British Police Drama

The 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.

Unsurprisingly 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 urges.


The Sweeney

The 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 on film.

-Bob Millington


D.I. Jack Regan ...........................................John Thaw
D.S. George Carter .............................Dennis Waterman
D.C.I. Frank Haskins............................. Garfield Morgan


PROGRAMMING HISTORY    53 50-minute Episodes; 1 77-minute Episode

January 1975-March 1975                            14 Episodes
September 1975-November 1975                  13 Episodes
September 1976-December 1976                  13 Episodes
September 1978-December 1978                  14 Episodes


Alvarado, Manuel, and John Stewart. Made for Television: Euston Films Ltd. London: British Film Institute/Methuen, 1985.

Clarke, 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 Press, 1986.

Donald, James. "Anxious Moments in The Sweeney." In, Alvarado, Manuel, and John Stewart. Made For Television: Euston Films Ltd. London: British Film Institute/Methuen, 1985.

Hurd, 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 Programming; Thaw, John; Waterman, Dennis