How Dennis Waterman and John Thaw’s The Sweeney gave bad coppers a good name

·9-min read
Dennis Waterman and John Thaw in The Sweeney - Rex
Dennis Waterman and John Thaw in The Sweeney - Rex

“We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner.” That line – spoken by John Thaw in the first episode of The Sweeney – sums up the mood of ground-breaking cop show: disgruntled, permanently hungover, knowingly sharp-witted, and always ready to give some toerag a good old-fashioned shoeing.

The Sweeney, which ran from 1975 to 1978, starred Thaw as Jack Regan, a no-nonsense detective inspector from the Flying Squad (nicknamed the Sweeney after the Cockney rhyming slang – Flying Squad-Sweeney Todd). Regan’s affable, jack-the-lad partner, Detective Sergeant George Carter, was played by Dennis Waterman, who has died at 74.

Racing around London in a Ford Consul, Regan and Carter portrayed a different kind of TV policing – all raw language, hard-edged punch-ups, and morally dubious methods. Even the theme tune is thumpingly macho – it could gear you up to nick a few bad slags and drop them down the stairs, guv.

“We got a lot of flak from the police when it first started,” said Dennis Waterman, speaking in the 2012 documentary, Unforgettable. Though Waterman stressed that police flak came “from the top blokes, not from the boys on the street – they loved it from day one.”

Long before The Sweeney, British TV coppers were kindly bobbies on the beat, as seen in the gentle, community-based admin of Dixon of Dock Green, which – by the end of its 21-year run (1955-1976) was laughable. Z-Cars, which began in 1962, was tougher, set in Merseyside and rooted in the glum dramatics of social realism. But it was The Sweeney that kicked the genre’s doors in and threw its weight around. The Sweeney’s coppers weren’t afraid to bend the rules – putting the boots in or framing the odd villain – and, most alarmingly of all, they channeled real-life scandal over Flying Squad corruption.

In 1972, Commander Ken Drury, head of the Flying Squad, was outed in an investigation by the Sunday People, which revealed close ties between Drury and Soho porn king Jimmy Humphreys. Drury had presided over a culture of back-handers, lavish gifts, and getting chummy with the criminal underworld.

“It wasn’t just the pornography bribes, the free holidays, the free meals, and the cufflinks,” says journalist Neil Root, who examined Flying Squad corruption in his book, Crossing the Line of Duty. “It was also the framing of three innocent men for a 1969 murder, known as the Luton post office murder. Drury was deeply involved… These were dirty days, when police were able to beat people up. Nasty stuff.”

The Flying Squad’s remit – violent crime and robbery – had seen them put the Krays behind bars and chase down the men behind the Great Train Robbery. Surveillance, gathering information, and keeping close to snouts and villains were crucial. But some members of the Flying Squad and other squads had gotten too close.

Sir Robert Mark became Commissioner of the Met Police in 1972. He aimed to clean things up and demanded transparency. Fifty officers were prosecuted and 478 took early retirement. Commander Ken Drury was sentenced to eight years (he was convicted in 1977, while The Sweeney was on air).

Dennis Waterman and John Thaw in The Sweeney - Shutterstock
Dennis Waterman and John Thaw in The Sweeney - Shutterstock

But some hard-working detectives were rankled by the bureaucracy and implication of universal corruption. TV writer Ian Kennedy Martin, who had a friend in the Flying Squad, saw it as a good combustible environment in which to set a police series. He recalled going to the pub while researching the idea – “Research involved a lot of drinking with policeman” – and only realised afterwards that while some of the drinkers around the table were police officers, the others were well-known villains. “And you couldn’t tell the difference,” he said.

Kennedy Martin created the character of Jack Regan – part Get Carter, part Dirty Harry – specifically for his pal John Thaw. Produced by Euston Films, The Sweeney began as a pilot film called Regan, which was then spun into a full series. The production company was so confident with the concept that The Sweeney was put into production before Regan had even aired. Kennedy Martin, however, departed after a falling out with producer Ted Childs.

Following the example of ITV's Special Branch – also produced by Euston – The Sweeney was shot on 16mm around London, based largely in Hammersmith. Watched now, it’s washed out and dour. But The Sweeney has grit.

The action and car chases were put together by stunt arranger Peter Brayham, who drew from real-life experiences of rubbing shoulders with underworld characters. “I always wanted to show what would really happen,” Brayham told Infinity magazine about the action. “You kick a guy in the b––––––s, pull his jacket over his head and give him another kicking so he can’t see what’s coming.”

John Thaw and Dennis Waterman with Ernie Wise and Eric Morecambe, in 1978 - PA
John Thaw and Dennis Waterman with Ernie Wise and Eric Morecambe, in 1978 - PA

With its troupe of booze-soaked, nicotine-stained coppers, The Sweeney is like an examination of hard nosed but surprisingly introspective machismo.

The first episode, which aired on January 2, 1975, begins with Jack Regan at his latest dolly bird’s house, looking for his keys and wearing a ladies’ dressing gown. Twenty minutes later, he’s roughing up some low-level trouble maker while Dennis Waterman’s Carter stands beside threatening to fit him up with counterfeit fiver.

The role of Carter was Waterman’s forte – both likeable joker and knuckle-cracking hard-nut. Regan, meanwhile, is tough but stands by his principles. He’s a good copper beneath all the aggro. “He’s a rough diamond,” says Neil Root. “He’ll cut some corners but not others. He’s got limits.” Indeed, Regan will happily lamp a suspect (“Nice one, guv’nor,” says Carter after Regan wallops one unlucky blagger) or fit up a villain, but won’t take a bribe. He asserts his alpha status by barking imitable one-liners: “Get your trousers on, you’re nicked!” or “You are in the manure, right up to your pink little ears!”

“I love the TV series,” says Root. “It informed me about the Flying Squad as a boy. My parents used to watch it. But when I was researching my book, I realised the nobility portrayed by Regan and Carter wasn’t the total reality. There were some good people in the squad, I’m sure, but nobody said anything [about corruption]. They all kept quiet. It was a brotherhood and nobody rocked the boat.”

Inspired by the friction between old school, get-the-job-done policing and middle-management bureaucracy, one of The Sweeney’s key battles is between Regan and his by-the-book boss, DCI Haskins, played by Garfield Morgan. The Sweeney is a class struggle: streetwise, working-class coppers vs. middle class superiors.

“Try and protect the public and all they do is call you ‘fascist’,” Regan says in one episode. “You nail a villain and some ponced up, pinstriped Hampstead barrister screws it up like an old fag packet on a point of procedure and then pops off for a game of squash and a glass of Madeira. He’s taking home 30 grand a year, and we can just about afford 10 days in Eastbourne and a second-hand car. No, it’s all bloody wrong, my son.”

It’s not only the coppers who are morally complex. In the second episode, Regan and Carter are charged with tracking down £30,000 from a botched robbery. After detaining their key suspect – beating him, and keeping him awake for 36 hours – it’s revealed that the hardened criminal needs the money to pay for a life-saving operation for his daughter. The Sweeney ventured into dark territory: in one episode, Regan’s daughter is kidnapped; elsewhere, Carter’s wife is murdered. The Sweeney are lads, but their personal lives are always overrun, wrecked even, by the demands of the job.

Dennis Waterman in 1970 - Redferns
Dennis Waterman in 1970 - Redferns

The Sweeney was an immediate hit (as proven by the number of guest stars, including Morecambe and Wise) and by the fourth series, it averaged 15 million viewers. There were also two spin-off films, released in 1977 and 1978.

The show was a hit within the police, too. Former DCI Barry Phillips, speaking on the Unforgettable documentary, described how he first saw The Sweeney while doing his basic training. “It was required viewing really,” Phillips said. “It showed the humour, the working conditions. I know a number of colleagues that I’ve worked with over the years who will say that it’s the reason they joined the police service.”

“That wouldn’t surprise me,” says Root. “Some of them were really like that – they really talked like that… In my opinion the TV show did a great PR job for the Flying Squad. I think it really revamped its image. The image of the Flying Squad had gone through the dirt in the media. The TV series brought it back to the Fifties thing of the fast cars and these brave guys fighting crime. Some of the officers were brave – I wouldn’t want to chase these guys with shotguns! – but they had to acknowledge that some of it was dark and corrupt as well.”

Barry Phillips' fellow officers weren't the only ones enamored by The Sweeney. When the show's signature Ford Consul was replaced by a Granada (after Ford phased out the Consul and updated the cars that it had loaned to the production) a Kent police officer bought the original car. “He drove it to work every day and got a lot of mickey taking,” said the current owner, being interviewed about the car in 2020.

The Sweeney tossed in its badge after just four years. John Thaw decided to stop before the show ran out of steam. Dennis Waterman agreed. He didn’t contemplate making any more episodes without Thaw.

The Sweeney had been immediately influential. In 1977, the BBC launched Target, a poor Sweeney knock-off that was criticised for violence and lasted just two series. Two decades later, The Fast Show sent up the stereotype created by Jack Regan with tough, compromising cop Inspector Monkfish (“Put your knickers on and go and make me a cup of tea”). Most obviously, Life on Mars revisited the world of The Sweeney, sending a modern-day, politically-correct detective (John Simm) back to the Seventies to butt heads with DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister).

Hunt is an amped-up caricature of Jack Regan, but – also like Regan – a fascinating portrait of outdated masculinity. Even Hunt’s opening line harks back to Regan not having his dinner. “Gene Hunt, your DCI, and it’s 1973. Almost dinnertime, I’m ’aving hoops.”

If Life on Mars made the point that Sweeney-style attitudes were outdated by the mid-2000s, The Sweeney is shockingly, unashamedly un-PC by 2022 standards. Jack Regan would likely have one response: “Shut it!”

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