s serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper, a campaign that becomes bogged down in errors and data overload.

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Dramatisation of the real-life investigation for the Yorkshire Ripper in the late 1970s, a meticulous and evocative exploration of the human miscalculations and technical shortcomings of the campaign to track down Peter Sutcliffe. Alun Armstrong puts in a powerful performance as Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, whose health and career come under strain as the investigation stagnates, drinking and smoking his way through most scenes and going from gruff and forceful to a twitching, gasping wreck by the end of this 120-minute drama. Initially, Oldfield’s arrival seems to give the investigation renewed vigour, as he shifts it away from detectives relying on ‘instinct’ and introduces better record keeping and methodology. This approach is not popular at first, one senior officer asking sarcastically, ‘Can you catch a murderer with paperwork?’ However, the police effort is still blighted by blatant sexism (‘innocent’ women who’d been attacked and offered statements were often discounted because the Ripper was only thought to target prostitutes), along with inter-force rivalries and general confusion. As the years pass and the murder toll rises, Yorkshire police collect some 60 conflicting descriptions of the perpetrator. As one officer says, if it turns out to be Quasimodo they’ve probably got a photofit of him somewhere. And Oldfield himself says in exasperation that they’ve checked bearded men, unbearded, soldiers, sailors, engineers, agricultural workers, big men, little men… And then comes the infamous ‘Wearside Jack’ hoax tape, which throws the investigation off the scent of Sutcliffe’s stamping grounds of Leeds/Bradford towards Sunderland. The drama’s title, This Is Personal, refers to the way Oldfield took the hoaxer’s taunts personally and effectively allowed the investigation to be sidetracked. But the drama also evokes the pain and tragedy that the murder spree inflicted on the victims’ families, particularly when Oldfield promises the parents of ‘innocent’ Jayne MacDonald in 1977 to catch the teenager’s killer, a promise that loads more stress and guilt onto the detective. Apart from the killer, though, there are few baddies in this drama, just flawed individuals struggling to do the right thing – which makes it all the sadder. But the investigation was badly bungled. Before he was convicted of killing and mutilating 13 women, Sutcliffe was interviewed by police nine times, and various statements and reports pointing to him as the culprit were buried in the deluge of data coming in (computers were only just being introduced). The force of ITV’s drama was that it was sober, affecting, quite brilliantly acted (particularly by Armstong), and a world away from the clean, tidy format of most fictional cop shows.

Watercooler fact: After This Is Personal, scriptwriter Neil McKay followed up with stints on Heartbeat and Holby City, but also became something of a specialist in the far more difficult discipline of exploring real-life crimes through controversial – but award-winning – dramas such as See No Evil: The Moors Murders and Appropriate Adult (about Fred West).

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Out — Killer TV no.46


ITV, 1978

Tom Bell, Brian Croucher, Lynn Farleigh, Peter Blake, John Junkin, Brian Cox
‘Never thought I’d see you in the sewer with the shit up to your neck… I feel sorry for you.’ – Frank Ross to Det Insp Bryce
Identikit: A blagger emerges from prison determined to uncover those who betrayed him and his gang to the police.

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Tom Bell completely dominates this hard-edged six-parter as Frank Ross, a gangster released from an eight-year stretch inside and determined to find out who ratted on his gang’s last robbery. Friends and foes, particularly the seedy cops, warn him to leave the past alone, but Ross can’t be deterred – ‘Faces to see, questions to ask…’ Like Walker in Point Blank and Jack Carter in Get Carter, Ross is mean and obsessed with rooting out his enemies, whatever the cost. But this minor classic from Euston Films, written by Trevor Preston, was more than a violent revenge saga. The characters are detailed and troubled, including Ross’s wife, Eve, who’s had a breakdown, and his son, Paul, who’s becoming a delinquent. Where some shows from this era can look sadly dated (try Widows, for example), Out had psychological depth and was packed with a seedy atmosphere and plenty of menace.
Classic episode: the finale, I Wouldn’t Take Your Hand If I Was Drowning, featuring Frank’s showdown with the detective who put him away, Bryce, deftly turning the tables on the morally superior but bent copper. 
Watercooler fact: By the time he died aged 73 in 2006, Tom Bell had had an acting career taking in theatre and 104 film and TV roles. While he gave many superb performances along the way (just watch him in Prime Suspect), he never really achieved the star billing and acclaim he deserved.
NEXT: 45 Homeland
PREVIOUS:  47 The Cops 48 Moonlighting 49 Brotherhood 50 Copper

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