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Shut It! The Sweeney Double Bill: Two Blu-rays from Network

  Ah, the nineteen-seventies, and in British cinema, television is King. This was mostly down to popular sitcoms (and some unpopular ones, what the hell) being adapted for the big screen, all taking their cue from Till Death Us Do Part in 1968 which really opened the floodgates as a beleaguered industry saw Hollywood investment drain away and audiences turning out for sex comedies that went further than what they could see on their television sets. That was when they were not showing up for the American blockbusters of the day, but British blockbusters? There was not much evidence for that.

Some of those Hollywood majors' hits included a fresh strain of paranoid works, ranging from The Conversation to All the President's Men (based in fact!), from Three Days of the Condor to The Parallax View, from Capricorn One to... well, you get the idea. Britain had an occasional try at the paranoia, but one of them hailed from an unusual source. The Sweeney was a cop show that started on ITV in 1974, making household names of its stars John Thaw and Dennis Waterman, the ultimate "stay up past bedtime to watch it if you can get away with it" for the seventies kids up and down the land, but in 1977 there was no new series.

This was because its producers at Euston Films turned the programme into a film franchise, or did their best with two entries before the series returned to the box for a last bow in 1978, its place in the nation's hearts taken by The Professionals, which made The Sweeney look as old hat as The Sweeney had for Dixon of Dock Green or even Z-Cars on the BBC. It's arguable that while they both had a serious tone, The Sweeney looks a lot less absurd than The Professionals all these decades later, the latter positing that international terrorists were directing their operations from Home Counties suburbia since it was cheaper to film there.

The Sweeney also stayed close to its patch in London, but as the titular Flying Squad were based there, it made a lot more sense, story-wise. Sweeney! was the opening salvo in Euston's assault on the picture palaces, not so much promising a more adult storyline as increased levels of sex and violence, and sure enough within its first five minutes that nice Lynda Bellingham has been forced to take a drugs overdose and stripped naked in a hotel room, after recording what amounts to an unintentional "suicide" note on a cassette. You didn't get that with her OXO adverts, and with very good reason. Of course it's with good reason!

The bad guys here were not the series' crooks and gangsters zooming around in Jags, they were part of the establishment, to be precise hired guns for the oil industry who are trying to sabotage government minister Ian Bannen's management of their business interests. He is guided by PR man Barry Foster with an American accent (did they really try to sell something so British to the Americans?), who orchestrates the machine gun attacks for his real bosses, who in very seventies manner are "probably" the sheiks of the Middle East, a common bogeyman in the media of the day and here represented by Nadim Sawalha.

For long stretches the duo of Regan and Carter were absent from the screen as Ranald Graham's screenplay grew enamoured of following the dodgy dealings and Diane Keen as a high-class call girl called Bianca (an exotic name back then). Indeed, for quite a while Waterman's Carter was off screen as the main duo were Regan and Bianca, the officer uncovering the conspiracy and trying to keep her safe. Featuring many of the most violent deaths by gunfire you'll ever see, this culminated in a would-be resonant downbeat ending, popular in this decade since Easy Rider, with Carter making a baffling accusation at his boss.

Despite this finale that apparently set Regan against Carter, they were best buddies again for the sequel, Sweeney 2, in 1978. The series had been created by Ian Kennedy-Martin, but he gave regular opportunities to his brother Troy Kennedy-Martin to pen episodes, and since you had to presume they were on the same wavelength, he wrote this spin-off too. Less ambitious in scope than Sweeney!, this was more akin to the television source, mostly set in a familiar set of London locales with one sequence standing out for taking the two main characters away from their regular stamping ground and all the way to the Mediterranean.

This was down to the main bad guys, or blaggers in the parlance of the show, living on Malta as expats and only returning every so often to orchestrate highly specific robberies, always with their lucky mascot, a gold-plated Purdey shotgun (sawn-off, natch). There was less action this time around, or rather it seemed that way because there was a lot more chit-chat and a longer running time as a consequence, though a mid-film excursion to a hotel where a mystery Frenchman from Beirut is defusing a bomb earned marks for its barefaced gratuity when it had absolutely nothing to do with the main Maltese thieves plot.

Kennedy-Martin and his director Tom Clegg, also a veteran of the TV incarnation, evidently believed bits of business to build up characters was important here to allude to the style of what had gone on before, so we had, for example, Regan trying to romance switchboard operator Georgina Hale only to be asleep when she lets herself into his flat with the key he gave her, or Regan's new driver as a posh vegetarian to give him a bunch of working class clich├ęs to spout in reaction. The unreconstructed males were about as unreconstructed as it was possible to get here, a mix of reactionary values and generally pissed off at the world.

After all, the seventies was the era that police corruption was exposed, and the Metropolitan Police were under terrific scrutiny from Sir Robert Mark, before he started advertising tyres on TV. This seemed to feed into the harassed, put-upon air of the Flying Squad (their former director - Denholm Elliott - has been convicted and imprisoned within minutes of the film's start), and the fact the criminals can live the high life in contrast does little to lighten their mood. Not a bad idea, making the cops the underdogs so the audience can warm to them, and echoing sitcom movies Regan and Carter went on a paid holiday to Malta for their investigations.

All in all, the Sweeney movies were about as "Britain in the seventies" as it was possible to get, aware society was changing but not sure of how to present itself, hence the attitudes and trappings earned them adults-only ratings in the years to come. That can be bracing: nothing was sugarcoated here, and it didn't feel like an affectation, either, they were trying to depict a tough, unsentimental world and you had to admit they succeeded in that ambition. The television programme may have been superior, but their movies were justifiably cult favourites from a time that was not kind to British cinema, and Thaw and Waterman remained as magnetically watchable as ever. Certainly, rather this than the reboot from decades later which damn few liked: Sweeney! and Sweeney 2 were where the good stuff was if you didn't have the episodes to hand.

[Both these films have been released on Blu-ray by Network, fully restored and spotless. Trailers and image galleries are included as extras.

Click here to buy from the Network website.]
Author: Graeme Clark.


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