Friday, 1 July 2011

There's something about THE SWEENEY

Who's watching Between the Lines right now?  No one, that's who.  Seem to recall it got talked about quite a bit at the time.  Tuned in a couple of times: depressing crud, if you ask me.

Dennis Waterman as Carter /John Thaw as Regan, most likely about to give someone a well deserved kicking in the brilliant The Sweeney
On the other hand, there's The Sweeney.  35 years old and I counted eleven showings on ITV4 this week, with a peak viewership of about 250,000.  But even if it wasn't actually on, I just know people would still be watching.

Created by Ian Kennedy-Martin, this story of a jaded Flying Squad DI trying to keep the streets of London safe from the villains he hates so much is Euston's one true claim to television immortality: the cop show par excellence; the greatest screen depiction of Britain in the 1970s; the ultimate vehicle for at least one of TV's greatest ever stars.

But why is it so good?  The obvious first - plots that haven't dated.  Nothing formulaic here, producer Ted Childs eschewed the predictable.  There are shows around now that have more forseeable plot developments - step forward Scott & Bailey, fun though it may be.

Thaw and Waterman as...themselves I reckon
Witty, clever scripts by the likes of Troy Kennedy-Martin, Trevor Preston, Ranald Graham, Roger Marshall, etc. and brilliant characterisation by John Thaw and Dennis Waterman.  Thaw is fantastic as Regan.  In his hands the show can be taken as a comedy and perhaps that's the best way to view such a hard-hitting crime series.  It might be far too unpalatable otherwise; it shares this quality with the later Cracker.  Dark stuff at the best of times but, at least when Jimmy McGovern was writing, searingly funny which made all the difference.

People are still watching it, I notice.

The Sweeney was expertly produced too.  Having cut their teeth on 26 episodes of the not much-loved Special Branch, the Euston Films crews were firing on all cylinders, with fine directors of the calibre of Tom Clegg, Douglas Camfield, David Wickes and Terry Green blazing a trail.  Film expert, the late Leslie Halliwell, describes the series in his much-maligned but seminal 1980s 'Television Companion' as "a thoroughly professional job" which is spot on.

But all this doesn't explain why the show still packs such a punch now.

Well, as alluded to earlier it captures a decade perhaps better than anything else I've seen.  Here is where Euston's "mission statement" comes into its own, for here we have the 1970s laid bare.  Seen through a fictitious filter certainly, but the edges are 100% real and that can't help but seep through.  It's a historical document.

Then there's the fact of its almost perfect placing in social history - addressing the question of authority with real rigour and cynicism, sweeping away the establishment likes of Dixon of Dock Green - and being allowed to do so before political correctness took hold.  This in turn produced much more measured fare like Juliet Bravo and The Chinese Detective, both also created by Ian Kennedy Martin interestingly.

The Sweeney is a product of tension too, destined for greatness but relatively short-lived as a result (the pilot, all 53 episodes and two feature films were produced between March 1974 and May 1978).  By this I mean, a coterie of largely left-leaning writers, directors and actors coming together to create a right-wing hero - understandably beloved of a public more inclined towards the latter, but eventually cast aside in vague embarrassment by the liberal creators nonetheless.  John Thaw did subsequently state that he could never play a character like Regan again.

No matter, we got it for long enough.

Of course, we want it back.  And got it too, in the shape of era-shifting police series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, both featuring the Regan-like DCI Gene Hunt played by Philip Glenister, the deliberately un-PC 70s/80s detective whose extremes were on this occasion necessarily tempered by his modern day partners Sam Tyler and Alex Drake, respectively.  The show was massive and Hunt has become an iconic character on a par with Regan.

Philip Glenister as DCI Gene Hunt in Ashes to Ashes
And we might be getting it again, in the form of a Nick Love-directed feature film, to begin shooting in October 2011 and starring Ray Winstone as Regan and Ben Drew a.k.a. rapper Plan B as Carter.  All I know for sure is, it's not set in the 1970s.

Ray Winstone as Regan/Ben Drew as Carter in The Sweeney (2012, dir. Nick Love).  Flash monkeys!
I wish them well, but however it turns out, we'll always have the original.  It ain't going nowhere.


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