The rise of the maverick...
in February 1975, the same month that Thatcher was elected Tory leader in the teeth of the old boy establishment at Westminster, The Sweeney started its first series on ITV. Here, in a radical break with previous TV police shows in Britain, John Thaw played Jack Regan, a maverick cop closer in spirit to Clint Eastwood’s ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan than he was to Sgt Dixon of Dock Green. The Sweeney had little or no interest in conventional themes of police procedure, detection or criminal master plans; instead it adopted a more aggressive, even bellicose, attitude, with protracted chases, shoot-outs and fist fights.
‘You’re building an image, Jack,’ his boss warns him. ‘A broken marriage, drinking, deliberate flouting of authority...’ But Regan has no patience with older, more senior officers who don’t approve of his style. ‘They don’t understand,’ he snaps. ‘It’s war, it’s bloody war now. When you stop a kid in a stolen car, you can’t be sure he isn’t tooled up and ready to blow your face off.’
At the emotional heart of the show was the male bonding of Regan and his sidekick George Carter (Dennis Waterman), as they lived cheek by jowl with London’s criminals, and as they fought villains, cop-baiting journalists and even their own hierarchy on the fifth floor, to whom their immediate boss Frank Haskins (Garfield Morgan) is always answerable when they overstep the line yet again.
‘I sometimes hate this bastard place. It’s a bloody holiday camp for thieves and weirdos, all the rubbish,’ Regan says of London. And then he gets personal: ‘You try and protect the public and all they do is call you fascist. You nail a villain and some ponced-up pinstriped amateur barrister screws you up like an old fag packet on a point of procedure, then pops off for a game of squash and a glass of Madeira. He’s taking home thirty grand a year, and we can just about afford ten days in Eastbourne and a second-hand car.’
This was the world of James Barlow’s The Burden of Proof replayed on a much bigger stage and inflated for more cynical times: the heroes are still the thin blue line, but now they are deeply flawed human beings, battling not only the criminal classes, with their bent lawyers and politicians, but also pen-pushing superiors who don’t understand how desperately corrupt the world has become.
In the words of the original brief for writers of the series: ‘Regan is contemptuous of the formality and bureaucracy which characterizes much of the police service. His basic philosophy is “Don’t bother me with forms and procedures, let me get out there and nick villains”.’ Or, as Carter was later to put it, ‘You can’t operate unless you break the rules. Everybody knows that...’
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2008