The Sweeney. The very mention of it evokes the seventies. An era of machismo, dripping in Brut sweat and bromance, before the phrase even existed. But The Sweeney is more than just a rough and tumble, cops and robbers show from the era of Space Hoppers and Dalek Death Ray Lollies. Unlike its’ lighter stablemate, The Professionals, you never doubted the characters that inhabited The Sweeney actually existed. These were, rightly or wrongly emblematic of British policing in the seventies and, as we will learn, emerged from the sewer pit of corruption in Scotland Yard that would become apparent as the seventies drew to a close.
The Sweeney is a genuine televisual icon and, with the cleaned up Blu-ray releases now hitting our shelves, guest interviewer Gareth Kavanagh seized the opportunity to chat with Ian Kennedy Martin about its’ genesis, development and how his remarkable career shaped its’ creation. He opened this fascinating chat, not with a discussion about The Sweeney but about his brother Troy Kennedy Martin, perhaps best known for writing The Italian Job and Edge of Darkness, who alongside Ian formed a writing powerhouse from the sixties onwards…
How was the working relationship with Troy in practice?
“We’d try not to get in each other’s way. He with The Sweeney and me with Z-Cars. And in many ways, The Sweeney was the result of Z Cars falling apart after eighteen years, as it became Softly Softly Taskforce. I was looking at that, and I had a friend who was in the Flying Squad in Scotland Yard, and I felt that Softly Softly was totally irrelevant to policing in England. It was a complete fiction by that time. And of course, it had all started with Dixon of Dock Green which was a total television construct. That the Police were really great guys and occasionally, there was one bad apple. And of course, knowing this Chief Inspector in the Flying Squad, I had other views.
Now Troy had made a lot of money in Hollywood, but unfortunately the taxman disallowed some scheme that he’d set up. And he ended up in a messy divorce owing an enormous amount of tax. And this went on for a period of some years, with everything he earned going on tax so he was available to write some of the things I was involved with, like Redcap where he wrote some very good scripts. I was putting the scripts together for that series which starred John Thaw, and he and I became good friends. And then I moved to Anglia as a story editor and put together Weavers Green, which I did for money. It was a failing TV soap and Troy also contributed to that. In fact we both wrote the scripts in the South of France. I brought them back to Anglia and sorted them out for production. And then there was the Sweeney. And when I walked out on The Sweeney, because I couldn’t stand Producer Ted Childs, Troy again was broke and came in and started to write for that. So, one of the reasons I was able to walk out was knowing that he was going to come in and write some good scripts along with Trevor Preston and one or two other writers. Because I think The Sweeney was all about good writers and good directors.
We got on very well together, Troy and I. He was in a different place to me politically. I mean, we were both left of centre. And his politics were further left. And he had started in the days of the Wednesday Play at the BBC. They were allowed a lot of freedom to put on socially committed drama which has totally vanished from the screens nowadays. I was also in the writers pool, and I was wary of this group of people, the Tony Garnetts’, the Troy Roger Smiths’ who were trying to change the politics of the country. I thought some of it was fairly unsubtle, using a sledgehammer to crack an egg and preaching basically to the initiated. I wished them the best of luck, but that was not my thing. I was in the BBC in 1962, just as ITV was opening up and I saw a way of moving in.”
Mention of the BBC, made me think of some of the great figures who were leading the revolution like Sydney Newman. Had Ian been a part of Sydney Newman’s Sixties BBC revolution?
“Yes! Now he was very good. He basically came in and fired anyone with a name, and he brought some of his pals in like Verity Lambert and James Gatt. There were a whole bunch from Canadian television. I got on well with Sydney, but he had different ideas. He was a guy who basically wanted to put everything on film, but didn’t have enough film to do it. I don’t think he fitted in with the BBC hierarchy, or the ATV hierarchy. And I worked there on under the previous head of drama. That was when I was responsible for the scripts on redcap with John Thaw. We had a good relationship down the years, one or two crises, but we had so much in common with our background. We were lucky in a way. He was lucky, say with Edge of Darkness. It was the last time the BBC underwrote something that might have been going seriously over budget. And he had Martin Campbell and Michael Wearing and these were very important people who went on to make the Bond films. They were significant players. Then the BBC got rid of these people because producers became people who had to deliver everything on budget. And these guys were not keen on that. But he was lucky. He was older than me by four or five years and he caught the end of that free and easy BBC. I didn’t!”
You can almost feel the through line for cop show development from Dixon of Dock Green right through to modern US imports. But, with The Sweeney rooted in seventies culture and with a strong cinematic feel, how much of an influence was British cinema at the time, in particular movies like Get Carter?
We would have seen it, but I don’t think it affected The Sweeney. The Sweeney was really built around this Inspector I knew in the Flying Squad and the troubles he was encountering. I think Get Carter may have affected Trevor Preston. He did a few series about a villain.
So Jack Regan and Terry Carter weren’t named in a homage to Get Carter, as is the urban myth perpetuated on Wikipedia?
No. The first title for The Sweeney was “The Outsiders”. Then it was called “McClaine”, and then we found out there was an actual Detective Sergeant in the Flying Squad with that name so we searched around and came up with Regan which seemed suitable.
But it made it to the screen first as an episode of Armchair Theatre (“Regan”)?
Yes, that’s right. It was in that interim period before Euston Pictures. They were making something called Special Branch on film and they didn’t like it. It was running out of ideas. There was also some pressure (although they wouldn’t admit it at the time) from the Home Office who did not want any series made about Special Branch. So Lloyd Shirley, the head of Euston Films and previously the Head of Drama at Thames was looking for a new series. And I knew him. So I came up with this idea based on this detective I know who was having a lot of problems with the arrival as head of the Met of Commissioner (Robert) Mark who was staring to lay down the law saying, “the Flying Squad should not act like this”. It should not talk to villains. And the head of the Flying Squad was soon to go to prison for his relationship with the Porn King (Jim) Humphries.
Was this the 1977 corruption trials that in some ways fundamentally changed policing?
Yes. But when I was writing this in 1974, already the writing was on the wall. After Mark arrived, 600 policemen left! They did not fit in with his view of good apples.
Although rich in social commentary is the Sweeney, you can’t help but think that maybe it ended at the right time as post Scarman/Broadwater Farm/Birmingham Six, that more swashbuckling type of policing began to be viewed in a very different light.
Yes. When I was talking to my Inspector of the Flying Squad, was they didn’t know quite how to deal with around four teams of armed robbers in London who were very clever. They were pulling off armed raids of banks (of course, you don’t rob banks these days – you do it all on the computer!). So actually, although when the Sweeney went on the air there was a bit of a feeling of anger from the Met, this isn’t what we do etc, what happened was that Commissioner Mark started to approve of it (although he probably wouldn’t to admit to it if he was still around!). That they needed to toughen up on the street. And it was that the time when policemen would start carrying guns was coming, because in those days of course *technically*, no British Police were armed. The only armed policemen were the Embassy Protection Squad (and it was amazing how often the Embassy Protection Squad turned up at the scene of a robbery!). But Mark must have thought; here’s The Sweeney with two likely lads running around bashing and shooting things, but the British public is public is going to have to start understanding we’re going to have to deal with armed robbers and this is tough.
So; had The Sweeney run longer, would the characters have changed?
It’s always backwards on these things. It’s almost what does the consumer want, then what does the production team want? And what was getting big ratings. And if you start to say, we’re changing that and moving it on? The answer is probably no. John (Thaw) and Dennis (Waterman) are quoted as saying that they thought that 52 episodes were enough. And probably it was enough for them, as they were getting a bit tired. It was a very hard show The Sweeney. There were a lot of very young directors who were really pushing to get results. And, presumably make up a show reel for themselves to head off to Hollywood, which some of them hoped to do. John told me he didn’t want to go on with it as he didn’t make enough on it and he was right, as he became a £1m an episode actor after that!
One fact I enjoyed uncovering in my researches for this interview was the existence of a series of spinoff books for The Sweeney published in the Seventies, written by yourself….
You can get them on Kindle now! I’ve spent some time getting them on Kindle. They’ve reappeared after many years! But also (and this is the reason I wasn’t at the premiere of the Sweeney [film]), I have a new series of novels about a drunken Welsh detective which are now also on Kindle. And if they are a success, I may write some more. The drunken Welsh detective is called Petrog Corrigan. The first is Dark Shepherd, the second is Road of Bones and the third is Travel Kit for the Dead.
I like the sound of those! Of course, it seems daft not to discuss the new Sweeney movie. What, if anything was your involvement and how do you feel about it?
I was commissioned to write a draft. First of all, I own the film rights. Secondly, I gave a license to a prestigious film company called DNA who made Shallow Grave etc to make a Sweeney film. I wrote a draft script (it was very much a draft script) but they couldn’t get it together. So they assigned the rights to the New operation run by this man called Nick Lowe, a nice man. But he works with a man called Nick Love and he announced he’s never directed a film unless he’d written it. So, that was me out of the area. And Nick Love went ahead and wrote it, I think with some assistance from someone else, but absolutely nothing to do with me. I haven’t seen it yet. I’ll see it very soon though.
But my draft would have been in the seventies. It was still Regan and Carter. A real seventies piece!
And how marvellous that would have been! Ian Kennedy-Martin, thank you very much.
The Sweeney: Series One is available to buy on digitally remastered DVD and Blu-ray now from Network Distribution. Ian’s Sweeney novels are now available on Kindle and in print. With special thanks to Harry Moore and Network Distribution for their help arranging the interview.