Once upon an innocent age, when there were only three channels and you had to get up and cross the room to change them, police dramas were about 20 years behind the times.
Out on the streets, stocking-masked thugs were blagging banks and doing wages vans with crowbars and sawn-off shotguns. But, in the studio sets where TV coppers were confined, the fictional forces of law and order were still solving (for no villain went unapprehended) crimes of a gentler kind. In Dixon of Dock Green, a stolen bike could keep an entire division occupied for an entire episode. Two stolen bikes constituted a major crime wave. And even in Z Cars and Softly Softly, which supposedly introduced a little northern grit into the oyster of crime shows, the detectives looked, in their trilbies and cardigans, like your dad on a Sunday afternoon. The programmes presented such a sympathetic view of the police they could have been public information films. But then, in 1974, after precisely three minutes of fast-cut action setting the scene, came …
Da da da! Da da da! Da da da da da da da da da!
It was fast, and the cops were often furious. They swore ("Sod it!" was a favourite), drank (anything going, basically), and almost constantly smoked (preferred brand Piccadilly). They played hardball, and cracked heads but didn't always crack the case. It was shot on location in parts of London where no tourist willingly treads. It was gloriously uncouth, and crime shows were never the same again. And that – and more – is why, 38 years on from its first appearance, it has such pull that it has now been remade for the cinema starring Ray Winstone.
You have to be in your mid-forties to have been aware of The Sweeney in its first showings, from 1974-78, and probably nearer to 50 to have been allowed to stay up and watch it. Younger film-goers might therefore be puzzled why The Sweeney has such legendary status. Let us then go back to those oil-shortage, strike-ridden, inflationary days to find out why it had such allure for millions who had never interrupted a blagging, debriefed a snout, or put the squeeze on a villain's wife.
DI Jack Regan: wiry, easily angered, hard-drinking, ferociously smoking, corner-cutting cop. Divorced, with daughter, streetwise witty, and a charmer of women when he wants to be, which is not always. Played by John Thaw, the heart-throb of women who like their men a little lived in. He died in 2002.
DS George Carter: gym-fit young oppo, bright, sometimes worried by Regan's cavalier attitude towards the rules. Drinks and smokes, but not to Regan's excess. Married to a teacher, who is killed off early in the first series to allow George to develop a relationship with Jack, and bed a succession of "birds". Played by Dennis Waterman, one-time child actor (Just William), brother of Peter, a champion professional boxer, now starring in New Tricks.
DCI Frank Haskins: Ulcer-ridden, common-cold-prone, worryguts of a boss to Regan. Constantly agonising over how he will explain Regan's latest capers to "upstairs". Married, with wife whose nervous breakdown is the subject of one episode. Played by Garfield Morgan, one-time trainee dental mechanic who later played a drunk in Z Cars. He died in 2010.
The brains, the Mr Bigs, were dressed as if for the City or the golf club, lived in stockbroker homes and drove purring limos. The young Jack-the-lads were cheeky and flash; the older villains and heavies had rumpled faces and costermonger voices. There was often a bent accountant or solicitor, a skinny little man with a wheedling voice who'd developed a costly gambling or prostitute habit that had to be paid for. Snouts were sad little past-its, risking a maiming in exchange for a fiver here, a tenner there. They met Regan at dog tracks or shabby London parks, and, if they were reluctant to talk, he would threaten to fit them up. The series soon had such cachet that leading actors clamoured to be cast in it. Ones who appeared included John Hurt, Lesley-Anne Down, Simon Callow, Maureen Lipman, Hywel Bennett, George Cole, Diana Dors and Colin Welland.
Much was made of this at the time by clean-up-TV campaigners, who tended to give the impression that those who tuned in did so solely to see 50 minutes of blood and broken teeth. But the characters, humour and tension of the plots were really the pull. The violence was of a particular kind – not sadistic or gruesome (no body parts or fingernails were slowly removed), rather it was a sort of souped-up, more realistic version of the punch-ups in Westerns. In these, the set-tos were demonstrably phoney. The hitter would telegraph his punch so that the hittee had time to leap backwards and lie there, groggily shaking his head and stroking his supposedly stinging jaw. In The Sweeney, punches landed solidly and caused injury. Men who were hit stayed hit, including the heroes sometimes, unlike in Westerns where no star was allowed to sustain anything worse than smudged make-up. And Regan and Carter could play dirty, a swift kick in the goolies ever a useful ploy.
Before The Sweeney there were only robberies. But Jack and George taught us to call them blaggings, and much more besides. A whole argot was born: "Shut it!", "Guv'nor" and "Well out of order". Plus snatches of abrasive dialogue to be repeated in offices and schoolyards everywhere the following morning. Young villain: "Who are you?" Jack: "We're the Sweeney, son, and we haven't had any dinner." Jack (to villain in bed with his bird): "Get yer trousers on, you're nicked!" And Jack again, threatening adulterous villain's wife with spilling the beans to her extremely violent husband due out of prison soon: "You tell us what you know or you get your arms broken when your old man comes out." Villain's wife: "You bastard, Regan."
Countless television series and films have made so much of the main characters' cars that they became almost fetish objects: Starsky and Hutch's Ford Gran Torino, Inspector Morse's Jaguar, The A-Team's van, Knight Rider's Pontiac Trans-Am. But the point about Regan and Carter's squad cars was not that they were Fords (Consuls, initially, and then a Granada), but the way they were driven, tear-arsing round south and west London, where the shows were largely filmed. Here were police cars which, without lights and sirens, would round suburban corners on two wheels, mount pavements and screech to a halt to block off the blaggers' getaway vehicle. And they had the structural strength to withstand having their doors flung before coming to a stop, disgorging Jack and George in full cry. Those of us who tried this in real life found that not all Fords have this quality.
Kipper ties, wide lapels and suede shoes. These, at first glance, were the dress code for The Sweeney. But it wasn't so much what they wore as how they wore it that defined what you might call Sweeney style. Top buttons were undone, ties loosened and jackets slung over shoulders. And then was added the magic ingredient: whatever clothes they wore, they always looked slightly dishevelled. This was liberating for those of us whom nature had doomed never to be snappy dressers, however pricey the schmutter. Thaw and Waterman were acting, but we weren't. The Sweeney, however, meant that we were, in our perpetually unkempt appearance, briefly in vogue.
This was the age of Page Three and Paul Raymond. Young women were birds, older ones villains' wives or mums – alternately careworn drudges, brittle bitches or boom-voiced battleaxes, according to the demands of the plot. Pertness and the promise of a flash of flesh were at a premium; female independence and intelligence were not.
The novelty of The Sweeney was that there actually were locations. Previously, cop shows were taped in studios, with lots of chat and close-ups of furrowed brows straining to solve the puzzling crime. Not so much action packed as action deprived. To simulate geographical movement, the actors would get in half a car and pretend to drive it while a back projection of city streets played where a rear windscreen should be. The Sweeney was shot on film stock, all on locations, none glamorous: Shepherd's Bush, Hammersmith, Battersea, Peckham, Raynes Park, Staines and Southall gasworks.
The 1970s cast made two films, and now, more than three decades on, there is a third. However convincingly Ray Winstone and co carry it off, they could never capture the impact of the original. It arrived with blazing headlights and a scream of brakes to change crime drama for ever.