Wednesday, 12 September 2012

"You're Nicked!" The Sweeney... Its influence and the story of its longevity...

With the release of new The Sweeney movie in cinemas, now seems like a good time to look back at this ground-breaking series as before this, the police on television seemed from another universe let alone another age. The 1950's and 60's had brought Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars to the screen and influential in bringing Z Cars to fruition was Troy Kennedy Martin, but at this time his brother Ian was working for ABC Television on the military police drama Redcap starring John Thaw as Sergeant John Mann in one of his first ever television roles.

By the end of the sixties had seen a move to a more modern fresher style of police show with LWT's New Scotland Yard being a case in point, it ramped up the action by making the series tough and grittier then any before it with Dennis Waterman later to play George Carter in The Sweeney appearing in the earlier series. Though it influence could be felt, allowing shows to push boundaries and show crime as it is and was, tough and sometimes more violent. Where as people had expected entertainment from LWT, this was a departure from it. 

But The Sweeney doesn't also have police shows from this side of the Atlantic to be thankful for, since the mid to late 60's show like Ironside, Cannon, Hawaii Five-O and The Streets of San Francisco were all being broadcast on a regular basis by the BBC and ITV. Their look was totally different to the grey Britain which was being shown on the news at that time, the key difference was their filming style which made them into mini-movies each and every week. Though much of the attitude could drawn from Hollywood, during the the early 70's both Dirty Harry and The French Connection had taken the police to a new level, men taking risks to get results even with physical contact. The world away from Dixon's cuff around the earhole it seemed, but realism is what audiences wanted, almost the anti-hero getting results at any costs. For British audience this had been displayed in 1971's Get Carter, although dealing with the underworld of criminality, this showed audiences what was going on now, even under their feet. 

By 1973, there was a seed of an idea and Ian Kennedy Martin wrote a one off drama for the Armchair Cinema strand to be broadcast in 1974 called 'Regan' focussing on Detective Inspector Jack Regan, an officer originally from Manchester who had joined the Met Police several years before joining the Flying Squad. His solving of a case of a policeman killed by a gang of criminals takes up the original drama with Regan using his tough approach to get the results both for himself and also for the family of the dead officer. 

Though from this the seed of an idea took place for Regan to enter into the schedules, the development from one off drama to first series was not to be a smooth one. Ian Kennedy Martin who had wrote 'Regan' wanted the series to be a lot more studio based with more dialogue and less action sequences as was seen in such shows as Van Der Valk at that time. But Ted Childs the producer thought in the opposite way, that having a lot more filmed sequences would give a more gritty edge and the public's appetite for more action would count for something. This was Yang to Van der Valk's slower Ying, allowing The Sweeney to be fast paced and to be more matched to what the real Flying Squad were dealing with on a daily basis. The writers also used the real life experiences of the Flying Squad and used it in the series as well the criminal underground themselves, with each side becoming unofficial advisers of the series. Allowing procedure to be followed in the right way, similar cases to be used in episodes plus also their homes lives to be put onto the screen. Thus it becoming like a confessional for the officers, with the criminals they could secretly advice about how they would go about entering a place or what car they would use a getaway vehicle and their own attitude to a job as well.

When the first series was broadcast between January and March 1975, the promotional episode shown to the the press was "Thin Ice", this was a lightweight episode and more humorous then subsequent episode during the run itself. Though much of the first series deals with the relationship between Regan, Carter and their superior officer Frank Haskins. The tension shows as Haskins thinks it would be better if Carter was split away from Regan because of his potential to rise up the Met Force. Haskins own relationship with Regan is a frosty one with him wanting Regan to use conventional methods of policing to get results, but over time Haskins get used to these methods and admits they get results no matter how unorthodox they appear to be. 

By the second series, with Carter's wife Alison being murdered in the episode "Hit and Run" his character changes as he becomes more and more like his boss, by wanting to get results by any means how. Though during the second series, the episode "Faces" with an anarchist group undertaking robberies, is very similar to the German anarchists 'The Baader-Meinhof Gang' who had been doing similar things in Germany at that time. It shows The Sweeney took from the news the contemporary issues of the day and used them for their own effect and storylines. But also Patrick Mower and George Layton turned peformances as two cocky, Australian rogues in the episodes "Golden Fleece" and "Trojan Bus" as well. The latter coming about because the characters becoming so popular with the viewers, they were written another episode during that series let them appear again.

Each of the episodes took about eight weeks to film, with two weeks for location scouting and casting, two weeks shooting the episode, four weeks editing with the first two overlapping the shoot itself, two weeks sound editing and two and half days redubbing audio. Over ten working days itself, per day about five minutes of edited screen time would be shot with ten locations being used per episode and one a day being used. Two days would spent on shoot ten minutes of edited screen time on the office set at Euston Films headquarters at Collet Court, Hammersmith. Usually areas around Fulham, Notting Hill, Earl's Court plus Kensington and Chelsea would be used the most to film outdoor scenes. But from Wexham in Buckinghamshire, Twickenham and Wokingham, The Sweeney went all over London and the South East for locations during its run.

By 1976 the show was a constant rating winner and the show looking for new and different types of crimes to feature in episodes such as "Taste of Fear" taking a psychopathic criminal and using his experiences to turn to crime, plus "Tomorrow Man" featuring the clash of more modern technological ways of solving crime up against Regan's more traditional approach to come under scrutiny. Plus it was attracting some best acting talent that Britain had to offer, with performances from John Hurt, Hywell Bennett, Warren Clarke, Diana Dors, Maureen Lipman and even Janet Ellis with her modesty covered by only a German paratroopers helmet. It was an outlet for these talents to star alongside John Thaw and Dennis Waterman, making each episode special for their appearances. Though with the show's popularity came criticisms that it was too violent from the likes of Mary Whitehouse and that it was promoting violence and the criminal element to superstar status. For all this the show continued strongly and came into the final third of its life.

In 1977, a feature length Sweeney movie released to capitalise on the successes of the programme. In a reworked plot of the Profumo affair, fellow Euston Films actor Barry Foster more famous for playing Van der Valk took on the role of a con artist along the same lines as Stephen Ward who role in the real life affair forced John Profumo to resign. But for this John Thaw won the Best Actor award at the London Film Awards of that year, plus the movie itself though was scene as moderate success compared to the television series. But it lead to a sequel a year later where Regan and Carter go to Malta to investigate a criminal gang who were based there who came back to the UK to rob banks all over London to fun their luxurious lifestyles. Again this movie was seen with mild success, lead to attention to be switched to the television programme for the fourth and final series.

Around 1978 when the show came back for a fourth series, it was felt by the stars and the audience although it was still bringing in huge audience figures with even one repeat getting over 18.3 million people watching though it may have been helped by a one day strike at the BBC on the day it was broadcast. With the episode "Messenger of the Gods" being seen by fans of the show as being tongue-in-cheek, a parody of its self. It seemed like the right time to bow out after nearly five years on the air, with John Thaw taking the decision to leave first. Thoughts were given to if the show could continue with Dennis Waterman as the lead and a new actor as his sidekick, thus giving Carter a promotion. But Waterman thought without there was no Sweeney and took the same decision to leave the programme, with both its principal actors gone, it soon became apparent without them both that The Sweeney couldn't continue. So on the 28th of December 1978, the last ever episode was broadcast, called "Jack or Knave?" where Regan is arrested over allegations of corruption within the squad, seemingly his behaviour in getting the right results coming home to roost. However Regan is exonerated over these charges, but going through this he finds that he's had it with the squad and eventually resigns in disgust, thus ending the series. Leaving the viewer to wonder what will happen to Regan now.

Though during the final series, one of the memorable episodes involved two of light entertainment's biggest stars, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Now Thaw and Waterman had appeared on their Christmas show on the BBC in 1976, so when Morecambe and Wise had signed for Thames in 1977 following the filming of their Christmas show of that year. They were invited to guest star in The Sweeney, not as a cameo but as a major part of the episode "Hearts and Mind", this would be last ever episode filmed but broadcast in November 1978. Their appearance during the episode makes for a strange atmosphere, with the usual style of the programme taking on a lighter edge to balance the episode, culminating in the final chase sequence where Morecambe and Wise are chased by the villains leading to Eric chucking boxes of frozen fish off the back of a truck to try and slow them down. This could be said that it was the swan song for the series by having two such big stars appearing and finally The Sweeney had been excepted into nation's conscientiousness.

The influence of The Sweeney has been such that other shows have taken their influence from it such as Life on Mars, with Gene Hunt seemingly trying to live The Sweeney lifestyle and approaching his police work much like George Regan, although the action takes place in 1973, the creator Tony Jordan has regularly said that The Sweeney was a massive influence on the writing of the show and also the look as well. But 1977, the BBC launched a rival called Target. Starring Patrick Mower, who had appeared in previously in The Sweeney played Detective Superintendent Steve Hackett, like The Sweeney the show relied on action, though it was said at the time that Target didn't have as much humour and lot more violence, but by the second series this was toned down. Where as the action in Target took place in Southampton compared to The Sweeney, it gave it a different angle. Though Target only lasted two series, it proved that other broadcasters wanted to make their own versions to try and knock The Sweeney off its pedistool. 

Repeats of the show on many channels, has kept the legacy alive. Allowing new fans to see why the programme was so popular, plus with DVD and Blu-Ray, the release of new remastered versions brings to the screen an age of television which has been kept for the ages. Thanks to Network DVD, this is now possible with their release on DVD and Blu-Ray of the remastered version of Series 1. Bringing a crispness in quality adds to the programme's depth itself, making the action clearer and the sound sounding better then ever before. But 2012 has also brought The Sweeney to the big screen as well, starring Ray Winstone and Plan B (Ben Drew) as Regan and Carter, transports the action to modern day London, a London seemingly with the same problems of the 1970's. The film takes the same style of the original show itself and not like other television shows which have been adapted for the big screen, takes the show and makes it feel new and fresh. By relying on modern techniques, adds to the film's quality. With the action being bigger for the cinema screen, the film's director took the lead from Top Gear for the film's major car chase sequence by getting the same crew who film the programme to film the sequence with Jeremy Clarkson advising on how the sequence could be done with the British Rally Champion Mark Higgins taking part in the action doubling for Ray Winstone behind the wheel of a Ford Focus and the villians driving a Jaguar FJS, much in keeping with the original programme with Regan and Carter chasing a Jaguar driven by the villains. 

The love for The Sweeney by the film's director Nick Love, who had previously filmed The Football Factory, Outlaw and also The Firm is evidence throughout the film. By taking the original characters created by Ian Kennedy Martin, he shows his appreciation for the TV programme and as such The Sweeney, up against a world of American action movies, that it can hold its own very well.

Even after nearly thirty-five years after the television programme, The Sweeney shows that no matter the time and place, it nicks the attention much like Regan would collar a villain...

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