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Unforgettable: The Sweeney, ITV1 | reviews, news & interviews

Unforgettable: The Sweeney, ITV1

Unforgettable: The Sweeney, ITV1

One-off special celebrates the classic Seventies show with unpretentious warmth

Regan and Carter growing impatient for their dinner

Sometimes when we reconnect with the television of our childhood it seems very different from what we recall, usually lesser in some way. This is certainly not the case with the physical violence of The Sweeney. ITV's hour-long special, to coincide with the release of a new feature film, showcased a mass of beatings, snarling assaults, and men taking limb-breaking leaps into quarries rather than face the actors who went on to play Inspector Morse and Minder.

It was the roles of Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Detective Sergeant George Carter of the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad that first defined John Thaw and Dennis Waterman with the British public. Their brutally masculine mannerisms and vicious physicality actually seem even edgier in our Guardian reader-friendly times.

The duo went from “household names to genuine icons of the decade”, it was argued here, with classic soundbites such as “We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner”. There followed a brief history of the Flying Squad – “Sweeney Todd” in Cockney rhyming slang - following it from its creation to tackle the London crimewave that followed World War One as disgruntled ex-soldiers realised there was no land of hope and glory for them, right through to its disgrace in the corruption trials of the early Seventies. Retired Superintendent Barry Phillips regularly interjected, pointing out that by the late Sixties London didn’t need a friendly bobby – a Dixon of Dock Green – for these were the high times of the bank robber alongside police who operated “within the law but… it isn’t for the faint-hearted”. One felt he was going to say something else but thought better of it.

It appeared to be a series everyone wanted to work on, so the best did

The show began after Ian Kennedy Martin wrote Regan, a very successful one-off for Thames Television, with the lead role written especially for his friend Thaw. It was quickly clear everyone had a brilliant time making the series that followed (except, perhaps, Thaw’s wife, Sheila Hancock, who admitted tearing him off a strip when he perennially returned late from the set and, as often, the pub). It appeared to be a series everyone wanted to work on, so the best did, and anyone on set could chip in with ideas, a huge array of contemporary actors making cameos, from Brian Blessed to Diana Dors. The outtakes made it look like a lark.

Waterman told of  his first day on set, waiting hours in a pub until he was so pissed he endlessly screwed up his cue, to appear from behind a car with a gun. Certain problems even proved beneficial: unable to persuade Rover, Triumph or Jaguar to provide cars, Ford leapt in and the duo’s Granada became part of their appeal. It was emphasised by Ray Winstone, the new film’s Jack Regan, how working-class people could relate to a show that portrayed police “knocking people about” and how it was also a must-watch because the Sweeney didn’t always win. Stories were told too that drew attention to the show's bawdy male culture, with Lynda Bellingham recalling the weekly parties at the seedy Red Cow pub in deepest west London, where strippers were a fixture.

It all came to an end in 1978 when Thaw realised there was nowhere left for the storylines to go and departed. They went out at the top by all accounts. Unforgettable was not big on BBC Four-style cultural analysis but it made a good go of swiftly sussing The Sweeney’s appeal, and arguing that Life on Mars owed it everything. It concluded with a well-chosen clip which summed up the show's appeal. Regan and Carter chat moodily in a drab drizzly Seventies urban decay-scape.

“It’s a hard world, guv,” says Carter.

“But keep it to yourself, George,” Regan replies. “No one else wants to know.”

Watch The Sweeney's classic opening and hear that theme tune one more time

Dennis Waterman told a tale of his first day on set, waiting hours in a pub until he was so pissed he endlessly screwed up his cue

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