The Sweeney became one of British television’s seminal shows when it first hit TV in the 1970s. The gritty police drama was unlike anything which had aired before, ditching the Dixon of Dock Green style quaintness for graphic violence and hard hitting plotlines. The show was a massive success, changing the face of television forever, and while it may have been copied over the years, it has never been bettered. The Sweeney was created by Ian Kennedy Martin, a British television writer with dozens of screen credits to his name, including The Saint, The Chinese Detective and Juliet Bravo to name but a few.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Kennedy Martin about the show in conjunction with the release of Series One on Blu-ray (read my review). He talked about how he was inspired by real-life members of the Flying Squad to write about the challenges they faced when old school police work impacted head-on with bureaucracy. Ian Martin Smith is a true gentleman, friendly and eloquent and he offered up a treasure-trove of information with regards to The Sweeney. Enjoy…
Where did the idea for The Sweeny come from?
When Z-Cars started, which was my brother, we accumulated some police contacts. Through the years he and I had written things about the police and finally I had this contact who was working with the Flying Squad called Dave Wilson – he was an Inspector there. Everything was hunky-dory until the new Commissioner, Robert Mark arrived on the scene in Scotland Yard. He wasn’t happy about Scotland Yard – in particular the Flying Squad and in fact 600 Metropolitan Policemen went walkabout. He got rid of the lot of them – including the Commander of the Flying Squad. He got done for corruption and went off to jail.
Dave was working in a small office, he was in the Flying Squad – a Detective and he was told that what he was doing was not the right thing to do. In other words he was told that detectives in the Flying Squad could not have involvement with criminals, meet them in pubs. This intelligence gathering, which was what it was supposed to be, was probably about fifty percent of their work – to go out and meet villains and find out what was going on. Commissioner Mark said that should end. Not only that, but he set up and investigation operation called A-10, that was investigating policemen. So Dave not only was told what he could do, but he had to look over his shoulder – there were coppers who would pounce, if they thought that he was not towing the line.
He was in a bit of a stew and I thought that this would make a very good television series – a guy who is being hounded, trying to do his job – an old style copper, going around knocking the living daylights out of anybody who thinks they can get a bit smart. I took this to Euston films, a comparatively new operation, and said, ‘I think there’s a series in this’. They said, ‘Yes, fine we’ll commission you’. We brought Dave onboard as an unofficial advisor.
How did the casting come about?
I said that the person who I really want to play the lead is John Thaw. Now, John and I had been friends for ten years, ever since I had gotten the scripts together for Red Cap – about a military policeman. I thought that he was a really fine actor and in those days if you did play the lead in something like Red Cap then you became identified with the part. It’s the reverse nowadays – if they come from a successful series in the BBC, everybody wants a piece of them.
When Dennis Waterman’s name came up I thought that he’s a very good guy. I pushed for him, but I didn’t need to do much pushing. I thought that Dennis and John made a good couple.
Did the characters change once you cast the actors? Did they bring their own personalities to the roles?
Yes, I think they did. There were levels in John as a person, he had a considerable depth, and some of that came out. I think when we were working on the pilot, I would make long lists – what car does a guy drive? What newspapers does he read? Is he looking for a permanent relationship, or one night stands? John would correct me; ‘I think he’d have this car, He’d read those kind of papers, he’d read The Sun up to page three – he’s not intellectual, but he’s a thinker’.
Were you under much pressure to soften things for a TV audience?
Absolutely not. The whole thing is who is head of drama, how tough is he? We had Lloyd Shirley, head of Euston Films and he knew this was a good programme, so he defended it against any censorship. Other heads might bow down, particularly at the BBC – they’re not quite as tough.
Why do you think that the show has had so much longevity?
I think it was different, it was tough and it went against the grain of existing cop shows. What was on offer at the time? There was Softly, Softly: Task Force and people still had a remembrance of Dixon Of Dock Green and they didn’t expect to see a show that started with shoot-out.
The second thing was that it was all on location, they built, I think five sets at Colet Court in Hammersmith, but a lot of it was rolling around the roads to the darker corners of London. It looked new. The main thing was there were some very, very good scripts, very, very good directors. Then when you top that with John and Dennis you’ve got something that lasts.
They did over fifty episodes, how do you keep it fresh, not only for the viewers – but for yourself?
It rolls, it starts to roll along. There would be times when John Thaw would say, ‘I won’t do this’, or wouldn’t do that, or ‘I’m not happy about this story’. Once it was seen to be a success, then of course you get less questions from the money men. You could get some decent crashes and smash up cars. In another series they might say it’s expensive to do all that stuff. Can’t you do just London’s Burning, cat up a tree type thing? Which is what happens.
Have you seen the new film version of The Sweeney?
I haven’t, I’ve been busy finishing a novel. They kindly offered me to come to viewing theatres and to come to the premiere, but I couldn’t make it. I’ve heard that it’s a good fast action movie. A couple of people I know have seen it – apart from the title and the names, it’s not a lot to do with The Sweeney. Good luck to them.