For a whole generation, the familiar strains of the Thames fanfare followed by a speeding Ford Consul coming towards the screen to that theme tune will evoke a whole load of memories. Much lampooned in later years, and then influencing the superb Life on Mars, The Sweeney was one of the most successful series of the 1970’s. Sweeney mania has swept across ITV4 recently, and the series has been reimagined for the big screen. But what of the original? Uncut, restored and in high-definition for the first time, get your trousers on for this arresting drama.
Starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman as Flying Squad detectives Regan and Carter, The Sweeney presents a much different picture to the police than other series like Gideon’s Way or Z Cars had done. Brutal, tough and often flawed, a multi-layered picture of the police is built up. On the floor are Regan and Carter, often taking knocks in their pursuit of justice. Regan reports to Garfield Morgan’s Haskins, who is more interested in public perception and interdepartmental politics than catching crooks.
Indeed, the relationship between Regan and Carter is nowhere near as rosy as detectives in other series. Often fractious, Carter rarely agrees with Regan’s methods of getting the job done, and is cleverly positioned between the maverick Regan and politically aware Haskins. Neither old guard, or new broom, Carter’s position wavers throughout the series in response. From disobeying his superior to taking a beating for him, Waterman’s Carter is not the little lap-dog you’d expect from a cop show partner.
Regan’s cynical view of the job is one recurring theme throughout the series. Denied resources, and the ability to do his job by following his instinct, Regan’s dissatisfaction is evident from day one. Countered against his superiors view that Regan is a liability, and may actually be corrupt (in reality the series was only slightly ahead of the 1977 corruption trials) a picture of a complex and fallible character emerges. Thaw’s strengths lie in convincing the audience that he is an honest copper and merely wants to see the job done. Such is the strength of Thaw’s performance that the audience has to trust him. With the job being his one true love – how can he be anything else but an honest copper?
Uncompromising, and violent, the series is a gritty reflection of life as a copper in the 70’s. Not patronising, The Sweeney’s scripts don’t talk down to the viewer. With sometimes complex scripts that reward paying attention, the storylines are gripping, and there isn’t a single mis-step in this first series. The breath of fresh air that this series must have been in the 70’s is evident, and watching the series evolve is fascinating. The sense that all concerned were onto something big distinctly shows through. Indeed, many of the writers have very strong track records from other Thames and BBC series.
The Sweeney is most definitely a product of its time. Of course the hairstyles and fashions, and most notably the cars have dated. Scenes of Regan running around trying to find a phone box to contact the station are easy targets for mocking, but this does the series a massive disservice. Within, beyond the dated exterior, is a hard-hitting and gritty drama, much unlike contemporary series. The Sweeney is much maligned for it’s depiction of sexist coppers, and Cockney heritage, but this glosses over the reality of its rich plotting.
The balance of episodes contained within this set sustains these overarching themes whilst changing tack. It veers from comedic (“Thin Ice”) to looking at Regan and Carter’s home lives (“Night Out”) through to Regan’s hellbent determination to see justice done (“Queen’s Pawn”) and the kidnapping of his own daughter (“Abduction”).
A Who’s Who of guest stars complete the line up with actors such as Ian Hendry, Del Henney, Prunella Gee, Tony Selby, Morris Perry, Brian Blessed and many, many more all pop up in various roles. The guest roles are well-defined and lend a stage-like quality to the series.
It is fair to say that the series has never looked better. Filmed on 16mm film, the restoration is crisp and clear and sparkles thanks to its generous use of location filming. Colours on this Blu-Ray edition are bright and vibrant. Some grain is evident on smoky indoor scenes, but outdoor scenes, especially the car chases could have been made today. Key London landmarks linger in the background of shots painting the backdrop for The Sweeney making it almost as much a record to London in that period as a series in its own right.
Included are an impressive array of extras on this 3 disc set. Cast and crew re-unite for a series of informative audio commentaries that tease good anecdotes from the participants. Clearly a fun series to have made at the time, it is good to hear some of the behind the scenes stories. Also included are seven episode introductions from notable guest stars reminiscing about their roles. In another feature, creator Ian Kennedy Martin gives a short interview on the genesis of the series setting the scene (there’s more from him very soon in an interview with The Fiction Stroker). Most impressive, although the shortest extra, is the set of original stills from the title sequence. Watching these without the famous blue hue and theme tune shows how the production crew worked their magic.
Undoubtedly a product of its time, and much aped since, The Sweeney still remains, as the one of the original and best police dramas and in this release has never looked better.
The Fiction Stroker gives The Sweeney: Series 1 five strokes out of five:
The Fiction Stroker spoke to Sweeney creator Ian Kennedy Martin about the genesis of the series, and his thoughts on the new film. Come back in a couple of days for the full story…!