Right, let’s start with a trivia question: what was the first British film to be legally shown in communist China? If, having read the title of this post, you said “The Sweeney”, you would be wrong. Mainly because, for some weird reason, they decided to title the spin-off movie “Sweeney!”. I know, weird, right? Still, if that wins you the next pub quiz it’ll all be worth it I’m sure.
But that’s what you did in the 70s with TV shows. Dire adaptations of Steptoe and Son (a jolly TV show turned into 90 minutes of heart-rending misery… twice), Dad’s Army drawn out at such length you could visibly see the paint drying on the sets, Sweeney! did much the same, stitching two episodes together and ramping up the violence and nudity.
Because that’s what The Sweeney did – if Regan and Carter had been in “Dances With Wolves” they’d have been called “Detects With A Fist” and “Kicks In The Bollocks”, no doubt.
The Sweeney – the name, incidentally, is rhyming slang for “flying squad” (Sweeney Todd, you see) – ran for 54 episodes on ITV (and 3 movies, if you include the 2012 remake) between 1974 and 1978. So it’s certainly the right period for Columbo, but I very much doubt he’d meet and informer and say “we’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner – so this had better be good”. Plus, I also doubt whether he would barge in on a couple naked in bed and pistol whip the guy with his own gun, either, but that was the show – underhanded, frequently illegal tactics that usually work.
It was an action show, really, first and foremost – John Thaw (we’ll come back to him later) and Dennis Waterman (ditto, only twice) played a pair of ruthless, not-by-the-book Lahndon coppers. Think Lethal Weapon, without the laughs. And more nudity.
The Sweeney is enjoyable, sure, but it’s not a Columbo replacement. Still, it’s iconic in its own way, and if you enjoy that sort of action policing, it won’t disappoint. Thaw and Waterman went on to be stars in their own way and it’s worth a look if you like that sort of thing, and although the final fourth series was the weakest, it really didn’t noticably jump the shark during its time – Thaw and Waterman spotted the decline and, sensibly, got out while the going was good.
Just to clear up one myth though: they weren’t named after the American presidents. Neither had been elected by the time the series was in production – the names are sheer coincidence!
So, then, the Columbo index… remember, these are scores for how closely this series fits the core Columbo concepts – and as always they’re completely subjective.
Car: Jaguar S types all the way. Basically they had a few that they crashed, resprayed and used again in a later episode … wait, crashed? I don’t recall Columbo crashing, ever. Hmm. That must mean Score: 4/10
Ahead of the game: nah, not really. This is policework, red in tooth and claw. Score: 3/10
Personality: Regan and Carter are unscrupulous rule-breakers, sure, but in the Lethal Weapon mould: they server a higher purpose and as far as they’re concerned, there’s nothing worse than a bent copper! Score: 7/10
Sidekick: Carter’s less like a beagle, more like a Rottweiler. With a baseball bat. With a nail through it. Score: 4/10
Violence: lots. Score: 1/10
Investigative style: less investigations, more a car chase and a savage beating waiting to happen. Score: 3/10
Catchphrases and general ambience: There are lots of splendid catchphrases – “put your trousers on son, you’re nicked” – springs to mind, and the period of the show’s right, so I’m going to give this Score: 7/10
That’s a Columbo index of 29. Tied with Bergerac. This might turn out to be more difficult than I thought…
Join me next time… when the dead will walk the earth.