When I was very young, there were certain television programmes which retained a mystique, usually because I was never, or rarely, permitted to watch such programmes by my parents! One of these shows was The Sweeney, the highly influential and acclaimed Seventies crime-drama series.
As I grew older, I was led to understood that The Sweeney had been "ground-breaking" and "gritty", but I had been unable to judge this for myself. When the series was first broadcast, a combination of factors meant that I was not able to view the show. The timeslot when it was shown, parental concern over violent content, and our family's mild anti-ITV snobbery were foremost. Whenever any discussion turned to the show, I felt somehow left out.
It was not until the recent past that I was able to watch The Sweeney in any concerted form. It was a revelation to me, although from a 21st century perspective it doesn't seem as innovative or as edgy as it must have done circa 1975/76. And of course some of the attitudes exhibited would not meet the approval of a modern audience.
The series gives a very authentic and honest portrayal of the Seventies in London, and by extension of Britain as a whole during that period of time. An atmosphere of decay and gloom, maybe, but also a sense of community and certainty before technological and socio-economic developments began to change things irrevocably.
The Sweeney follows the adventures of a group of detectives in the Metropolitan Police's Flying Squad. The three main characters are Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw), Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) and their boss, Frank Haskins (Garfield Morgan).
Regan is an intriguing and ambiguous character, superbly played by John Thaw. A proponent of unorthodox methods, he seems old-school, but in some ways he might be said to be ahead of his time. He is regularly at odds with his superiors, and even with his subordinates. The writing and the acting combine to make the concept and realisation of Regan very believable and credible, not just as some caricature. A man of contradictions, he appears cynical and jaded, but at the same time seems wholly committed to, and immersed in, his job.
Another key, in my eyes, to the success and appeal of The Sweeney is that it does not over-emphasize or excessively utilize some of the "recurring" themes. For example, Regan and his team are not uniformly at loggerheads with The Powers That Be. Sometimes they find common cause. This measured approach adds authenticity, and prevents the series from becoming stale and predictable.
Dennis Waterman has perhaps not been accorded enough praise or credit for his performance as George Carter. I have always found Waterman likeable in whatever role he happens to be playing, and this series finds him in great, assured form.
The character of Carter perhaps represents the police in a state of flux, incorporating clear elements of the "old school", but also receptive to, and embracing, new methods and tools. Carter often questions Regan's excesses and his outlandish schemes, but is sometimes placated by his "guv'nor"'s self-confidence, his persuasive manner and his track record.
The episode "Hit And Run", in which Carter's wife is killed, provides a fine showcase for Waterman's talents, going way beyond the bravado and machismo for which The Sweeney is, rightly or wrongly, renowned.
It is tempting to see parallels between Jack Regan and Inspector Morse, another detective famously portrayed by John Thaw. An older, cynical, grumpy character, with a penchant for the unorthodox, partnered with a younger, ambitious, more "domesticated" sergeant.
The plaudits extended to The Sweeney are well deserved, but this is not to say that every episode is brilliant. Like other similar television series, it suffered from a lack of continuity and consistency, partly because different episodes had different writers and directors. The ambience and tenor of each story could vary greatly from the next one, with difficulties in maintaining "back story". Some episodes bordered on comedy - "Thin Ice", "Golden Fleece" and "Messenger Of The Gods" spring to mind. Light relief is all well and good, but not to detract from the mood which is essential to the show.
Few punches were pulled in the depiction of an escalation in the ruthlessness and violence displayed by criminals. I can see how this would have been shocking for the people in the Seventies, raised as they were on a diet of shows featuring gentlemanly, even chivalrous villains, and correspondingly placid and reticent cops. Episodes such as "Taste Of Fear" and " Bait" have the capacity to unsettle and disturb, even after all these years. The rawness set new standards.
The impression emerged that the intricacies of detective work and police procedure had been thoroughly researched, and some things are left unexplained, leaving the viewers to work a few things out for themselves. One eventually gets used to the jargon and slang!
A few episodes did over-reach themselves, and look rather silly today. One example is "Tomorrow Man", in which John Hurt plays a computer whizz-kid. The word is that Thaw and Waterman grew finally to consider that The Sweeney had run its course. Within the remit of the squad, it was inevitable that genuinely fresh ideas for storylines would dry up eventually. That said, I don't feel that the show went particularly stale or moribund. It ended on a suitably bitter and abrasive note in "Jack or Knave", with Regan feeling highly aggrieved after being investigated for alleged corruption.
Watching The Sweeney is still a rewarding and satisfying experience, sometimes thought-provoking. Dated in some respects, yes, but still quality television.