By Paul-John Ramos
For those who were of age in late 1970s Britain, The Sweeney needs no reminders, let alone an acquaintance. Nowadays a classic of the police procedural genre, it entertained and shocked audiences during its wildly successful run on ITV from 1975 to 1978. The series, whose groundwork was laid by veteran writer Ian Kennedy Martin and drew inspiration from the London Metropolitan Police’s real-life Flying Squad, barged through 53 post-pilot episodes and could have gone on for longer had its makers chosen. While it set new standards of grittiness, violence, sexual allusion, and generally bad behavior – making it required viewing for any fellow who wanted to hold a conversation in the pub or lunchroom – The Sweeney was also a solidly written, directed, and acted program that was lined with talent from the British television and film industries. The Sweeney‘s success turned John Thaw (later of Inspector Morse) and Dennis Waterman into national stars and more recent police series have only rarely come close to matching its aesthetic.
The show, while keeping its fans happy, was a marketing coffer-jam that extended beyond the small screen. Besides a line of paperbacks, two Sweeney films were released to theatres in 1977 and 1978, which offered extended storylines and even greater leeway in the areas of violence, nudity, and language. And it was not the lurid and politically incorrect material alone that continued to draw audiences. The Sweeney and its movie counterparts (disregarding the 2012 hijack by director Nick Love) were looked upon as a mirror for Britain’s social ills of the late 70s, with its two highly-flawed protagonists, Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Detective Sergeant George Carter, regularly going to extremes in keeping London’s criminal element under wraps. Regan and Carter were rude, crude, heavy-drinking, and not at their best with women around but their dedication to policing, usually sincere and frequently over-the-top, earned viewers’ enthusiastic support.
The show was and remains a cultural icon. Biting lines of dialogue like “Shut it!” and “Get your trousers on, you’re nicked!” are reflexively quoted by men on the street and people can remember where they were and whom they were sitting next to while watching the broadcasts. Besides its original viewers, the series has gained newcomers amongst the 18-40 demographic who have taken an intense liking to retro crime. As shown by the series and films’ releases on DVD and Blu-ray, there does not seem to be any lack of takers on The Sweeney‘s native isles. For those elsewhere who are not familiar with the institution, any crime fan is almost certain to appreciate the template for grit and ruggedness that The Sweeney embodies. While set in London, the series and films (though the latter, as will be discussed, are wildly uneven) have a familiar late 70s vibe with its theme of the marginally good against ever-looming evil in a society that has seen better days.
The two films can be enjoyed without having seen the TV program, especially if one is familiar with the pool of British acting talent; but it’s worth hunting down the series and watching at least the first two seasons to fully appreciate what’s on show. While the films often deviate from the series – most glaringly the absence of Garfield Morgan from his role as Detective Chief Inspector Haskins, Regan and Carter’s nagging boss – it will help to know where the two detectives have been and what it took for them to reach cinemas.
Adaptations of The Sweeney hit the big screen in January 1977 and April 1978, with distribution by Euston Films. Both utilized cast and crew from the TV series with some variation. Sweeney!, the initial film, was directed by David Wickes, who helmed six episodes of the series and has a number of credits that includes Public Eye and The Professionals. Sweeney 2 employed Tom Clegg, director of 14 episodes and, amongst many other projects, the Sharpe television movies with Sean Bean.
Fans of The Sweeney might have been (and still might be) taken aback by the storyline of Sweeney!, which broadened Ian Kennedy Martin’s usual cops-and-robbers scenarios into one of high-stakes government intrigue.
The film opens with an international conference in London, where Britain’s Secretary of State for Energy, Charles Baker (Ian Bannen, The Flight of the Phoenix), is meeting with figures from Arab states to negotiate oil prices. As Baker argues for increased prices to fund underprivileged societies in the Third World, a woman he knows is being murdered. Janice Wyatt (Lynda Bellingham), a prostitute who was hired to indulge foreign dignitaries, is brought to a hotel room, given an injection, and left for dead.
Besides ‘entertaining’ foreign interests, Wyatt was also seeing Ronnie Brent (Joe Melia), a gangster fronting as a scrapyard owner. Since Wyatt has been killed with a political motive and there are plenty of folks wanting to keep matters quiet, her death is ruled as a suicide at the inquest, which Brent attends. Brent doesn’t believe a word of it and asks for help from Regan (Thaw), to whom he’s served in the past as an informant.
Regan and his partner Carter (Waterman) skeptically begin digging around and soon find themselves embroiled in a deadly power game that includes Baker, his American-born press agent Elliott McQueen (Barry Foster, Frenzy), and Bianca Hamilton (Diane Keen, TV’s Doctors), another high-style prostitute who was a roommate of Wyatt’s. As connections are made, Regan and Carter – particularly Regan, who at one point is suspended after being set up on charges of drunk driving – become targets in a scheme to manipulate oil prices for transnational corporations’ benefit. The bodies of those with a link to the initial murder or who generally know too much begin piling up and our two detectives have to somehow bring the plotters to justice before reaching the casualty list themselves.
After entertaining fans for two years on the small screen, Sweeney! looks an ambitious project to broaden the show’s original concept. Normally, the TV episodes would feature a cat-and-mouse game with Regan and Carter trying to track down and nab run-of-the-mill criminals. The first film, however, tries to elevate The Sweeney into that of a political thriller. While highly entertaining – the series characters and aesthetic make it almost impossible not to like – its ascent (descent?) into politics is more than the original template is able to carry. There are times when the script by Ranald Graham stretches credibility to extremes and things seem ready to come apart; for instance, the way in which Regan is able to investigate on his own after being suspended or how he’s able to get a warrant for McQueen’s arrest so easily after he’s been told that the Yank is ready to be shipped out of the country and escape prosecution (couldn’t the insiders have stopped his warrant from being issued?). The film – perhaps in wanting to satisfy action junkies – also tries to keep within The Sweeney‘s taut framework, only running for 97 minutes despite its wider plot. Its ending, unfortunately, is a bit vague and doesn’t feel particularly satisfying.
Yet with all of these pitfalls, Sweeney! still carries over enough elements from the TV series to please fans. The camaraderie between Regan, Carter, and their colleagues at New Scotland Yard is much in evidence; there is plenty of snappy small-talk (Carter: “How are we doing for time?” Regan: “Badly!”) that was a series trademark; there is enough time given to the two men’s womanizing and heavy drinking; and when action does break out, it hits very hard. There is not as much action in this film as in Sweeney 2, but instead a well-maintained balance of scenes that develop the political story and the action sequences that will later include Regan and Bianca (who becomes an informant) running for their lives together. The action scenes were well-done by special effects chief Arthur Beavis (assistant on Diamonds Are Forever) and series stunt arranger Peter Brayham. The muted cinematography was provided by Dusty Miller and the engaging soundtrack by Denis King (The Adventures of Black Beauty).
Under David Wickes’s direction, the acting is generally solid. Thaw and Waterman had been playing the lead Sweeney roles for many episodes and their compatibility can be taken for granted. Unfortunately, Garfield Morgan did not appear as Haskins in either film since there was not enough of a role for him. He is replaced in Sweeney! by Bernard Kay, who plays ‘Matthews’ and is only on screen for a minute or so. This must have been a disappointment for the show’s fans, since Haskins is a great source of friction in trying to limit Regan and Carter’s cruder doings while still expecting their maximum performance.
While Morgan isn’t around, there are plenty of other British veterans on display. Ian Bannen, an original member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is sometimes a bit forced in delivering his lines but he comes across well as a vulnerable civil servant whose private encounters are beginning to work against his beliefs. Barry Foster’s role as Elliott McQueen is more problematic. While Foster’s performance is certainly not bad, his American accent is not fully convincing and he’s too well-known of an actor for us to buy him in this kind of portrayal. It might’ve better served to cast an American actor, who probably wouldn’t have looked so affected. Colin Welland, whose screenplay for Chariots of Fire would soon win him an Oscar, hams it up as a radical journalist who pays dearly after calling out McQueen once too many times.
As a piece of filmmaking, Sweeney! is a standard crime thriller that takes after the era’s models of Dirty Harry, The French Connection, and The Seven-Ups with a bit of All the President’s Men thrown in. But as a cult item, Sweeney! is a must-view for fans of the series. It’s a spirited attempt to weave average detectives into high-scale political intrigue and Regan and Carter hustle through some interesting challenges.
Series producers Lloyd Shirley, George Taylor, and Ted Childs, who also broke ground during the early 70s with Special Branch, wasted no time in making a sequel by releasing Sweeney 2 through Euston Films one year later. Their first film’s political angle only moderately convincing, Sweeney 2 went back to the TV show’s very roots: armed robbers, or ‘blaggers’ as they’re known in the U.K. This follow-up is a complete return to the themes, action, and innuendo that made The Sweeney an ITV landmark.
A series of cash robberies have occurred in London, with the latest involving a wild chase. The gangsters’ lady hostage has died in a car collision, an injured gang member has been finished off by his colleague to avoid their identities being leaked, and a crossing guard has been run over. The gang, led by Hill (Ken Hutchison, Straw Dogs), periodically slips into London from a luxurious compound in Malta that has been built with the money they’ve stolen. Hill, an odd fellow who totes gold-plated shotguns, has a certain ‘inflationary plan’ in which a specific number of pounds will be taken based on the exchange rate to American dollars. Anything over that limit, his team leaves in the robbery car’s back seat.
Regan and Carter have been investigating the robberies for some time. The case has taken on extra importance for Regan after being assigned it by Jupp (Denholm Elliott), their boss who will soon go on trial for corruption. Regan, who refuses to testify in Jupp’s defense on grounds that the association will cast him in a bad light, feels pity for his senior officer and obligated to see the investigation through as a last request. That familiar cat-and-mouse element of The Sweeney is very much in force, with the detectives trying to piece together leads and Hill’s gang plotting their next blag attempts.
For how much I’ve criticized the first film’s screenplay, Sweeney! is actually better-conceived than Sweeney 2 in premise and plot. Fans of the series will feel very much at home with Sweeney 2‘s formula but the initial film’s political element led to a story that was much more intricate and characters that were more fully developed. Sweeney 2, written by Ian Kennedy Martin’s brother Troy, is superior in terms of action, production values, and technical work but it has a paint-by-numbers feel that works more successfully in one-hour teleplays. The film is mostly an alternation between Regan and Carter’s police work and the goings-about of Hill’s team as they plan and execute the London holdups, these two sides eventually coming together.
Like the TV series, Regan and Carter piece together leads through interviews and physical evidence. There is very little subplot to be found as the two detectives and Hill’s cohort go about their business. In a TV episode with limited screen time, the bar for a good story can be kept at a lower notch. In a motion picture, however, this feels a bit too formulaic as things move from A to B. Sweeney 2, though longer than the first film at 108 minutes, is still tautly assembled and moves at a speed that encourages us to go for the ride. As things hustle along, there is room for just a few diversions rather than a true secondary plotline. One of these is a longer and more humorous scene 40 minutes in that involves Carter joining a French hotel guest to defuse a bomb, which has no connection to any other events in the film. While it gives a satirical look at the complications of law enforcement in 1970s Britain, it feels like script-padding; this lengthy scene could have been dropped from the screenplay and made absolutely no difference.
With Regan on suspension in the first film, there was a significant length of time in which he and Carter were apart. In Sweeney 2, Thaw and Waterman work entirely as a team and give even better performances because of this. Ken Hutchison, while menacing in the robbery scenes, doesn’t get very much to work with here. Outside of the action, he spends most of his time lounging or eating dinner by the pool while getting up nerve to rob again and pay his circle’s mounting expenses from business with real estate sharks. There are a few other interesting choices of actor by the Sweeney film team: Denholm Elliott is usually known for pretentious characters and doesn’t really convince as Regan and Carter’s boss. He does project the feelings of a policeman who’s about to be finished in court but none of the hard-edged traits of a cop are visible. And while Jupp is awaiting trial, his workload is given to Dilke, played by……Nigel Hawthorne. Indeed, Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Prime Minister has been cast as a police commander. Needless to say, he doesn’t fit this small role at all.
Numerous other faces come up in the story. Anna Gael appears as Hill’s wife, Anna Nigh (TV’s Capital City) plays a stripper associated with the gang, and Georgina Hale (winner of a BAFTA for Mahler) is a switchboard operator who agrees to meet with Regan in the evening – she leads a funny scene in which his door key is left…well, somewhere. An honorable mention goes to Michael J. Jackson (TV’s Wish Me Luck) as Soames, a new squad driver whose prima donna habits (including the storage of his vegetarian lunch in the glove compartment) drive Regan up the wall. Australian stage actor Lewis Fiander plays Gorran, a creepy sideman for Hill’s gang who collects Nazi memorabilia.
Under director Tom Clegg, Sweeney 2 has great moments in its action, containing The Sweeney‘s high-energy chases. The violence is on a larger scale than in the first film, with shotgun blasts, car crashes, and explosions. Arthur Beavis and Peter Brayham were again on board for the action’s technical work and appear to have been working well with Clegg at the helm. Interestingly, Dusty Miller returned as cinematographer and the print looks of a better quality, even though both films were made with 35 MM Technicolor. The visuals of Sweeney 2, while still with a muted appearance, look sharper and less gritty. The editing was well-paced by series veteran Chris Burt and, as an added bonus, the excellent soundtrack was written and conducted by Tony Hatch. Hatch’s scoring of the mentioned ‘key’ scene with Hale and Thaw is worth a viewing of the film alone.
The Sweeney train pulled into its last stop on December 28, 1978, when Regan quit the squad in a final TV episode. A third film, while certainly sellable, was never made. Thaw and Waterman moved on with their careers, the former becoming known for his Inspector Morse and Kavanagh QC dramas. Thaw, who frequently smokes with Waterman in the series and films, died of cancer in 2002, at the untimely age of 60. Waterman was recently seen on the detective comedy-drama New Tricks with Amanda Redman, appearing in 99 episodes. It is impossible to separate either man, however, from their performances that were at the heart of what The Sweeney became. Sweeney 2, released when the series was winding down, has a few too many elements of the small screen but is a fitting big screen tribute to all who were part of the history and loved it.