Remembering The Sweeney

Dateline: July 14, 1999

When it comes to police dramas, they definitely don't make them like they used to. The epitome of the 1970s hard-boiled cop shows was ITV's The Sweeney, about the "Flying Squad" of unorthodox detectives in London's Metropolitan Police department. Starring the very young (and hairy) John Thaw (the future Inspector Morse) as Regan, and Dennis Waterman as his partner, Carter, they cracked heads and beat up criminals for 4 years; 52 episodes, and two feature films.

Viewed with 1990s PC sensibilities, the methods employed by the cops resembles more a police state than modern Britain, but along with Starsky and Hutch and The Professionals, this style of drama was very much in vogue at the time. Violent crime was on the rise and audiences wanted to see a police force that could meet the threat head on. Rights were violated, suspects were roughed up before being taken in, doors kicked in, and fists flew (being England however, gunplay wasn't an ordinary feature of the series).

Even if it weren't for the hairstyles (dig those sideburns on Thaw!) or fashions, you only need to watch a few minutes of The Sweeney to know you are witnessing vintage 1970s British TV. It was shot in a hand-held camera style and edited with quick, punchy shots, often employing fast power-zoom angles (nobody ever just drives up or leave by a car - the shot either has to begin or end with an extreme close-up of the vehicle filling the entire frame). Filmed right on the streets of London, with plenty of graphic violence, the series nearly defines the expression "gritty drama."

"Grim" might be another word, for each episode had a bittersweet ending, with perhaps one villain caught, but justice rarely served for everyone, and plenty of loose ends as the credits rolled. And you could count on the heroes getting a pretty good thrashing in most episodes, though they gave as good as got in fights.

The series itself has become part of the fabric of pop culture in Britain. The Comic Strip people took direct aim in their 1993 parody, "Detectives On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown," with Jim Broadbent running around the docklands screaming, "Guv! Guv! Guv!" all the time. And Harry Hill weekly pays homage to The Sweeney by using its theme tune to introduce one of his guests.

Sweeney Websites:
The Official Sweeney Website. Everything you want to know about the series with tons of media.
Unofficial Flying Squad Headquarters. Fan site dedicated to the series.
J.D. Hunter's Sweeney Site. Background to the series, with video and episode guides.

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