The crime series The Sweeney first burst onto British TV screens in 1975 and presented viewers with an irresistible mix of character drama and cops 'n' robbers action, leavened with blokey banter and pithy dialogue. It starred John Thaw as Jack Regan, a Detective Inspector with the Metropolitan Police's Flying Squad, a specialised team dealing with bank jobs and armed robberies. The title of the series was taken from "Sweeney Todd", a rhyming slang nickname for the Flying Squad.
Jack Regan was a tough, old school copper, grappling with the changing world of police work in the 1970s. He was assisted by his loyal Detective Sergeant, George Carter, played by Dennis Waterman. But The Sweeney didn't mark Jack Regan and George Carter's first screen appearance. They had been seen first in the previous year's TV film Regan.
Regan sees Regan and Carter team up for the first time on screen to investigate the death of a fellow cop. When an undercover policeman is beaten up and thrown from the window of a warehouse and onto the foreshore of the River Thames, Jack Regan is given the task of bringing the villains responsible to justice.
The job takes him onto turf familiar to Detective Sergeant Carter, leading Regan to ask for Carter's assistance. The two men had previously worked together for 18 months. Carter is reluctant to become involved with Regan again, due to his unease at his rule-breaking and unorthodox methods. But given that the victim was a fellow police officer, Carter is persuaded to join him for a brief secondment to help catch the killers.
Tracking down the gang responsible leads Regan to a nightclub singer, Miriam (Miquel Brown), and a seedy photographer, the latter played by Michael Da Costa in a memorable performance. Eventually Regan comes to suspect that a crime boss who has supposedly decamped to Spain has in fact been killed by the same gang.
Although now seen as a quintessential 1970s TV cop, in Regan Jack Regan is presented as a man already out of his time. The era of go-it-alone cops, who bend and break the rules, is over. Team work and following proper procedure are now the order of the day. The undercover policeman who was killed failed partly because he was working alone, with no one to back him up or know where he was or what he was doing.
Jack Regan, like some other tough cops of the time, is not exactly presented as a role model. His marriage has failed, he has no time for his child, and he has a shaky relationship with his girlfriend Annie (Maureen Lipman), who is only seeing him while her actual partner is away. And there's not much romance in their relationship either, or even much time spent together. Her main role in Jack Regan's life seems to be to do his laundry for him. Regan also displays his xenophobia when he meets his ex-wife's new partner, who is a German.
Regan drinks too much, has no real life outside of work and reveals himself to be reassuringly podgy and untoned when he removes his shirt. As his ex-wife Kate (Janet Key) says "you're 35 but you look more like 45". Indeed, it is hard to believe that John Thaw is 35 here, he does look much closer to 45, although in fact the actor was only 32 at the time. He also has a pair of distractingly bushy eyebrows that sit on his forehead like a couple of fat, angry caterpillars, adding to the sense that he was a man who was probably born with a pissed off look on his face.
But John Thaw is an actor with a commanding presence and Jack Regan does have a kind of likeably rough and ready appeal. He's blokey, but tough and determined, someone who gets the job done, even if it means throwing away the rule book or doing a spot of breaking and entering. When he catches the guilty crime boss, he not only prepares to charge him with murder, but also notices that his car tax disc has expired. "This stinking heap is licensed 'till March. It's April the 20th. I'll have you for that, an' all!"
Regan makes an instant impression and John Thaw's first words in the film are his most famous and infamous in this role. After bursting into a man's bedroom with a gaggle of cops, Regan spits out his famous line "Get yer trousers on - you're nicked!"
Jack Regan's new sidekick George Carter (Dennis Waterman) is just as tough, something that's made clear in his introductory scene, where we see him sparring in the ring at an old fashioned boxing club. Unlike Regan, though, Carter does have a home life and a few scruples. He's obviously tempted by more practical and agreeable nine to five hours and life behind a desk, mainly because it will at least keep his wife happy. But Regan is there to lure him out onto the streets and into a squad car in pursuit of villains who need collaring.
Regan raises the question of how best to utilise the semi-mythical old school coppers like Jack Regan. Men with their ears to the ground, and knowledge of their own patches and how to catch villains, while also moving policing into a new age of committees, paperwork and procedure. Regan doesn't resolve this issue, but leaves it as a question for the follow up series The Sweeney to answer. In one scene, Regan's boss is seen being coached for a TV interview, suggesting that public relations and presentation are going to be almost as important to the force in the future as catching criminals, something at odds with Regan's "Get the job done, no matter what it takes" attitude.
The relationship between Regan and Carter is still in its very early days, but it's developed a little more when they are together in the car on their way to question a suspect. As they drive to their destination, the two men comment on the local talent and exchange some pithy remarks of the "What does she look like?" type.
In a typical later exchange, Carter tells Regan about his questioning of a suspect.
"I went round to 'is place, he was watching telly. Big fight - d'you see it?"
"Nah." Replies Regan.
"It was rubbish."
Regan was originally shown as part of the anthology series Armchair Cinema, and is now its best remembered instalment, thanks to the fame and enduring popularity of its successful spin-off The Sweeney.
The anthology series was a popular staple of British television in the 1960s and '70s. Examples included the BBC's flagship Wednesday Play and Play for Today strand, but there were also many genre-based series, like Thriller and Detective.
Armchair Cinema was a 1970s example from the commercial channel ITV, with a title that was deliberately reminiscent of an earlier ITV anthology series Armchair Theatre. Unlike that series, the stories in Armchair Cinema were not videotaped plays shot in the TV studio. Instead they were shot on film and mostly made on location, hence the "cinema" tag instead of the "theatre" one. Armchair Cinema ran for only six episodes in 1974-1975.
The series was produced by Euston Films, a subsidiary of London commercial TV franchise holder Thames Television, and one of the most interesting British TV companies of the era. At a time when much British television drama was still studio-bound, Euston Films took their crews out to shoot on real locations and with film cameras instead of on tape. The grainy look of 16 mm film helps to give Regan some of its visual grit.
As with other anthology series, the episodes of Armchair Cinema were standalone instalments with a different cast, story and characters for each episode. Several of the films, including Tully, starring Anthony Valentine as a globe-trotting insurance investigator, were obviously designed as pilot episodes for possible new TV series.
Regan is one of those instalments of Armchair Cinema that were clearly designed with a possible spin-off series in mind. In fact, John Thaw was already signed up for The Sweeney, at that time provisionally titled "The Outcasts", before Regan was broadcast.
Ian Kennedy Martin wrote Regan, and created the character of Jack Regan, specifically for John Thaw, although the character was initially to be called McLean. The two men had worked together on an earlier crime series, Redcap, that ran from 1964-66, and starred Thaw as a military policeman. Douglas Camfield was originally set to direct Regan, but stepped down after script changes and tussles with the writer, and was replaced by Tom Clegg. Both men would go on to direct episodes of The Sweeney.
Ian Kennedy Martin was the brother of Troy Kennedy Martin, screenwriter of The Italian Job (1969) and Kelly's Heroes (1970) and the creator of Z Cars (1962-78), an earlier TV hit that rang the changes on the police drama in the 1960s. Troy would also write some episodes of The Sweeney and the script for the feature film Sweeney 2.
Regan and its successor series The Sweeney blew away the cobwebs surrounding the police procedural and introduced audiences to a new kind of TV copper. The series took some influence from the maverick cops seen in American films like Dirty Harry (1971) and The French Connection (1971) and visual influence from recent British crime films, like Robbery (1967), Get Carter (1971) and Villain (1971).
Euston Films had also learned their lessons from their revamp of an existing police series, Special Branch (1969-74), taking over production from Thames Television and moving it out onto location and onto film. Although a popular series, Euston were keen to bring Special Branch to a close and replace it with their own series designed from scratch.
Almost all of the key elements of The Sweeney are already in place in Regan. The gritty style, the location shooting, the pithy scripts, the grotty settings, the developing camaraderie between Regan and Carter, and the politically incorrect characters and dialogue. "He lived with his nan" says one cop of the victim. "Was he a poof?" asks Regan.
The only thing that's missing from Regan is that it's a little light on action compared to its successor The Sweeney. But it does a good job in establishing the style, tone and characters for the series, and is essential viewing for fans.
Jack Regan and George Carter would be back the following year for the spin-off series The Sweeney that ran for four series from 1975 to 1978, and for two 1970s feature films, Sweeney! in 1976 and Sweeney 2 in 1978.
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Drama, TV Film
Director: Tom Clegg
Cast John Thaw (Detective Inspector Jack Regan), Dennis Waterman (Detective Sgt George Carter), Lee Montague (Arthur Dale), Garfield Morgan (Chief Inspector Haskins), David Daker (Tusser), Janet Key (Kate Regan), Maureen Lipman (Annie), Morris Perry (Chief Superintendent Maynon), Stephen Yardley (Detective Inspector Laker), Barry Jackson (Morton), Miquel Brown (Miriam), Peter Blythe (Peter), Carl Rigg (Detective Sgt Kent), Michael Da Costa (South), Ron Pember (Landlord), Jonathan Elsom (Interviewer), Betty Woolfe (Mrs Berry), Seymour Matthews (Doctor), Don Henderson (Strip club heavy), Nancy Gabrielle (Johno’s wife), Del Baker (Detective Sgt Cowley)
Writer Ian Kennedy Martin Producer Ted Childs Cinematography John Keeling Art Director Jack Robinson Editor Chris Burt
Running time 77 mins Colour
Production company Euston Films (for Thames Television) Original network ITV