Wednesday, 18 May 2011

"Get yer trousers on!" John Thaw's finest hour


For many, the late, great John Thaw will be fondly remembered for his excellent portrayal of Inspector Morse. For guys like myself who grew up in the 1970s, John Thaw will forever be, Detective, Inspector Jack Regan in the superb Thames Television classic, The Sweeney. John Thaw's excellent portrayal of the hard bitten, heavy drinking, heavy smoking, thuggish copper has never been bettered anywhere on the small screen and Jack Regan arguably remains the greatest small screen copper of all time.

The Sweeney focused 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 1975 and 1978 in the nine - ten pm (2100 - 2200) weekday (usually Monday) slot with repeated showings at the same time until the early 1980's. It starred John Thaw as Detective Inspector Jack Regan, and Dennis Waterman as 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.

Notably this popular TV series aired in a dark period for the real-life Flying Squad. In the late 1970s it was publicly censured for being involved in bribery and police corruption and its close links with the criminal fraternity. Unlike the unwavering high standards seen in the fictionalSweeney, 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 one-offs in 1974. The part of Regan was specifically written for Thaw.

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 48mins 40secs. 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 a million miles away from those of the BBC's cosy world of Dixon of Dock Green, or even from the BBC's slightly more realistic Z-Cars. 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.

Jack Regan

Detective Inspector John "Jack" Regan (John Thaw) is 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. 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.

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.

George Carter

We learn from numerous episodes that Detective Sergeant George Carter (played by Dennis Waterman) 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.

Frank Haskins

Frank Haskins (played by Garfield Morgan), 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.

The filming of each episode normally took ten working days, shooting about five minutes of edited screen time per day. Due to this the number of different filming locations had to be restricted to ten, i.e. one location per day. At the Euston Films production office in Colet Court, there was a standing set of the Flying Squad offices, which provided an alternative option should the weather restrict a day's filming. Two days would normally be spent filming on the set, equalling 10 mins of any episode being set in the offices. Shooting took place through the summer, so exterior night shooting was expensive and was limited to 3 minutes of external night material in any episode.

Each episode had an eight and a half week production schedule: two weeks pre-production (for casting, finding locations etc.), two weeks shooting, four weeks picture editing (the first two weeks of which overlapped with the shoot), two weeks sound editing, and two and a half days dubbing.

Series 1 Episodes

All episodes were broadcast on ITV, Thursdays 9.00pm

  1. Ringer broadcast 02/01/1975
  2. Jackpot broadcast 09/01/1975
  3. Thin Ice broadcast 16/01/1975
  4. Queen's Pawn broadcast 23/01/1975
  5. Jigsaw broadcast 30/01/1975
  6. Night Out broadcast 06/02/1975
  7. The Placer broadcast 13/02/1975
  8. Cover Story broadcast 20/02/1975
  9. Golden Boy broadcast 27/02/1975
  10. Stoppo Driver broadcast 06/03/1975
  11. Big Spender broadcast 13/03/1975
  12. Contact Breaker broadcast 23/03/1975
  13. Abduction broadcast 27/03/1975

All Series 1 episodes were shot in 1974.

Series 2

The episodes "Faces" and "Thou Shalt Not Kill" were among the highlights of the second series. In the former an anarchist group (which appears to be German-based, with echoes of the then contemporary Baader - Meihnof Gang) is staging a number of robberies in order to raise funds for its cause. However, the group has been infiltrated by British intelligence, leading to complicated inter-departmental politics between the police and the security services. "Thou Shalt Not Kill" features a tense hostage situation inside a bank, with Haskins faced with the dilemma of whether to risk the hostages' lives by shooting the criminals.

Other highlights included a pair of tongue-in-cheek episodes, "Golden Fleece" and "Trojan Bus", featuring two cocky but likeable Australian villains, played by British actors Patrick Mower and George Layton; and the episode "Hit And Run", in which Carter's wife Alison is murdered.


Series 2 Episodes

All episodes were broadcast on ITV, Mondays 9.00pm

  1. Chalk And Cheese broadcast 01/09/1975
  2. Faces broadcast 08/09/1975
  3. Supersnout broadcast 15/09/1975
  4. Big Brother broadcast 22/09/1975
  5. Hit And Run broadcast 29/09/1975
  6. Trap broadcast 06/10/1975
  7. Golden Fleece broadcast 13/10/1975
  8. Poppy broadcast 20/10/1975
  9. Stay Lucky Eh? broadcast 27/10/1975
  10. Trojan Bus broadcast 03/11/1975
  11. I Want The Man broadcast 10/11/1975
  12. Country Boy broadcast 17/11/1975
  13. Thou Shalt Not Kill broadcast 24/11/1975

All Series 2 episodes were shot in 1975.

Series 3

The episode "Taste Of Fear" introduced violent psychopathic criminal Tim Cook (George Sweeney), an army deserter whose experiences in Northern Ireland had left him embittered. Cook also appeared in the later episode "On The Run".

Other episodes explored different themes: "Tomorrow Man" focussed on the clash between traditional policing methods and newer more technological ways of solving crime, methods which, in the real world, have made crimes such as those depicted in The Sweeney - of villains in stocking masks carrying out wages snatches - seem anachronistic. "Bad Apple" dealt with Police corruption, and here Regan, despite being seen to bend the rules in other episodes in order to achieve convictions (i.e. for legitimate motives), will not bend them for his own profit, and is shown to hold the deepest contempt for the corrupt officers.

Series 3 Episodes

All episodes were broadcast on ITV, Mondays 9.00pm

  1. Selected Target broadcast 06/09/1976
  2. In From The Cold broadcast 13/09/1976
  3. Visiting Fireman broadcast 20/09/1976
  4. Tomorrow Man broadcast 27/09/1976
  5. Taste Of Fear broadcast 04/10/1976
  6. Bad Apple broadcast 11/10/1976
  7. May broadcast 25/10/1976
  8. Sweet Smell Of Succession broadcast 08/10/1976
  9. Down To You Brother broadcast 22/11/1976
  10. Payoff broadcast 29/11/1976
  11. Loving Arms broadcast 06/12/1976
  12. Lady Luck broadcast 13/12/1976
  13. On The Run broadcast 20/12/1976

The following episodes were shot in 1975: Tomorrow Man, Visiting Fireman, Taste Of Fear, Sweet Smell Of Succession, Loving Arms and Lady Luck. The following episodes were shot in 1976: Selected Target, In From The Cold, Taste Of Fear, Bad Apple, May, Down To You Brother, Payoff and On The Run.

Series 4

There was a two-year gap between the third and fourth series while the team made two feature films (Sweeney! and Sweeney 2) to cash-in on the show's popularity with audiences.

For the fourth series the title sequence was changed, and a number of other changes were also made, with Haskins absent from a number of episodes. The final series has been criticised as the weakest. This falling off in quality led John Thaw and Dennis Waterman to the realisation that the show was in danger of running out of steam, and to take the decision to end it while it was still at the peak of its popularity.

The opening episode of the series, "Messenger of the Gods", divides fans, with some seeing it as tongue in cheek and the show was beginning to run out of steam.

Other notable episodes include "Nightmare", which features a slightly experimental dream sequence as part of the plot. This is also the episode with the highest body count, and features another then-contemporary plot of two ex- IRA men committing a major crime in order to buy their way back into the organisation. "Bait" featured a performance by George Sewell, who had starred in The Sweeney's Euston Films forerunner series, Special Branch, as well as in the film Get Carter, which was a major influence on The Sweeney, and whose main character, Jack Carter, may have been the inspiration for the names of the two main Sweeney characters.

"Hearts And Minds", the last episode to be filmed, featured the popular comedians Morecambe and Wise, and was a quid pro quo for the appearance of Waterman and Thaw in a sketch in the 1976 Morecambe and Wise Christmas show on the BBC.

The final broadcast episode "Jack or Knave" (aired in late-December 1978) saw a slightly ambiguous ending, with the main character, Jack Regan, temporarily locked up after being implicated in a corruption scandal, of which he is finally exonerated. He then announces that he's had it with the Squad, and the series ends with him resigning in disgust.

The final scene left open the possibility of a further series in 1979, if the two stars could be talked into making it, but this was not to be. Both of them felt the high standards of the show could not be maintained over a fifth series.


Series 4 Episodes

All episodes were broadcast on ITV, Thursdays 9.00pm

  1. Messenger Of The Gods broadcast 07/09/1978
  2. Hard Men broadcast 14/09/1978
  3. Drag Act broadcast 21/09/1978
  4. Trust Red broadcast 28/09/1978
  5. Nightmare broadcast 05/10/1978
  6. Money, Money, Money broadcast 12/10/1978
  7. Bait broadcast 19/10/1978
  8. The Bigger They Are broadcast 26/10/1978
  9. Feet Of Clay broadcast 02/11/1978
  10. One Of Your Own broadcast 09/11/1978
  11. Hearts And Minds broadcast 23/11/1978
  12. Latin Lady broadcast 30/11/1978
  13. Victims broadcast 14/12/1978
  14. Jack Or Knave broadcast 28/12/1978

The following episodes were shot in 1977: Messenger Of The Gods, Drag Act, Trust Red, Money Money Money, Feet Of Clay, One Of Your Own and Jack Or Knave. The following episodes were shot in 1978: Hard Men, Nightmare, Bait, The Bigger They Are, Hearts and Minds, Latin Lady and Victims.

Like many successful British TV series of the time, such as Porridge and Rising Damp, cinema versions of The Sweeney were made, featuring the same actors and characters. The two films were far more raw than the TV series, featuring levels of violence, sex and nudity that would not have been possible on television at the time.

In Sweeney! (1977), Regan and Carter get involved in a plot based on the Profumo Affair. British actor Barry Foster guest-stars as an Americanised, and more deadly, version of Stephen Ward. The film appears to be set in the then near-future, indicated by the line "He made the same speech in 1978", The film was mostly made in 1976, also noticed on the wall in the scene where the OPEC delegates meet, is a chart which says 1979, which would back this up.

Beyond Therapy

Sweeney 2 in my opinion was far superior both in content and quality than the first Sweeney movie. Sweeney 2 was a truer depiction of the TV series and it seemed to go back to its original roots of blaggings and beatings.

Jack Regan & George Carter eventually find themselves going to the island of Malta in order to track down a group of particularly violent armed robbers who have been committing bank and payroll robberies all over London and kill anybody that gets in their way, even members of their own gang, Jack & George were assigned the case by their recently convicted Chief Inspector as his last order, as he is about to be charged with corruption.

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