The Sweeney: Series Three & Four
(1976 & 78)
by Jef Burnham
Now available on DVD from BFS Entertainment.
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The line between hero and the villain are not always clear in this landmark of British television. The Sweeney marks a departure from the depiction of police as perpetually upstanding defenders of society in favor of a realism that had yet to be seen on British television, when the series premiered in January of 1975. The series revolves around the exploits of two officers in London’s “Flying Squad,” otherwise known as The Sweeney (a title resulting from the Cockney slang equating Flying Squad with Sweeney Todd)— an elite branch of the Metropolitan Police whose task it is to infiltrate London’s criminal element in order to bust them up from within. Detective Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw (Inspector Morse, Chaplin)) and Detective Sargeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman (Minder)) are the officers in question. To operate specifically by-the-book when faced with London’s worst criminal element would more often than not find Regan and Carter toe-up in a landfill. So they do as they adversaries do. They make up their own rules, lying to their superiors when necessary, entering the occasional home without a warrant, and brawling with most every villain that comes their way.
In short, they’re badasses. But more than that, they’re human. Regan and Carter do make mistakes. They occasionally nick the wrong blagger, and other times they nick no one at all. They’ll pick up random birds (sometimes on the job). At times, one can barely distinguish the Squad from the villains they pursue. There’s nothing romantic about what they do. Even still, they are dedicated to their work. Regan is a 24-hour-a-day copper. He’s even lost a wife and a daughter to the force.
These two series, though sequential, represent very different eras of the show’s history. Series Three came right at the peak of The Sweeney’s popularity. Following this series, in 1977, the producers of the show set about making two feature film spin-offs, Sweeney! and Sweeney 2. The series returned to the airwaves in 1978, however, with what is considered by far the weakest series of the run. Thaw and Waterman apparently felt the series was losing steam, and subsequently did not renew their contracts for a fifth series.
But saying Series Four is the weakest series of The Sweeney is like pointing out the weakest painting by Van Gogh. The Sweeney, for all its faults, is still a masterpiece of television. It violent, edgy and real, and set a whole new standard for police dramas. And its influence is still strong today. Take 2006-07’s Life on Mars, for instance, the creation of which was in no small part inspired by the writers’ admiration of The Sweeney.
One of the things I enjoy the most about this series is the crew’s obvious willingness to experiment stylistically throughout. Whether it be the employment of fish eye lenses in a flashback or toying with the musical choices on the soundtrack, these stylistic flairs keep the series exciting. The creators even take risks with the title sequence, altering it for the final series from the iconic blue-tinted stills of the first three series to a prismatically jumbled sequence of Regan and Carter chasing down a random villain. And again in the final series, the creators take turns toward the comedic in Series Four’s opener, “Messenger of the Gods,” and again in episode 11 of the final series in which the featured guest stars are the popular BBC comedy team of Morecambe and Wise. Granted, Series Four is, as previously mentioned, considered the weakest, but it is at the very least interesting to see experimentation in format which would rarely if ever seen on major network television today.
Returning to Morecambe and Wise, another great thing about the series is that, as a highly-respected staple of 1970s British television, there is no shortage of familiar faces. And for many of the most notable guests, their appearances on The Sweeney mark some of their earliest work. Series Three guest stars include John Hurt (Hellboy, Alien), Ray Winstone (The Departed, The Proposition), Simon Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral), and George Cole (Waterman’s Minder co-star), while Series Four features (again) Morecambe and Wise, Stuart Wilson (Hot Fuzz), Richard Griffiths (Pie in the Sky, Withnail and I) and Patrick Malahide (another mainstay of Minder).
The quality of the picture and sound on these discs is exceptional considering the age of the source material, but bear in mind that if you plan on watching these discs on an HD television, the image will look a bit soft. The only special features included on the BFS releases are occasional episode introductions by guest stars.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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