Cue scene – a smoky pub somewhere south of the river. Local characters mingle in the haze of billowing fags, a woman belts out an enthusiastic but tuneless rendition of “My Old Man”, a few join in with the sing-a-long, struggling to beat the noise of the banter, but she’s happy just to be singing. The local sorts are all there, one man’s nose appears to be struggling to make the decision of whether to go east or west, his visage every inch the ex-boxer. His size offset by the comparatively small brandy glass he sips from, titfer perching atop his head, happily smiling at a couple of dollybirds. A man leans over to a group huddled at a table, indicates a lone drinker elsewhere in the establishment and utters the phrase “Sweeney”, and with that his fate was sealed.
Long before The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty was a twinkle in David Simon’s eyes, and before Britain had become over-reliant on the importation of any television shows that weren’t so called “talent” shows or period dramas, there was Regan and The Sweeney (I’m assuming everyone knows the etymology, but for the uninitiated, Sweeney was cockney rhyming slang for Sweeny Todd aka The Flying Squad, a division of the Metropolitan Police). That’s Detective Inspector Regan to you, as played by John Thaw. In a time when British television was getting bogged down, and the channels’ budgets seemed destined for period dramas (well we’ve never really broken that cycle have we?), a new vision of sorts was born. The set-up was easy to sell, a cop show, but this was far from the English sensibilities of Dixon of Dock Green, Regan would hold no prisoners and mark a new watershed in our approach towards the gritty portrayal of the police force and the world they inhabited. Core to this realistic ideal, prevalent in the spin off series The Sweeney, was a production crew aiming for a quick turn around, minimal rehearsals and handheld cameras. It’s odd to think of the amount of cinematography these days that aims for that fly-on-the-wall look of not ironing out rough movement but positively highlighting it. For this crew it was a necessity, but in post-modern film-making it’s now recognised as a key tool to keeping viewers engrossed in what could be almost non-fictional footage. It was a formula that would prove successful, and thanks to it and the colourful characters, Regan would be made into The Sweeney, a pivotal TV series, much loved to this day.
At only eighty minutes long, due to being made for Thames Television’s Armchair Cinema series of one offs, there can be little dallying. The opening shots are chock full of atmosphere, drawing us into the world with minimal dialogue but displaying wonderful brevity whilst not cutting anything necessary. A minor game of cat-and-mouse mirrors the story as a whole, cops catching crooks. The violence is never truly brutal, but there’s still enough for the viewer to understand the stakes that the characters are playing for. The score, as much a part of the film as anything else, kicks in at the most satisfying moments; the slow pan across the Thames, the noise of shipping and industrial work in the background, to reveal a body on the shore, it pauses, twitches and the music jumps into action with perfect synergy. The seventies twangs and drumbeats, though kitsch, just never seem to age when associated with either cop shows or blaxplotiation flicks. You should enjoy them not just in a knowing, self-modern and ironic way, but in a very real sense, they incorporate mood, music and get the heart pumping in anticipation of what’s to come.
The introduction of DI Jack Regan remains not only one of the most satisfying moments of the film, but surely has to rank as one of the best screen entrances of all time. The Sweeney’s cars are converging on their destination, suited men jump over fences, run round the various doorways of some lag’s pad and make their way in, guns at the ready. They burst through the door to find the man they’re after in bed with his partner, he reaches for his gun, Regan smashes his hand using the butt of his own revolver and snarls “Get your trousers on. You’re nicked!” – beat that. His sidekick in affairs, his “oppo” so to speak, is DS Carter, played by Dennis Waterman (and no, he doesn’t sing the theme tune). Long before he got to play the tougher, more streetwise character of Terry in Minder, Waterman was the softer of the screen pairing. His floppy hair hanging over the back of his collar, flapping flares and less than fashion-conscious parka match Carter’s subservient role. Writer Ian Kennedy-Martin drip feeds the back-story of the duo’s relationship through the film at intervals, never dumbing down or handing the info on a plate for the audience from the get-go.
Plot wise, it’s police drama in standard form – Regan and co are on the hunt for some gangsters, one of their own has been bumped off and Regan must get to them before another division muscles in or he is suspended.
As with the previously mentioned seminal cop show The Wire, realism is guaranteed thanks to research of police practices, namely information gathered from coppers themselves. The in-house fighting between divisions, politicisation of the force, inability of senior figures to back their teams, just about all the things real police were complaining about (or notorious for, just note the
CIDchecking out the rear view of the nurse whilst his colleague lies in intensive care fighting for his life) get a mention, even down to the now clichéd theme of a hard working policeman’s hours being diametrically opposed to the ideal of holding a marriage together. But if that all sounds a bit maudlin, it isn’t. It’s not light, but Regan keeps a wry bit of humour in there, if not in the script itself but in the atmosphere. It’s set in a London that for many doesn’t exist anymore, where the majority were poor, cheap street stalls were the norm and there was no such thing as a chain pub. Witness the scene where Jack has to pass on the news of a death to a poor lad’s Gran; the house is a perfect example of the benefits of shooting on location, encompassing the type of details you just don’t get with set dressing, all hanging mirrors, bakelite light switches and a tiled fireplace (it bore a striking resemblance to my own Nana’s house, and I’d wager many more will feel the same). Regan takes a neighbour in with him for support for when he breaks the news, but he can’t face the pleasantries of beating around the bush, he’s barely set foot in the lounge before he drops the bombshells “he’s dead” – no sooner has he vocalised the final consonant then the neighbour blurts out “I’ll put the kettle on”. It’s ridiculous, but oh so true to life, and this empathy for the Londoncharacter shines through in every moment, be it poignant or patter.
Some of the progression feels formulaic, the template of putting the frighteners on cons might be pleasing to watch, but it repeats a few times as Regan and Carter work their way up the criminal food chain, looking for their catch. However the motley array of characters they meet keeps things fresher than it otherwise might have been, the lowly caretaker, the seedy photographer, the jazz singer all help to alleviate the recycling of rattling cages to get the gen on who’s in charge. It’s perhaps one of the few cases where the original vision is bettered by the spin-off, being that The Sweeney managed to distil the elements that made Regan a hit and shift the focus away from the clichéd solo maverick cop and towards an insight into the job and the division. It’s at turns both iconic and a rough diamond, and even if you are averse to the portrayal of a lone gun not backed by his superiors (the final speech by his PR loving Superintendent lays it on a bit heavy), Regan, both man and film, oozes bristling bravado and charisma that is clearly entrenched in authenticity which becomes impossible not to warm to. It’s a snapshot of London, in an era that was akin to the changing of the guards, and of the police and the people who inhabit the city. What other film would give you a cop catching a killer then doing him for an expired tax disc. Ridiculous and stylised for effect? Yes, but I’d wager it was very much true, and that’s what makes it all the more satisfying.