28 January 2018
If you say that you like The Sweeny, there are many out there who will think you an unreconstituted chauvinist with a taste for seedy pubs and violent punch-ups where badly dressed alpha males lurch through simple plot lines in a maelstrom of bad language and predictable, clichéd car chases. Well, they have a point – but there is far more to this classic television from the 1970s than that.
First of all, you have to remember that Regan first burst onto the screen in 1975 when, apart from Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars, television cop shows largely consisted of imported American pap like Cannon, Kojak and – God help us – Starsky and Hutch. Gritty realism wasn’t really part of the scene and fallible policemen who drank too much, made dodgy jokes, alluded to corruption and who often seemed as shabby as the criminals they pursued only existed in real life and weren’t to be seen on the screen. The Sweeny, following on from Get Carter in the cinema, changed that.
Second, there is the energy and the pace of the whole thing. The Sweeny doesn’t really do flash – the car chases aren’t technical masterpieces and the killings aren’t glamorised, ritualised affairs – but that Ford Consul Granada MK1 GT moves fast and stuff happens quickly enough for you to miss detail, some of it quite subtle, first time around. And there’s always some quick fire humour bubbling along not far below the surface. The exchanges between Carter and Regan are only the source of a small amount of this; more of it comes from the wonderful collection of British character actors playing the hard pressed barmaids, the snouts and, of course, the villains. Watch every episode and you can spot Joss Ackland, Brian Blessed, George Cole, Diana Dors, Michael Elphic, John Hurt, Roy Kinnear, Lynda La Plante, George Layton, Maureen Lipman, Warren Mitchell, Patrick Mower, George Sewell, Colin Welland, Richard Wilson and many more; everyone was in it!
Third, there’s John Thaw’s Regan. He transcends the dubious hair styles, the flares and the kipper ties to dominate the show, driving it forward with an intensity to match what have, elsewhere, been called his piercing, cobalt blue eyes. At his best when having to act under pressure, he is simultaneously brutal and boorishly charming, cutting a charismatic figure as, almost perversely incorruptible, he cuts corners to counter the next blag. The efforts of Carter and Haskins aside, you wouldn’t want to watch it if someone else was trying to do the macho stuff.
Fourth, the show has humanity and pathos. The Sweeny don’t always catch their villains, good people get hurt and there’s a clear cost to all the main characters in pursuing their vocation of pursuing villains. Carter loses his wife to a hit and run driver, Haskins is framed for corruption and Regan’s marriage had gone west even before the first episode of the first series. When cars crash, people don’t just climb out but they bleed; when people are shot, they end up either dead or in a wheelchair. More than gritty, some episodes paint an unremittingly bleak picture of two guys just trying to do their best in the mean streets of an uncaring, violent city; the evocative music in the final titles can easily draw a tear.
Finally, it was pretty well put together. From the opening teaser sequences to the terrible coffee and the scotch in the desk drawer back at the factory all the way through to the final violent confrontation in an abandoned warehouse or the dereliction of some dockland wasteland, it’s well observed and, often, beautifully shot. I don’t think that the adjective cinematographic would be out of places in some instances. And, because it was originally recorded on film, digital re-mastering has meant that all this survives for us to watch forty years on – forty years after my parents used to stop me from watching it as they thought it unsuitable!