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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

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 dealing with armed robbery.

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 — Truth in Television, as the Flying Squad, which had to deal with armed robbers, was the only police unit where officers carried firearms more often than not — 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 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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Back-Alley Doctor: "Stay Lucky Eh?" features a doctor who was struck off, presumably for his alcholism. Naturally, he's called in when a criminal is shot during a robbery.
  • Badges And Dogtags: Haskins did National Service in the Signal Corps "in a minor intelligence role".
  • Bank Robbery:
    • "Thou Shalt Not Kill" sees the Flying Squad deal with a robbery at the university branch of the National Mercian bank.
    • "The Bigger They Are" sees criminals break into a back to steal a safety deposit box containing incriminating evidence.
  • Bar Brawl: Often! Once involved two police units who hadn't recognised each other.
  • Blackmail:
    • In "Money, Money, Money", a retired criminal friend of Regan and Carter is blackmailed and extorted by a criminal out of money he won on the pools in exchange for not revealing telling about a job he pulled years ago.
    • In "The Bigger They Are", a tycoon is being blackmailed by a criminal who has a photo of him present at a massacre of civilians in Malaya when he was in the Army twenty-five years earlier. Then the man he turns to for help does the same thing.
  • Blinded by the Light: In "Nightmare", a couple of renegade ex-IRA have got hold of an experimental laser-sighted rifle. Regan and Carter tell them to Put Down Your Gun and Step Away which they do, but then one of them turns on the battery pack on his belt activating the laser which shines into Regan's eyes, temporarily blinding him.
  • Catapult Nightmare: A variation in "Nightmare". Regan's girlfriend has a prophetic nightmare of Jack in danger that ends with her screaming in terror, Match Cut with her awake in the same position screaming as Jack sits up next to her in bed and tries to comfort her.
  • 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!"
  • Celebrity Paradox:
    • "Supersnout" has Carter make a reference to Get Carter. The episode features Rosemarie Dunham, who was in that film. Other actors from the film to appear in the series were Ian Hendry, George Sewell and Alun Armstrong.
    • In "Messenger of the Gods", Carter interviews a woman who gets distracted by a horror film she watched starring Christopher Lee. Perhaps she was talking about Scars of Dracula, which starred Dennis Waterman.
  • Cop Killer Manhunt: The penultimate episode "Victims" deals with the Flying Squad on the trail of an informant who shot and killed a police officer. He's eventually tracked to his hideout at an abandoned warehouse. His girlfriend attempts to talk him down, but Regan is forced to shoot him in self-defence.
  • 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.
  • Dirty Cop: "Bad Apple" sees Regan take on a pair of crooked officers who take bribes from villains to let them go and are running a protection racket.
  • 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!"
  • Downer Ending: The final episode, "Jack or Knave", had an ambiguous ending where Regan is temporarily locked up after being implicated in a corruption scandal, then finally gets exonerated. He then announces that he's had it with the Squad, and the series ends with him resigning in disgust, but it's left open as to whether he would be persuaded to change his mind.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: In "Hit and Run", Regan helps Carter cope with his wife's death by bringing him a bottle of booze.
  • 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".
  • Evolving Credits: For the fourth season, new opening and closing title sequences were introduced using live footage in kaleidoscope style rather than the tinted stills used in the first three seasons. The show's logo font and color were also changed, but the commercial break bumpers, remained the same and retained the style of the first three seasons' titles and logo.
  • 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!"
  • From Camouflage to Criminal:
    • "Stay Lucky Eh?" features a crook who did twelve years in the army and kicks the plot off by robbing a pair of criminals right after they've pulled a job.
    • "Taste of Fear" features a gang of ex-soldiers carrying out armed robberies.
  • Get into Jail Free: In "One of Your Own", Carter is placed undercover in prison to try and find out information about stolen jewels from a crook in his cell.
  • Gilligan Cut: In "Messenger of the Gods", Regan and Carter catch up with their suspect surrounded by four thugs. The villains reckon they can take them, as there's only two of them. Cut to our heroes kicking the crap out of them.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Degenerating into Bad Cop, Worse Cop and even Bad Cop, Rabid Cop.
  • The Great British Copper Capture: Inspector Regan's classic line. He deliberately punches the suspect full in the face, breaking his nose, scowls at him, and concludes the arrest thusly while pulling the perp up by his lapels:
    You're fucking nicked!
  • Hostage Situation: In "Thou Shalt Not Kill", a bank robbery leads to two gang members taking the manager and two women hostage. Haskins' hesitance in ordering the police to open fire causes Regan to chew him out.
  • 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.
    • In "Abduction", a gang kidnaps Regan's daughter in order to blackmail him so they can carry out a robbery.
    • In "Feet of Clay", an ex-informer turned businessman's son is kidnapped. It turns out to be a scam.
  • 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 weren't so different.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Years of policing has left Regan an embittered, cynical man. He has no delusions about being a hero, he's just doing a job that needs doing, even if it's taken everything out of him.
  • Laser Sight: "Nightmares" features a couple of renegade ex-IRA trying to get hold of some experimental laser-sighted rifles stolen from a factory in Utah (a reference to the AM-180, though they're AR-10's on screen).
  • 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 camera gave two different views of the same armoured car robbery.
  • Mook Chivalry: Strictly averted; nobody fought fair on this show!
  • Murder by Mistake: In "Hit and Run", Carter's wife is run down and killed because she was wearing a coat belonging to her co-worker, who was the intended target.
  • Not-So-Fake Prop Weapon: "Loving Arms" concerns a criminal who sells toy guns to criminals that turn out to be real. Things get serious when one of them accidentally kills a police officer.
  • 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.
  • The Oner: "Night Out" has a scene where we're introduced to a woman in a hand-held shot which lasts three minutes and forty seconds with no cuts, during which time the camera shows her at her dressing-table, follows her around the room as she puts her stockings away, and then follows her back to a shot of her and Regan and their reflections in the dressing-table mirror, moving effortlessly from one-shot to two-shot to long-shot to over-the-shoulder and back to one-shot - all in a single take
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • Police Lineup: "In From the Cold" has a scene where a wheelchair-bound officer has to identify the criminal who shot and paralysed him. The lineup takes place outdoors in the police station car park.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Regan and Carter refer to suspects (or otherwise) as birds, tarts, slags, micks, jocks, poofs, micks and other terms.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: In the episode "Thin Ice": "That's. Not. My. Dog!"
  • Put Down Your Gun and Step Away: In "Nightmare", a couple of renegade ex-IRA have got hold of an experimental laser sighted rifle. Regan and Carter tell them to put down the rifle slowly which they do, making sure it's pointed in their direction. Then they turn on the battery pack activating the laser which shines into Regan's eyes, temporarily blinding him.
  • 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.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Regan is red (cynical, agressive and world-weary) and Carter is blue (enthusiastic, ambitious and jovial).
  • Scary Flashlight Face: In "Nightmare" Regan's Girl of the Week has a prophetic nightmare of him in danger, ending with a red-coloured light shining in his face as Regan screams right before she wakes up. It's all supposed to foreshadow him being (temporarily) blinded by a laser beam by the villains.
  • Sequel Episode:
    • Season two's "Golden Fleece" and "Trojan Bus" featured a pair of Australian villains, Colin MacGruder and Ray Stackpole.
    • Season three's "Taste of Fear" and "On the Run" feature career criminal Tim Cook.
  • 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.
  • 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 in "Hearts and Minds". (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.)
  • Spiritual Successor: To the lesser-known series Special Branch, which was the first series made by Euston Films. Both series were shot on film and went for a more gritty and realistic look, although Special Branch lacked the rough-and-tumble approach. In fact, Dennis Waterman even appeared in one episode.
  • Take This Job and Shove It: In the final episode, "Jack or Knave", Regan faces prosecution for conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice. He's acquitted, but is so disgusted by the experience that he resigns.
    I am utterly and abjectly pissed-off with this little lot. I've given the best years of my life to the job. I've got eighteen bloody commendations, if you include the one I didn't get yesterday. And how does this "wonderful" police force show its gratitude for all my years of unstinting effort? It bangs me up in a crummy little cell like some cheap little villain - all because a toerag called Hutchinson's got a few bottles twitching on the Fifth Floor. Now, because that poor little bastard had the guts to get off his arse, I'm going to have to be reinstated. And what do you bunch of bleeding double-dyed hypocrites want now? You want me to crawl back to work and be terribly grateful that I didn't get nicked for something I didn't do. Well you can stuff it!
  • The Teaser: Each episode opened with a three-minute intro that established the plot.
  • Temporary Substitute: Haskins was largely absent from season four, as Garfield Morgan had theatre commitments. As a result, several commanding officers appeared to fill his role. "Hard Men, "Drag Act", "Hearts and Minds" and "Latin Lady" feature Det. Chief Supt. Braithwaite, "Bait" features DCI Roan, "The Bigger They Are" features Richard Wilson as DCI Anderson and "Feet of Clay" features Commander Watson. In "The Bigger They Are", Carter even lampshades this by saving, "Come back, Haskins, all is forgiven".
    • Haskins is also absent from season two's "Supersnout", with Bill Maynard's Det. Chief Insp. Stephen Quirk filling his role.
  • 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!"
  • Wham Episode: "Hit and Run" sees Carter's wife nurdered in a hit and run incident that was ultimately down to mistaken identity.
  • Working-Class Hero: Regan came from a working-class background in Manchester, his father being a dockworker.
  • Wunza Plot: 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!
  • 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?
  • Precision F-Strike: Free from the constraints of television, the characters swear up a storm.
    Regan: You're fucking NICKED, matey!"
  • 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."
  • Sequel Goes Foreign: The second film sees Regan and Carter go from their London setting to Malta in order to track down a gang of armed robbers.
  • 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.


Video Example(s):


The Sweeney

This solemn ending themeto a show about crime, with it's own fast-paced intro music.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / SolemnEndingTheme

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