Sweeney was the top-rated British police series of the 1970s,
bringing a new level of toughness and action to the genre, and displaying
police officers bending the rules to beat crime. The series was
created by Ian Kennedy-Martin and produced by Ted Childs for Euston
Films (a Thames Television subsidiary) and went out mid-week in
prime-time on ITV, the main commercial channel. In all 54 episodes
were made, and the programme ran for four seasons.
The Sweeney, focused on the exploits of Jack Regan, a maverick
Detective Inspector attached to the Flying Squad, the Metropolitan
police's elite armed-robbery unit, and featured John Thaw in the
leading role. The programme, which derived its title from "Sweeney
Todd" the Cockney rhyming slang for "Flying Squad," was a spin-off
from the successful 1974 TV film, Regan, that had first introduced
the protagonist, and also established his professional relationships
with his assistant, D.S. George Carter (played by Dennis Waterman)
and his "governor", D.C.I. Haskins (played by Garfield Morgan).
Each episode in the series adopted the same basic narrative format--a
three-act structure (with acts separated by adverts) preceded by
a prologue that triggered the crime narrative. The first two acts
were devoted to obtaining intelligence about a forthcoming robbery,
often through tip-offs from informers or surveillance, and the third,
was devoted to the capture of the robbery gang, characteristically
involving adrenalin-pumping action with car-chases, screaming tyres,
spectacular smashes and hand to hand fighting. The narrative was
often further complicated through the addition of an anti-authority
thread as Regan challenged Haskins' "rule-book" approach and/or
through the introduction of casual sex relationships, as one of
the detectives became involved with an available woman.
The programme's realism effect was considerable, and few other crime
series have achieved so authentic an impression of the policing
of London's underworld. To an extent this was achieved by adopting
the same visual style, fast action and cynical outlook as contemporary
rogue cop films, such as Dirty Harry and The French Connection.
Equally though, the programme relied on detailed inside-knowledge
of the actual circumstances in which the Flying Squad operated and
of the sometimes rather dubious means used to secure prosecutions.
The series' story-lines frequently blur the sharp distinctions that
are normally drawn between good and evil characters in crime melodrama.
Regan and Carter are shown inhabiting the same sleazy world as the
criminals, mixing with low-life to obtain their leads, and adopting
the same vernacular. Both law-enforcers and law-breakers indulge
in womanising and heavy drinking, and use physical violence to achieve
their objectives. The extent to which Regan is prepared to bend
and break the rules to "nick villains" was well established in the
pilot film when he threatens a suspect with a longer sentence if
he does not co-operate: "My sergeant is going to hit me, but I am
going to say it's you." Throughout the series, however, the viewer's
sense of Regan's integrity remains secure. Even though he may need
to beat up suspects, strike deals with criminals and--on one occasion--burgle
the office of the DCI to read his own personal file, such actions
are legitimised in the narrative as the only means available to
the serious crime-fighter to keep on top, and to cut through the
dead weight of bureaucracy that continually threatens to impede
the cause of justice.
the series provoked fierce controversy, chiefly because of its potential
to influence the public image of the police at a time of considerable
social upheaval. However, the dark (if not confused) moral world
that the series represented was difficult to fault on purely realist
grounds as, at the time of transmission, a prominent officer in
the Squad was under investigation and was eventually imprisoned
for corruption. Considered in wider cultural terms the programme
has been viewed as part of the general ideological shift to the
right that occurred in the 1970s in Britain as the post-war social-democratic
consensus broke down. James Donald, notably, has argued that The
Sweeney was fuelled by popular anxieties about law and order
stimulated by the press campaign on mugging, and that episodes provided
a "mapping fantasy" for the acting out of unconscious authoritarian
Sweeney had sold to 51 countries by 1985 and had also stimulated
two successful feature films. It also established Dennis Waterman
and John Thaw as household names with the British public. The series
secured the reputation of Euston Films as a leading production company
and created an influential model in Britain not just for crime series
on ITV, but for the production of cost-effective, high quality drama
in general. The lean and efficient production operation that Euston
had pioneered in The Sweeney, relying on short-term contracts
and shooting wholly with 16mm film, has been generally adopted across
the industry and, with the exception of soap opera, the great majority
of drama projects today are manned by free-lance crews and produced
D.I. Jack Regan ...........................................John
D.S. George Carter .............................Dennis Waterman
D.C.I. Frank Haskins............................. Garfield
PROGRAMMING HISTORY 53
50-minute Episodes; 1 77-minute Episode
January 1975-March 1975 14
September 1975-November 1975
September 1976-December 1976
September 1978-December 1978 14
Alvarado, Manuel, and John Stewart. Made for Television: Euston
Films Ltd. London: British Film Institute/Methuen, 1985.
Alan. "This is Not the Boy Scouts." In, Bennett, Tony, Colin Mercer,
and Janet Woollacott, editors. Popular Culture and Social Relations.
Milton Keynes, England; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Open University
James. "Anxious Moments in The Sweeney." In, Alvarado, Manuel, and
John Stewart. Made For Television: Euston Films Ltd. London:
British Film Institute/Methuen, 1985.
Geoffrey. "The Television Presentation of the Police." In, Bennett,
Tony, with others, editors. Popular Television and Film: A Reader.
London: British Film Institute/Open University Press, 1981.
See also British