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Sweeney! (1976)

Sweeney! is the first of two big screen outings for tough London cops Detective Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) and Detective Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman), the stars of the 1970s TV crime series The Sweeney.
 
Inspector Regan is asked by a criminal contact, Ronnie Brent (Joe Melia), to investigate the death of his young mistress Janice. Supposedly she has committed suicide, but Ronnie is suspicious and doesn't accept the official coroner's verdict.

Glamour girl Janice, played unexpectedly by TV OXO mum Lynda Bellingham, was a "social secretary" at an upmarket PR firm run by American businessman Elliott McQueen (Barry Foster). But her duties seemed to be mostly to provide comforts and entertainment for McQueen's clients, including visiting businessmen and politicians. 


Dennis Waterman and John Thaw
There's always time for a quick smoke: Carter (Dennis Waterman) and Regan (John Thaw)

Behind the scenes, McQueen has been orchestrating a plot to fix the vote at the latest conference of energy ministers. Ronnie is right to be suspicious about Janice's death, because she was in fact murdered on McQueen's orders, complete with a fake suicide note incriminating her lover, British politician Charles Baker (Ian Bannen). Baker is the British Government's energy minister and McQueen intends to blackmail him to ensure that he votes the right way at the forthcoming conference.

In the meantime, anyone who asks too many questions about Janice's death gets set upon by a couple of fake policemen wearing phoney uniforms and driving their own squad car. When Ronnie starts to become a nuisance, they pay a visit to his scrap yard and start spraying bullets around and killing off his employees. 

When Jack Regan starts to investigate, he soon finds himself running into the same fake policemen, who pull him over while he is out driving his car. Regan is forced to drink a bottle of booze before being let loose on the road, leading to the inevitable crash. This is followed by drink-driving charges and his suspension from the police force. It seems that investigating Janice's death has plunged Regan and his sidekick Carter into a high level conspiracy that threatens both their careers and their lives. 


British film poster for Sweeney! 1976
Original British film poster: "The roughest, toughest men from London's
greatest crime squad smash their way onto the BIG SCREEN!"

Jack Regan and George Carter are smoking, boozing, bantering, door-busting detectives on the Metropolitan Police's elite Flying Squad. They first appeared in the 1974 TV film Regan, part of ITV's Armchair Cinema strand, before transferring to their own TV series, The Sweeney, the following year. The series took its title from "Sweeney Todd", popular rhyming slang for the Flying Squad. The series was a hit when it was first broadcast on ITV in 1975, enough to spawn this feature film version released the following year. 

While film and TV had once been deadly enemies, by the 1970s there was increasing cross-over between the two. In the US, that usually meant TV spin-offs from popular films or small screen remakes of established classics. On the other side of the Atlantic, the traffic was usually in the opposite direction, with film makers turning to already popular TV shows to draw audiences back in to cinemas. 

Most of the British TV series given the film treatment in the 1970s were sitcoms, including film versions of Dad's Army in 1971, Steptoe and Son in 1972 and 1973, The Likely Lads in 1976, Are You Being Served? in 1977 and Porridge in 1979. The Sweeney is unusual in being one of the few drama series that made the transition to the big screen, along with the eco-thriller Doomwatch (1972), drama Man at the Top (1973) and spy thriller Callan (1974).

Sweeney!
has the advantage that, unlike some of those films, the feature film version was made by the same team as the TV series. Both Sweeney! and its 1978 sequel Sweeney 2 were made by the same company and used much of the same production team as The Sweeney TV series, including its regular writers and directors. This was made possible by the fact that the TV version was still in production at the time, the first film appearing shortly after the second season had been broadcast on television. The TV series was already shot on film instead of tape and used extensive location filming instead of studio work, meaning that the transfer to a feature film was not such a great leap.


Diane Keen and Barry Foster
Bianca (Diane Keen) and Elliott McQueen (Barry Foster)

Sweeney! was produced by the TV series' producer Ted Childs and used a regular director and screenwriter from the series, David Wickes and Ranald Graham respectively. The film's score was provided by Denis King, who supplies perhaps the best piece of music ever written for The Sweeney, the cool and laconic "Regan's Theme", which is used over the end credits.  

The motivation for making the Sweeney feature film seems to have been partly in the hope that it would lead to foreign sales for the TV series. It was the first feature film produced by Euston Films, a subsidiary of Thames Television created to produce location-heavy TV series shot on film. As well as The Sweeney, Euston's TV productions included Quatermass (1979), Danger UXB (1979), Minder (1979-94), Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983) and Widows (1983-85).

According to a contemporary article in Screen International, the film was made on a budget of £1.4 million. Shooting took place over five weeks on locations in London during the spring of 1976. The director, David Wickes, told the magazine:

"What we are hoping to produce is something which will inevitably be compared with The French Connection, inevitably compared with the best cinematic cop thriller films."

Making a film version of a popular TV series, especially one still being broadcast, does throw up an obvious question. Why should audiences traipse out to the cinema and pay money to see something they can watch for free at home on TV? 

The answer for Sweeney! is to up the sex and violence quota and to pack the film with action. This does mean that the film is significantly less grounded and more implausible than the TV series that birthed it. The characterisations are also a little cruder and the increased sex and violence means that everything is a little bit more rough and lairy than on TV.


Ian Bannen in the Sweeney film
In too deep: Government minister Charles Baker (Ian Bannen)

The film starts off in an uncompromising manner as Ronnie's girlfriend Janice is overpowered in a hotel room, given a lethal injection and then stripped and laid out on the bed, as part of a plot to fake her suicide. The fact that the victim is the usually mumsy Lynda Bellingham only makes this scene all the more shocking.

Once Regan has stumbled onto the conspiracy, he is pursued around London by machine gun-toting bad guys, as the film rejects the relative realism and authenticity of the TV series in favour of an improbable but action-packed thriller plot. In reality, the victims would be much more likely to be quietly bumped off, killed in a hit-and-run car "accident" or pushed in front of a train, than murdered in broad daylight by men with submachine guns, but plausibility is sacrificed to excitement and drama.

The fact that the main target of the blackmail plot is an energy minister is also a very 1970s touch. Such a minor politician would not normally interest the writers of thrillers or the makers of action films, but the energy crisis of the mid-1970s made this reasonably topical subject matter. This was especially true in Britain, given the new development of North Sea oil and gas. The film's plot posits the UK as having subsequently joined an OPEC-style oil cartel, although this in fact never happened.

The film is very cynical, as befits the seventies era, but it's also more political than the TV series. In the TV version Regan and Carter were happy to do their jobs and to collar villains, firm in the belief that in doing so they were making the streets a safer place. 


Diane Keen and John Thaw
Bianca (Diane Keen) with Regan (John Thaw) in a quieter moment

In Sweeney! Regan uncovers political corruption and a grand conspiracy and realises that the ramifications of this are more significant than the traditional thievery and bank robberies that he usually deals with. "It's all out of proportion" he complains, questioning for the first time his role as a law enforcer for the state and the establishment. 

Before, Regan's complaints were about the vagaries of the criminal justice system and the chicanery of fat cat lawyers. Now he's worried that it's not just the criminal justice system, but the whole political system. This outcry of working class angst probably reflects the tumultuous politics of the mid-1970s and the seemingly terminal sense of crisis in Britain in this era. The film seems to want to shake its audience out of any remaining complacency.

The film occasionally stumbles in the drama department - the final line and freeze frame seems forced, although it's bold and discomforting as an ending - and the conspiracy theory plot doesn't quite suit these characters. But Sweeney! does have plenty of action and mayhem for the 1970s and, as with the original series, the action sequences are well handled. 

That includes one of those mass punch-up scenes common in the series, where the cops ambush a gang just as they are about to pull a job. Although in this case, the ambush is very unprofessional and lackadaisical, without much sign of complex planning. Jack Regan's crutches also cause some continuity problems in the film's later scenes, as they seem to appear and disappear between shots.

Some familiar 1970s actors appear in the supporting cast, including Barry Foster, with an iffy American accent, as the main villain, Ian Bannen as the blackmailed politician, Colin Welland as an investigative journalist and Brian Glover as another of his London criminals of this era. Also on board is Diane Keen, as an upmarket escort who becomes involved with Regan. 

Unfortunately, John Thaw's regular co-star, Dennis Waterman as Sergeant George Carter, is not given that much to do in the film, and the relationship between the two main characters is not as well drawn as in the original series. A series that drew much of its appeal from the interplay between the two leads turns into a film where Jack Regan is very much the star. Regan and Carter's boss Haskins, played by Garfield Morgan, is also absent from both of the Sweeney films. 


Dennis Waterman and policeman in The Sweeney film
George Carter (Dennis Waterman) questioning a local cop

The film's conspiracy thriller storyline is not really the sort of thing that The Sweeney TV series would get involved in. But conspiracy thrillers were a staple film genre of the 1970s and this probably seemed like an obvious way to expand the series and ensure that the plot of the film version was more dramatic. The film makers were very aware that they were working in a different sub-genre from the TV series. As producer Ted Childs later said:

"There were lots of misgivings about the first script because we were under strong pressure to try to make the Sweeney film different. Now, the purists will argue that the first Sweeney film was very unreal because it was not within the genre that had become established, and that was true because we were under pressure to make a film that people would pay to see not only in the UK but elsewhere. But it worked well." *

Sweeney! is tough and reasonably involving, but dramatically a little over-cooked. It's generally a better film than its 1978 sequel, Sweeney 2, being pacier, with more action, a better structured script and a clearer idea of its own plot. But the bank robbers plot of the sequel is much more in keeping with the kind of stories that the TV version dealt with, making this film, with its melodramatic conspiracy theory storyline, a curious outlier. 

Although it's quite untypical of the series that spawned it, Sweeney! does make for an interesting extension of the TV version and it's reasonably successful as far as movie spin-offs go. It makes for an entertaining diversion for existing fans, but it does work much better for audiences already familiar with the series, especially as the characters as presented here are somewhat less interesting than on TV. For the uninitiated, the TV series is a better place to start.


Sweeney!

Year: 1976
Genre: Crime Thriller
Country: UK
Director: David Wickes

Cast John Thaw (Jack Regan), Dennis Waterman (George Carter), Barry Foster (Elliott McQueen), Ian Bannen (Charles Baker), Colin Welland (Frank Chadwick), Diane Keen (Bianca Hamilton), Michael Coles (Johnson), Joe Melia (Ronnie Brent), Brian Glover (Mac), Lynda Bellingham (Janice Wyatt), Morris Perry (Flying Squad Commander), Paul Angelis (Secret serviceman), Nick Brimble (DS Burtonshaw), John Alkin (DS Daniels), Bernard Kay (Matthews), Antony Scott (Johnson's henchman), Anthony Brown (Murder inquiry Superintendent), John Oxley (Chadwick's deputy editor), Peggy Aitchison (Carter's neighbour), Hal Jeayes (Manservant), Sally Osborne (Sally), John Kane (Special Branch Sergeant), Chris Dillinger (Johnson's henchman), Peter Childs (Murder inquiry Inspector), lan Mitchell (Detective Inspector), Leonard Kavanagh (Pathologist), Anthony Woodruff (Coroner), Michael Latimer (Parliamentary Private Secretary), Matthew Long (Traffic Police Sergeant), Joyce Grant (McQueen's secretary), Johnny Shannon (Scotland Yard Duty Sergeant), David Corti (Young boy), Susan Skipper (Chadwick's secretary), Nadim Sawalha (Chairman of the oil producers' conference)

Screenplay Ranald Graham, based on the TV series The Sweeney created by Ian Kennedy Martin  Producer Ted Childs  Cinematography Dusty Miller  Art director Bill Alexander  Editor Chris Burt  Music Denis King  Special effects Arthur Beavis

Running time 89 mins  Colour Technicolor

Production company Euston Films  Distributor EMI Film Distributors (UK)

* (Quoted in Made for Television: Euston Films Limited, by Manuel Alvarado & John Stewart; Methuen, 1985)


See also: 

Comments

  1. I've never seen the movie though of course I've seen the show. Totally un-PC, thank God.

    It's interesting that you mention Barry Foster's iffy American accent. Nowadays there are so many British actors working in Hollywood/US television, often playing Americans and frankly, if you didn't know they were British, you couldn't tell at all.

    PS. I like the word "mumsy".




    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not a really bad accent, just a bit dubious. There probably wasn't much demand for British actors to do American accents at the time. If they wanted an American, they would normally just get Ed Bishop or Shane Rimmer, unless they wanted a name actor.

      I do often consider if words are going to translate internationally. Although that one slipped through, I assume people would get the meaning. And I suspect 99% of people reading about The Sweeney film are going to be British anyway.

      Delete

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