Sunday, 12 January 2014

THE SWEENEY AT 40: BFI Southbank


BFI Southbank, 9 January 2014, 6.20pm

The fortieth anniversary of everyone's favourite 1970s cop show, The Sweeney, was celebrated at the British Film Institute in an evening of film clips, special guests, men with motors and booze. Which is exactly how it should be.

Pix by Lili 'The Lens' Gane.
I’ve always had a soft spot for The Sweeney, the ITV series that ran between 1975 and 1978 and starred the late John Thaw, with Dennis Waterman, as hard working and hard living London Flying Squad detectives Jack Regan and George Carter (‘The Sweeney’, from the cockney rhyming slang ‘Sweeney Todd’, meaning ‘Flying Squad’) who, as one wag once wrote, went “into action against violent criminals and willing young women”.  It’s always remained memorable for me, as it was the first adult programme I was allowed to stay up and watch on a regular basis. When it debuted in 1975, almost overnight us kids seemed to go from playing Doctor Who and Thunderbirds to playing London villains versus Regan and co. That was quite a cultural shift for a ten year old, especially as it hurt a lot more.

The Sweeney has never really gone away over the last thirty plus years. That’s partly due to the contracts it was made under being buy outs, common in the film industry, meaning that once the actors and production crew had been paid the TV companies could show the series as many times as they liked. However, the main, important reason was that the way The Sweeney was made by Euston Films (the film making branch of Thames television) was years ahead of time, something it still hasn’t been given enough credit for. Shot 98% in real locations on film by a small, dedicated production team, when The Sweeney was repeated throughout the 1980s and 1990s the TV industry was still catching up with its revolutionary production methods, to the point where all TV drama is now made in the same way. Put on any episode now and, flares and kipper ties aside, you could be watching a modern series. Factor in the show being embraced by 1990s ‘Lad’ culture and the TV nostalgists of the last few years, and The Sweeney has never been far away from the peak of popular culture.

Euston Films reunited: Scriptwriter Roger Marshall,
director Tom Clegg, actor Dennis Waterman, cameraman
John Keeling and producer Ted Childs.
Myself and the show have personal history, too. It was the thing that finally pushed me from wanting to write about TV and entertainment to finally doing it. My friends Mike Kenwood and George Williams had wanted to write a book about The Sweeney for years and, in 1998, incensed that the idea had been nicked by a publisher who shall remain nameless, I lent my graphic design and publishing skills to producing their wonderfully named – by Mike – unofficial guide that we self-published, namely Fags, Slags, Blags and Jags: The Sweeney. (If you’ve got a copy, that’s Mike and George dressed up as blaggers on the front in a photo I took to get round copyright). That opened the floodgates; we met one of The Sweeney writers, Troy Kennedy Martin, at a Cult TV event with a copy of the book under his arm and through him, his brother Ian, creator of the show, together with Trevor Preston who, coming from a similar background to many of the series’ villains, brought such authenticity to the writing. When Fags… proved a cult hit, we were asked to help produce the soundtrack album Shut It! The Music of The Sweeney; by 2002, with me stepping up as co-author, we were working on Sweeney! The Official Companion and interviewing as many of the key players in Euston Films as we could, and Dennis was gracious enough to grant us a long interview and write the foreword. In turn, this led to us researching the questions for the episode commentaries on an Australian DVD release. In 2012, the Official Companion went into a second edition when the Ray Winston big-screen – ahem –  ‘reinterpretation’ of the series debuted. (Like I said, the show’s never really gone away).

So, when the request came from Dick Fiddy at the BFI to help with an evening to celebrate The Sweeney’s 40th anniversary, myself and Mike didn’t need asking twice; helping with contacting people, writing the programme notes, choosing which clips to show and looking after guests on the night was the proverbial busman’s holiday for us. To cap it all, a couple of days before the night of the event we were over the moon to find out that Dennis himself would be appearing on stage alongside producer Ted Childs and director Tom Clegg, who established the “down and dirty” cinematic style of the series.

The Sweeney arrive at the BFI in the only way they can.
Over the last year, the BFI has given its TV events a delightful ‘multi-media’ presentation, which has seen Daleks and the TARDIS appearing in the foyer for the Doctor Who at 50 season, while Patrick McGoohan memorabilia was projected on the big screen in NFT1 during his retrospective, as incidental music from Danger Man played over the PA system. The Sweeney got the same treatment: as the Shut It! soundtrack was given another outing as the audience assembled, key screen grabs from the series succeeded each other on the screen. An extra plus was the appearance of two cars of Sweeney vintage, a Ford Consul GT and a Mark 1 Granada Ghia (I think), one of which had appeared in the show. Lovingly restored by Steve Bennett and Calvin Urwin from The Sweeney fan club – also in the process of making their own fan-film of the show – the two enthusiasts passed on the wonderful news that they’d found Regan’s actual car, which would soon be getting the restoration treatment. Their night was complete when Dennis signed the dashboard of one of the vehicles (apologies for not remembering which one). Also attending were scriptwriter Roger Marshall and cameraman John Keeling, in many ways an unsung hero as he was the man responsible for initially putting the Euston crew together.

The panel: Ted Childs, Tom Clegg, Dennis Waterman
and Dick Fiddy.
The on-stage interview conducted by Dick Fiddy revolved around a selection of clips Dick, Mike and I had broken down to Regan and Carter’s first meeting, through action, drama, humour and Regan’s fractious relationship with his superiors and women. A couple of hiccups with the order of clips aside this proved it to be a good format, setting off memories as amusing as Ted’s belief that each episode should have “fornication and a fight in the first five minutes” and Dennis’s wry comment that one of the Euston cars was so battered that “the villains had to slow down for the Jaguar to catch up.” I was glad Roger was there, as Ted, Dennis and Tom were full of praise for the series’ scripts, complimenting them for “never being rewritten”; in short, “if it wasn’t on the page, it wasn’t on the stage.” It was good, too, to see Dennis’s best dramatic moment in the series, from the story ‘Hit and Run’, where he grieves over the death of his wife – written by Roger – get the admiring applause it so deserved. At the other end of the dramatic scale, Dennis’s drunken duet with John of ‘As Long As It Comes From The Heart’ from 'Visiting Fireman' was equally well received. Pinpointing The Sweeney’s uniqueness among crime shows in one witty comment, Dick observed that there was “very little singing and dancing in Luther.

You might not have known from the polite and cultured middle aged men on stage, but in their day the Euston Films crew were almost as unconventional and riotous as the series they made. It was good to see Peter ‘Pebbles’ Brayham, the series’ legendary stunt arranger, name checked in story where he persuaded one of the car mechanics to rewire the vehicle of an annoyingly precious actor, so that when he turned on the windscreen wipers, “the car exploded.” Also receiving recognition was the assistant director, cockney rough diamond Bill Westley who, to the amusement of the rest of the team, was arrested for carrying a shotgun during the making of the feature film Sweeney 2. Other tales of Euston anarchy concerned a caterer who ran over a real policeman’s foot, so Ted had to “keep shoving fivers in the orphans’ fund box” in the local police station to assist in getting him released, as well as the Spanish eagle, intended as the quirk of a master villain, which broke loose and started attacking the catering truck.

It’s a cliché, but all human life is there in The Sweeney, conveyed by the pounding, upbeat opening theme tune and the slow, melancholy closing version that accompanies the end credits, so it was a nice touch that the evening began with both versions of the title sequence and ended with the Fourth Series end titles, showing Jack and George wandering around the West End late at night.

Myself and Mike with another satisfied punter.
In the green room afterwards, Dennis, who’d been fairly reserved when he arrived, was smiling a lot and said that he was delighted to have been able taken part. Tom was on fine form too, and you got the feeling he would have happily carried on chatting and drinking red wine all night if Ted hadn’t shepherded him off to a wise meal (that wasn’t before he happily stopped to sign autographs and have his picture taken with delighted fans). Overall, you got the feeling from the three of them that the kind of camaraderie forged on making The Sweeney, together with the delight in making great drama, is something very special to them and will always be worth revisiting.

As for me and Mike, we had a great time: we signed 14 of the 20 Official Companions the BFI shop had, which isn’t bad for a second edition that came out over a year ago. It was all a bit of whirl, as the best events often are, so I’m glad my chum Lili was on hand to record things for posterity. Above all, though, it was a privilege to be involved in such an affectionate celebration of one of our favourite TV series that has influenced crime shows as diverse as the BBC knock-off Target, through to recent hits like Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and New Tricks

I guess if you’re a Sweeney fan, you’re a Sweeney fan for life.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like great fun was had by all. My father loved writing for the show.