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!
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 (2008) 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.
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:
- Armed Blag: A common source of plots (unsurprisingly, since armed robberies were what the Flying Squad specialised in in real life).
- 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.
- Bang, Bang, BANG
- 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: Regan on a good day. Carter and pretty much everyone else on the squad.
- Da Chief: D.S. Haskins, and above him, "The Commander".
- Disguised in Drag: In one episode 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!"
- 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.
- Fingertip Drug Analysis
- Good Cop/Bad Cop: degenerating into Bad Cop, Worse Cop and even Bad Cop, Rabid Cop.
- Homage: London band Squeeze homaged this show in the song Cool for Cats;The Sweeney's doing ninety 'cos they've got the word to go;They get a gang of villains in a shed up at Heathrow;They're counting out the fivers, when the handcuffs lock again;In and out of Wandsworth with the numbers on their names'It's funny how their missus always looks the bleeding same!And meanwhile at the station, there's a couple of likely lads;Who swear like how's your father, and they're very cool for cats...
- London Gangster: Several of the villains.
- Mook Chivalry: Strictly averted; nobody fought fair on this show!
- Oireland: The series gains a touch of the Oirish in an episode involving The Troubles.
- 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.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: In the episode "Thin Ice": "That's. Not. My. Dog!"
- Rabid Cop: Regan on a bad day.
- Reading Your Rights: What rights?You're fucking NICKED, matey!"
- 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: As modelled by both the leads.
- 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.) Several other people who became famous after the series ended had smaller parts.
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.
- 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."