Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The road to THE SWEENEY

"They had this odd situation where [Special Branch] was number one in the ratings and everybody at Euston [Films] hated it"  Regan and The Sweeney creator Ian Kennedy-Martin, quoted in "Sweeney! The Official Companion" by Robert Fairclough and Mike Kenwood (Reynolds & Hearn Ltd, 2002).

How The Sweeney got commissioned in the first place was thanks to Euston Films' inaugural production not being very highly regarded by its makers - despite audience figures which actually eclipsed those of Regan and Carter, even after they had gone on air.

Derren Nesbitt as Jordan in Special Branch - version 1
Special Branch was a revamp of an existing property, a crime series about the Metropolitan Police department charged with matters of national security.  A VT production from Thames TV which had run for two 13-episode series in 1969-70, it starred Derren Nesbitt as the rather trendy DCI Jordan, with Wensley Pithey and later Fulton Mackay as his superior officer.

Euston wanted a known quantity for their initial production, as Chief Executive Lloyd Shirley explained: "[I]t seemed to us a reasonable bet to take a tape series that had enjoyed decent public acceptance on to film, so at least we would know there was some sort of audience for it" - quoted in "Made for Television: Euston Films Ltd" (BFI Books/Thames Methuen, 1985).

As it happened, there was perhaps less continuity than intended, for negotiations with star Nesbitt apparently broke down over fees and the late George Sewell was cast as the lead in the new series, playing DCI Alan Craven.  Production began on location in September 1972, with the episode "Red Herring" under the aegis of director Mike Vardy - the first ever hour of drama from Euston Films.

But Special Branch was proving problematic from the off - halfway into production on the series of 13, it was felt that the show needed something more and so a co-star was added to the mix, in the form of Patrick Mower as DCI Tom Haggerty - his episodes were interspersed with the first seven when the series was broadcast the following Spring.

Craven and Haggerty - heard of them?  Didn't think so...


Special Branch proved popular with viewers, and a second run of thirteen began production only a few months after the first had been completed.  This time the show gained a new producer, Ted Childs, whose previous experience with Thames and its predecessor ABC had been in documentaries.  He leapt at the chance to produce drama, and his influence over the direction Euston Films took was considerable: "[A]lthough I felt that Special Branch...left something to be desired, I learnt a great deal.  I brought in directors I'd worked with, some with a documentary background, and really what we tried to do was incorporate the 'wobbly-scope' techniques of 16mm documentary film-making into a drama situation" - from 'Made for Television: Euston Films Limited'.

Special Branch & Sweeney producer Ted Childs, pictured in 1978
The second run was just as much of a hit as the first when it was shown from February 1974, but by then Euston and Ted Childs had already moved on to other things.  No one apart from the viewers liked Special Branch - evidently this wasn't so important as it is now! - and Thames were on the lookout for something better.  Enter Ian Kennedy-Martin, younger brother of Troy and himself an acclaimed television screenwriter.

Ian Kennedy-Martin's long friendship with John Thaw began when he worked as story editor on the mid-60s ABC military police show Redcap.  Producer John Bryce - "completely barking mad but an absolute genius" according to Kennedy-Martin - was the very first to cast Thaw as the lead in a television series, and a star was born.

The Avengers and Redcap producer John Bryce in 1963 - without him, John Thaw would likely never have been cast as Jack Regan in The Sweeney

Redcap ran to 26 episodes and Thaw and Kennedy-Martin worked together again in the 6-part Southern Television serial The Capone Investment in 1973.  Shortly after this, the writer had the idea for a police drama as a vehicle for his friend.  Based this time around the Flying Squad, the Met department dealing with armed robberies and the like, the new series would be about an uncorrupted cop whose old school methods are being fazed out.

Creator of Jack Regan and The Sweeney, Ian Kennedy-Martin, in 2005
Kennedy-Martin felt British police series had deteriorated badly since his brother Troy had created Z Cars in 1962, and that Special Branch in particular was "ghastly, middle-class rubbish".  This new series, originally entitled 'McLean' until it turned out the name couldn't be cleared, was an attempt to redress this.

Approaching Lloyd Shirley and Thames story supremo George Markstein of The Prisoner fame, Kennedy-Martin got the go-ahead to develop an introductory episode.  This was assigned a slot on Armchair Cinema, Euston's second ever production, a series of self-contained 90m dramas which could also serve as pilots.

Meanwhile, Ted Childs and a few other Euston staffers, finishing off post production on Special Branch one afternoon in late 1973, decided to take in a matinee.  Their choice of film was one they had all seen before - William Friedkin's The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman in the real life story of abrasive New York cop 'Popeye' Doyle and his obsession with bringing down a narcotics ring.  "We all agreed we ought to be doing something like that" says Childs, quoted in 'Shut It! The Inside Story of The Sweeney' by Pat Gilbert (Aurum Press, 2010).

Given how heavily indebted to The French Connection and its principal character I for one think The Sweeney is, this is a very important point to note.  If also, a little too pat...

Just a few days later Lloyd Shirley gave Childs the "McLean" script to produce, and the rest is history: "I thought, "This will be great! A maverick Scotland Yard detective"" - from 'Shut It! The Inside Story of the Sweeney'.

Veteran television director Douglas Camfield was assigned to Regan, as it was now called, and pre-production began.  At this stage however, the project was in danger of derailing.  Childs and Camfield began to make significant changes to the script, long since signed off by Lloyd Shirley and George Markstein.  Kennedy-Martin was left fuming, and the animosity between he and Childs continues to this day.

Douglas Camfield, every Doctor Who fan's favourite director - assigned to but ultimately sacked from the Regan pilot (however, he did go on to direct six episodes of The Sweeney)
Who was right and who was wrong in the argument between Childs and Kennedy-Martin is open to conjecture.  Here, hedging my bets, I present both sides without comment:

Ted Childs: "Lloyd had a property which Ian Kennedy-Martin had written as a tape show.  I felt very strongly that we ought to pioneer a film technique rather than a tape studio production technique" - 'Made for Television: Euston Films Ltd' 

Ian Kennedy-Martin: "[Ted Childs said] that the row between the two of us was based on, in his words ‘Ian wanted the kind of drama he knew how to do well, with more studio space and longer speeches and lots of playing scenes, and I was all for opening it up and having it all happening on the road…’

It was completely the reverse" - from Ian Kennedy-Martin's website.

The stand-off resulted in Douglas Camfield stepping down from Regan and the original script being largely untouched. Tom Clegg got the job instead, and we can thank him for the casting of Dennis Waterman as they had worked together in a Special Branch a few months earlier.  Clegg went on to direct 13 episodes of the series.

However, having won this particular battle, Ian Kennedy-Martin stepped away from his creation, already tired of his conflict with Ted Childs.  The series was underway and it looked like the same thing was going to happen every time he wrote a script.  Euston backed Childs, no doubt cognizant of his ability to get a show up and running efficiently, and the rest is history as they say.

Kennedy-Martin was happy enough, having retained key rights and set the series up with writers he admired - Trevor Preston and his brother Troy, for instance.

But for an idea of how different things might have been had he carried on, you could do worse than read his three original novels about the character: "Regan" (First Edition Arthur Barker, Feb 1975); "Regan and the Manhattan File" (Arthur Barker, Sept 1975) and "Regan and the Deal of the Century" (Futura, Nov 1976).

TV Times listing accompanying the screening of Armchair Cinema: Regan, 4 June 1974

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