The Sweeney is a 1970s British television police drama focusing on two members of the Flying Squad, a branch of the Metropolitan Police specialising in tackling armed robbery and violent crime in London. The programme's title derives from Sweeney Todd, which is Cockney rhyming slang for "Flying Squad".
The programme was shot entirely on 16mm film by Thames Television's film division, Euston Films. It originally aired on ITV between 2 January 1975 and 28 December 1978 in the 9-10pm (21:00–22:00) weekday (usually Monday) slot with repeated showings at the same time until the early 1980s. It starred John Thaw as Detective Inspector Jack Regan, and Dennis Watermanas his partner Detective Sergeant George Carter. Such was its popularity in the UK that it spawned two theatrically released feature film spin-offs, Sweeney! and Sweeney 2.
The series aired during a dark period for the real-life Flying Squad. In the late 1970s, the Flying Squad was publicly censured for being involved in bribery, police corruption and excessively close links with the criminal fraternity. Unlike the unwavering high standards seen in the fictional Sweeney, the actual commander of the Flying Squad, Detective Chief Superintendent Kenneth Drury was convicted of five counts of corruption and jailed for eight years on 7 July 1977. An internal investigation, called Operation Countryman, was then launched to stamp out more corruption. A further 12 officers were convicted and many others resigned.
The series was created by writer Ian Kennedy Martin, brother of the better-known Troy Kennedy Martin who contributed several episodes and wrote the second film. It was born from a one-off drama, entitled Regan, which Ian Kennedy Martin wrote for Thames Television's Armchair Cinema series of standalone films in 1974. The part of Regan was specifically written for Thaw, by a friend of Kennedy Martin with whom he had worked on Redcap.
From the very beginning, the show was seen as having series potential. After Regan scored highly in the ratings, work began on the development of the series proper. Ian Kennedy Martin's ideas for the series were for it to be partially studio-based, with more dialogue and less action but producer Ted Childs disagreed with this, and Ian Kennedy Martin reluctantly parted company with the project. It was filmed almost entirely on location on filmstock (which gave it a startling degree of realism), and had a heavy bias toward action sequences.
The writers were given strict guidelines to follow: "Each show will have an overall screen time (minus titles) of 48 minutes 40 seconds. Each film will open with a teaser of up to 3 minutes, which will be followed by the opening titles. The story will be played across three acts, each being no more than 19 minutes and no less than 8 minutes in length. Regan will appear in every episode, Carter in approximately 10 out of 13 episodes. In addition to these main characters, scripts should be based around three major speaking parts, with up to ten minor speaking parts."
The Sweeney was the first really modern police-based series on British television. Previously, most dramas featuring the police had shied away from showing "coppers" as fallible human beings. The police in The Sweeney were far removed from the cosy BBC world of Dixon of Dock Green, or even from the BBC's slightly more realistic Z-Cars (which itself had been co-created by Troy Kennedy-Martin). They were brutal and violent in dealing with London's hardened criminals, and prone to cutting corners and bending laws. The series showed a somewhat more realistic side of the police, which often had a disregard for authority, rules and the "system", as long it got the job done. Until The Sweeney, this had been a subject largely whitewashed by British television.
It was a fast-paced edge-of-your-seat action series, depicting the Squad's relentless battle against armed robbery; but it nevertheless included a substantial degree of humour. For the time, it had a high degree of graphic on-screen violence and the episodes had a high number of on-screen deaths.
The main two characters were Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Detective Sergeant George Carter. Their superior officer was DCI Frank Haskins.
John Thaw as Detective Inspector John "Jack" Regan, the Flying Squad's chief 'thief-taker'. He's a tough police officer, often frustrated by Scotland Yard's red tape. Originally from Manchester (like Thaw himself), he has been in London for several years, so his accent has modified somewhat, but traces of his northern origins are still evident. He also refers to his northern roots every now and again (his poor upbringing, his father's work on the Manchester Ship Canal), which brings mild ridicule from George Carter, a Londoner, such as humming "The Red Flag". A heavy drinker and smoker (comically, he is sometimes seen stealing other people's cigarettes), Regan has some success with the ladies - although not as much as Carter. He can be seen as quick with his fists. He has an ex-wife, Kate, and a daughter, Susie, and in the last episode of the first series, "Abduction", Susie was kidnapped.
Regan helps out an ex-informer whose son is kidnapped in "Feet of Clay" (Series 4); and his sympathetic pushing enables his boss Haskins to ask for help when his wife goes missing after a breakdown, in "Victims" (Series 4): it's Regan who finds her. Regan repeatedly bends the rules in order to achieve the desired result: for example, fabricating evidence and arranging for a criminal to be kidnapped in "Queen's Pawn", and illegally entering private properties and threatening to lie about being attacked by a prisoner in order to get information in Regan. Despite this, he's unwilling to cheat for purely personal gain: he delivers a sharp put-down to a corrupt copper in "Bad Apple", and refuses to take a bribe in "Golden Fleece".
In the Squad, informality was everything. Everyone called DCI Haskins simply "Haskins" (except to his face), though Regan would occasionally call him by his first name, Frank. No one ever called Regan "Mister" - except the villains, or sometimes Carter when talking to Haskins. To the Squad, he was always simply "the Guv'nor", or just "Guv". In turn, he invariably called Carter and the other Squad members by their first name. But off-duty he and George Carter were friends and drinking buddies, so in private Carter called him Jack. This is all in accordance with widespread police convention.
Regan was driven around in a Ford Consul GT, which was one of the most recognisable sights on television during the 1970s and still has cult status some 30 years later. Although he is seen driving various cars himself in the series, he always has a driver when using the Consul (and the similar Ford Granada models used in later stories), which served as a Squad car: when the Squad travelled they always went "mob handed". Regan did have his own car outside of the squad, in the series.
Dennis Waterman plays Detective Sergeant George Carter who comes from south London; and Regan seeks him out in the pilot episode because of his knowledge of the South London area. His age is given in the episode "Hit and Run" as 26. In the series' timeline, we learn that George had previously been in the Squad, but had quit for family reasons (cf. Regan and "Jigsaw"). George was married to Alison Carter, a schoolteacher, but is widowed in the episode "Hit and Run" when Alison is murdered by mistake by a gang of diamond smugglers. He's a former amateur boxer, as we see from the pilot Regan, and is described as having professional boxing potential in the episode "Chalk and Cheese". Like his superior, he's fond of drinking, football, and after the death of his wife - womanising. Carter isn't as violent or aggressive as Regan and usually plays the good cop. In the episode "Latin Lady", he introduces himself to Christobel Delgado (Meg Davies) as George Hamilton Carter.
Garfield Morgan plays Frank Haskins, married with three children at boarding schools and is Regan's immediate superior. Prior to the series timeline, the character had done "National Service in the Signals Corps in a minor intelligence role" (as revealed in the episode "Stay Lucky, Eh?"). He is frequently seen at odds with Regan, preferring more conventional policing methods.
The main 'Haskins episodes' are "Golden Fleece", where he is set up to be the victim of a corruption enquiry, and "Victims", where his wife suffers a mental breakdown due to memories of a miscarriage. Although he appeared in the opening titles of every episode of the first three series, he did not appear in all of them.
The character was not present at the start of the fourth, final series, and his role was taken by other superiors such as Detective Chief Inspector Anderson, played by Richard Wilson and Detective Chief Superintendent Braithwaite played by Benjamin Whitrow. Haskins returned a few episodes into the fourth series. There are two versions of the fourth series opening credits - one without Haskins, and one with him.
In the early episodes, the team has a variety of drivers including Len (Jack McKenzie) (the first 2 episodes) and Fred (in the episode "Jigsaw"). However, the episode "The Placer" in the first series introduces the character of Bill the driver (played by Tony Allen, who subsequently worked as wardrobe manager for many of John Thaw's later projects), and he remains a constant throughout the series, although he plays a peripheral, non-speaking role in most episodes.
Detective Sergeant Tom Daniels (John Alkin) is the most prominent member of the supporting Squad. Other members include Sergeant Kent, Detective Constable Thorpe and DS Matthews in the first series, DC Jerry Burtonshaw (Nick Brimble) (Series 1-2, 4) and DC Jellyneck (Series 4). Detective Chief Superintendent Maynon (Morris Perry) appears occasionally as a superior officer, and is seen as being more willing than Haskins to bend the rules in order to get a result in the episode "Queen's Pawn". With Haskins absent, a semi-regular superior officer named DCS Braithwaite (Benjamin Whitrow) appears in Series 4.
Other main characters include the close family of the three leads.
Regan's ex-wife Kate appears in the episode "Abduction", after previously featuring in the pilot; and his daughter Susie (Jennifer Thanisch) appears in several episodes, most notably, "Abduction".
Carter's wife Alison (Stephanie Turner) is seen attempting to prise him away from the Squad in the episode "Jigsaw", while her hostility toward Regan is apparent in the episode "Abduction". She is murdered in a case of mistaken identity in the episode "Hit and Run". In the DVD commentary for "Abduction", it is mentioned that the reason for this was that the actress was asking for too much money to continue to appear in the series. Her death was convenient for the show, releasing Carter to play a more freewheeling role, 'on the pull' - and allowing his banter with Regan, which had become a very popular part of the show, to develop even further. Stephanie Turner went on to appear in Juliet Bravo, also devised and part-written by Ian Kennedy Martin.
Doreen Haskins plays a minor role in some episodes, although the penultimate episode "Victims" deals with her deteriorating mental health and returns to the theme of the job's impact on family life. One of Haskins' three children, Richard, also appears in that episode.
The shows guest stars included:
- ɫ(George Cole and Dennis Waterman went on to star in Minder.)
- ɫ̩ɫ̩(Morecambe and Wise appeared in return for Thaw and Waterman appearing on their show.)
Many up and coming actors also appeared in the show during its run, such as: