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Series / The Sweeney

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"We're the Sweeney, son, and we haven't had any dinner. You've kept us waiting, so unless you want a kicking, you tell us where those photographs are!"
DI Jack Regan
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A classic British Cop Show from the 1970s featuring Cowboy Cop Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) and his sidekick Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) of the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad (Rhyming slang: "Sweeney Todd" = "Flying Squad", hence the title), an elite detective unit able to be stationed at any location where an armed robbery is likely.

The characters were rough, hard-drinking and, by modern standards, highly sexist. Regan, while over forty, greying and divorced, was successful with women as part of his macho image (although his sex life became a plot point sometimes). Carter was married and a bit more stable and reliable than his "Guv'nor". In fact, Regan's "Guv'nor", Superintendent Haskins, felt Carter should be reassigned because Regan was a bad influence on him.

British television cop shows had been undergoing a steady evolution from the light-hearted Dixon of Dock Green to the relatively gritty Z Cars. The Sweeney took this to the next level, with an unprecedented level of violence, cynicism, and bad language (albeit that it was still PG-rated; "bastard" was as bad as it got)note . There was at least one car chase, fist fight or gunfight per episode. Unlike most British policemen, Regan and Carter were often armed, but the squad frequently took down criminal gangs in brutal hand-to-hand battles fought with pick-axe handles, iron bars, fists and boots. Unlike the almost-contemporary Starsky & Hutch the violent action did not have a James Bond-movie feel to it, being instead down-and-dirty, and sometimes quite shocking. Gunfire was seldom non-lethal and people who got hurt stayed hurt. If a car crashed and burned, the people inside didn't climb out as in The A-Team, either!

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Detective work was mainly a matter of asking informants, many of whom lived in fear, or of following people, or simply "knowing the manor" so well that the heroes could just guess who was the most likely suspect. Not much Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot stuff happened, but it was often quite close to real police work.

Blatantly parodied in The Invisibles, where Jack and George of Division X are Carter and Regan to the life. Explained by saying that the invisibles created their cover identities from old '70s cop shows. Their boss Mr Crowley is a shout out to George Cowley of The Professionals, another British police drama of the time. (Their fellow agent Mister Six, meanwhile, is a shout out to Jason King of Department S.)

Gene Hunt of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes is a fairly obvious Shout-Out to Jack Regan and his ilk. (One is tempted to call him an Affectionate Parody, but he'd call one a poof for saying so. He'd call one a poof for saying "one" instead of "him" anyway.) Gerry Standing, Dennis Waterman's character in New Tricks, is another Affectionate Parody of what the characters from The Sweeney (George in particular) might look like thirty-odd years down the track.

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The show was recorded entirely with film, and the production had a heavy reliance on location shooting, both of which were very unusual features at the time. Although it was extremely popular, a combination of high production costs and creator burnout meant that it only lasted for four series. Nonetheless it was very influential, directly inspiring ITV's successful The Professionals and The BBC's relatively unpopular Target.

Two spin-off movies were produced during the show's run: Sweeney! in 1977 and Sweeney 2 in 1978.

A movie adaptation of the show was released in 2012.


The TV series provides examples of:

  • Absentee Actor: Garfield Morgan was absent for much of the fourth season, due to theatre commitments.
  • Adult Fear: The first season finale "Abduction" sees Regan fly off the handle when his daughter is kidnapped.
  • Armed Blag: Practically every other episode. Truth in Television, as the Flying Squad were actually the Metropolitan Police's specialist armed robbery taskforce.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The pilot movie Regan ended with Regan beating a confession out of a suspect for the murder of an undercover police man....and then threatening to do him for not paying his car tax.
  • Bar Brawl: Often! Once involved two police units who hadn't recognised each other.
  • Catholic School Girls Rule: DS Carter makes some lurid comments about the attractiveness of girls in school uniforms in "Taste of Fear". On another occasion Jack Regan is meeting an informant in the park when a couple of schoolgirls walk by and one of them bends over to pick something up. Seeing Regan's distraction, the informant quips: "I could be arrested for doing what you're thinking!"
  • Cowboy Cop: The series starred a pair of misogynist, foul-mouthed London cops who were a brilliant example of this - but they often completely failed to catch their man, and fairly often got into real, serious trouble with their superiors.
  • Da Chief: D.S. Haskins, and above him, "The Commander".
  • Dark Reprise: The opening theme is upbeat and heroic, while the closing theme is the same themes but slower and in a minor key, reflecting Regan's incomplete success and his regrets for the compromises necessary to achieve even that.
  • Darker and Edgier: The series was much tougher and grittier than most cop shows at the time.
  • A Day in the Limelight: The main episodes focusing on DCI Haskins are "Golden Fleece", in which he is set up to be the victim of a corruption enquiry, and "Victims", in which his wife suffers a mental breakdown, owing to her memories of a miscarriage.
  • Disguised in Drag: In "Big Spender", a character played by Warren Mitchell (better known for Till Death Us Do Part) escapes from villains by dressing up in his girlfriend's clothes and a wig. Regan and Carter turn up. "Ooh Mr Wardle, you do look nice!"
  • Ending Theme: The series used a slower and mellower version of its opening theme on the end credits, accompanying images of Carter and Regan packing up their stuff and going home for the night.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: The second episode, "Jackpot", has a captured bank robber interrogated for the whereabouts of a missing take. he pulled the heist to fund a kidney transplant for his daughter abroad, and the villains aren't keen to honour his share after his arrest and imprisonment.
  • Ending Theme: A slower and mellower version of the opening theme was used on the end credits, accompanying images of Carter and Regan packing up their stuff and going home for the night.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Regan bends the rules, but he's unwilling to cheat for personal gain: he delivers a sharp put-down to a corrupt copper in "Bad Apple", and refuses to take a bribe in "Golden Fleece".
  • Flare Gun: In "Hard Men", a Glasgow gangster punishes another gangster who tried to kidnap his daughter by shooting him in the back with a flare gun; he goes up in flames, screaming, and burns to death. Another gangster who witnesses the incident tells a policeman, "Dud ye see that? Dud ye see whut they dud? That was DIABOLICAL!"
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Degenerating into Bad Cop, Worse Cop and even Bad Cop, Rabid Cop.
  • I Have Your Wife: "Soppo Driver" sees a Flying Squad driver blackmailed into being a getaway driver for a gang when they kidnap his new wife.
  • The Informant: Several one-off characters whose portrayals ranged from "contemptible but necessary" to actually fairly sympathetic. Of course, one of the show's central themes was that the cops and the cons were Not So Different.
  • Lead Police Detective: Although he's a bit more rough around the edges than is typical for this trope, Detective Inspector Jack Regan still counts.
  • London Gangster: Several of the villains.
  • MacGuffin: In "The Bigger They Are", the MacGuffin, which leads to a burglary, a bank raid, two blackmail attempts, and a suicide, is revealed right at the start of the programme: a photo of a prominent politician, holding a bloody machete, standing on a pile of chopped-off human heads, proof of his participation in an atrocity committed during the Malayan Emergency of 1948-52.
  • Magical Security Cam: One hand-held 8mm character gave two different views of the same armoured car robbery.
  • Mook Chivalry: Strictly averted; nobody fought fair on this show!
  • Oireland: A young Lindy Brill played the daughter of an Irish terrorist involved in The Troubles in "Nightmares". Her Oirish accent would make a real Irish teenage girl cringe.
  • Old-Fashioned Copper: The cops are pretty much the archetypal characters who represent this trope, although they aren't old-fashioned themselves since the values represented were alive and well in The '70s.
    Regan: Get your trousers on. You're nicked.
    Carter (to the perp's girlfriend): Have a lie in, luv.
  • Oop North: Regan is originally from Manchester and has been in London for several years, so his accent has modified, but traces of his northern origins are still evident. He also refers to his northern roots every now and again (his poor upbringing, his father's work on the Manchester Ship Canal), which brings banter from Carter, a Londoner, such as humming "The Red Flag".
  • Papa Wolf: The first season finale "Abduction" sees Regan's daughter getting kidnapped. Near the end of the episode, he's alone with one of the kidnappers...
  • Perp Sweating: Lots of sweating, along with plenty of punching, kicking, and banging against walls.
  • Playing Gertrude: Although John Thaw was only 32 when the show premiered, his character Regan was well into his forties.
  • Please Put Some Clothes On: In "Night Out", the following exchange takes place between Regan and Iris Long (a "working girl") while awaiting the arrival of an armed gang:
    Regan: Get dressed.
    Iris: All right. What do you think I should wear? Something inexpensive cos of the bullet holes? Or something dark so it doesn't show the blood?
    Regan: That's not funny!
    Iris: There's no need to get hysterical.
    Regan: I am not being hysterical, I AM TERRIFIED!
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: In the episode "Thin Ice": "That's. Not. My. Dog!"
  • Rabid Cop: Regan on a bad day.
  • Reading Your Rights: Regan's reading of the rights generally summed to four words, usually accompanied by one last punch, kick or headbutt:
    You're fucking NICKED, matey!"
  • Shown Their Work: Many of the famous catchphrases used by Regan and Carter (for example, "Get your trousers on, you're nicked" and "We're the Sweeney, son, and we haven't had our dinner yet") were the result of the program's researchers studying the way real members of the Flying Squad ("The Sweeney") talked when off-duty in pubs near New Scotland Yard.
  • 6 Is 9: The "6 with a screw missing turns into a 9" gag is used in a scene where a very respectable family are eating dinner when armed policemen crash into their home, and are just as surprised as they are because they were expecting to meet armed criminals. After the mistake is cleared up, the officers leave with apologies and the family calmly return to their meal. Moments later, a crash is heard in the distance, and the father comments that it sounds as though they've found number 9.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Both of the main characters, just so you know they're double-hard bastards.
  • Solemn Ending Theme: The show has a fast-paced opening theme as befits an action-packed cop show, but the closing titles use a surprisingly low-key arrangement of the same theme.
  • Special Guest: Most notably Morecambe and Wise. (John Thaw and Dennis Waterman found it hard to keep a straight face around them; they also did a spoof of The Sweeney on their sketch programme.)
  • The Teaser: Each episode opened with a three-minute intro that established the plot.
  • They Fight Crime!: He's a tough, no-nonsense, bends-the-rules older cop who's quick-witted and with an eye for drink and the ladies! He's a younger, more inexperienced cop who wants to follow the rulebook yet respects his older partner! They fight crime!
  • Violent Glaswegian: In "Hard Men", one Glasgow gangster kills another (who had, admittedly, kidnapped the first man's daughter) by shooting him with A VEREY (Flare) PISTOL; the victim goes up in a ball of flame and dies horribly, screaming; causing the dead man's friend to tell a policeman, "Did ye see that? Did ye? That was DIABOLICAL!"
  • You Do Not Have to Say Anything: Regan's take on this was inevitably "You're fucking nicked!"
  • Younger Than They Look: John Thaw would have been between 33 and 37 when he played Jack Regan, but looks well into his forties- partly reinforced by the way he acts as well. Thaw himself apparently said "I was born looking 50".


The 1977 and 1978 movies provide examples of:

  • Big Damn Movie: The 1977 movie featured a complex blackmail conspiracy attempting to influence oil prices, with collateral murders the only reason the Sweeney are involved. However they seemed to realise this was silly, so in the second spinoff they went stuck to foiling particularly nasty bank robberies- this ended up Darker and Edgier with a higher body count than the whole TV run combined.
  • Blood-Splattered Innocents: Jack Regan suffers this in the 1978 movie when an armed robber evades capture by putting a sawn-off shotgun in his mouth. And it's not just blood either. Regan doesn't sell it until he reaches the bathroom, then frantically scrubs his face clean before venting his anger at the criminals escaping justice.
  • Crashing Through the Harem: In one of the movies, the Flying Squad takes a shortcut through a room, interrupting a couple having sex there. When the man threatens to put in a complaint, Regan shuts him up by asking whether the girl he's with is of legal age.
  • It's Personal: Regan at the climax of the first movie. After seeing the only witness of the killings (who he'd shagged earlier) murdered, Regan is told by a government official the Big Bad would be assassinated by his own hitmen upon being arrested. What does Regan do next?
  • Sawed-Off Shotgun: In the second movie the criminals use gold-plated Purdey shotguns stolen from a rock star. There's a notable scene where the blagger sticks his sawn-off in a bank manager's face.
    "Hold it right there, squire. You are privileged to be looking down the barrels of a gold-plated Purdey shotgun. Now as a bank manager, you'll appreciate that any man capable of cutting a gun like that in half wouldn't think twice about cutting you in half."
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Garfield Morgan was asked to play Haskins again as he had done in the series, but rejected the project as he felt the role was too small. In the end, Haskins became Matthews and Bernard Kay was cast instead.

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