Worst to Best
The Sweeney
Season Three

Filming on the third season of the Sweeney began in September 1975, with the series trading on its growing popularity by making a cinema movie during the production run.
     


by
THE ANORAK
OCTOBER 2014


The series aired from September-December 1976, the film successfully released in January the following year. After looking back over the first two seasons earlier in the year, The Anorak Zone continues to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the programme by rating the third from worst to best...

14 'Lady Luck'

"This is all a little bizarre, Jack."
Season three, while not hitting the highs of previous years, does avoid some of its wilder excesses. Gone are the indulgent comedy episodes, and there's a return to straight storytelling, even if, after three years on air, some of it feels a little flatter than before.
     ‘Lady Luck' is one of the few failures of the season, a virtual retread of Ranald Graham's season one episode Cover Story, whereby the viewers have to believe that Regan is naïve and gullible for the story to work. Padded, and with a narrative that swerves all over the place, it's one to skip, even for inexplicable lines of dialogue like the main female guest star saying to the old-before-his-time John Thaw: "You look younger than I thought you'd be." Presumably she thought Regan was 87? Also a low point for the series are the instances of characters laughing uproariously for what seems to last forever, almost like Dr. Evil in an Austin Powers movie.
     Incidentally, a point of trivia is that the title card for this episode spells the story title with quotation marks, as reproduced here.

13 Sweet Smell Of Succession

The most successful episode in terms of ratings and chart position, Sweet Smell of Succession topped the ratings that week with over nine million tuning in. It sees Hywel Bennett as the son of a deceased villain, trying to inherit his father's illicit business, while old rivals attempt to take it over.
     Bennett is a class act, but the villains in it are broad, and there's a lack of pace or urgency to the whole thing. Although season three is generally more focussed than the previous year, one criticism is that it doesn't have the same freshness that it once contained. There's clear signs in this episode that the two leads are coasting somewhat – not unnaturally after two years on air and a heavy filming schedule – and Bennett is relied upon to carry the story.

12 On The Run

The third series ends how season two was originally intended to do: with a sequel episode that features a stand off against a returning villain. That said villain is brought to life without any abandon by George Sweeney is what makes this episode simultaneously one of the best and worst instalments the show ever did.
     Sweeney may still be most famous among a certain generation for playing Speed in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith, and his performance here redefines the concept of over-the-top. Put this against the downbeat Regan and it's a clear sign how far the series has been allowed to drift from its origins.
     Odd moments include Sweeney's Tim Cook being talked up as some kind of supervillain who Regan is obsessed with… statements that are clearly untrue for anyone who watched his first appearance in Taste of Fear. There's also, rare for this run of episodes, a jarring return to attempts at overt comedy, which fits badly with the more serious nature of events. Carter is so childish here that hearing of a woman with the surname "Knightly" can send him into paroxysms of mirth. However, a downbeat ending where a girlfriend of Regan's reflects on his life expectancy is a nice touch, fading to grey… an effect they repeated in both movies.
     There is an interesting subtext in that Cook is implied to be part of a homosexual love triangle, but it's never really allowed room to breathe when given over to Sweeney's less restrained acting. Ultimately the episode is like watching a cartoon, and there's even the suspicion that Sweeney was just sending it up, death scene included. The very definition of a "guilty pleasure" then… an episode which you know has gone far beyond the show's usual remit, but one which is exceptionally entertaining despite it.

11 Tomorrow Man

Like Sweet Smell of Succession, there's a subtext involved in Tomorrow Man: the suggestion that old-school villainy was on the way out, to be swept aside by the 80s' growing reliance on business culture and stealing behind a computer screen.
     While such a prescient plot is to be commended, it leaves the leads without much to do, and is perhaps too esoteric to really compel. Having someone rob a post office is something that works in TV terms, but having John Hurt hack computers, particularly in this age of extremely basic computer systems, is like having Regan investigate the philosophical musings of Nietzsche. ("I've got a lead on him, guv... he's sat down, and we reckon he's thinking about the Will To Power." "Let's watch him thinking for forty minutes then nick that bastid, George!")
The real draw of the episode lies in seeing Dennis Waterman's future co-star George Cole in a secondary role… sadly, the brief screentime they share acknowledges little of the chemistry they'd come to enjoy together.

10 Down To You, Brother

Writer Richard Harris and director Chris Menaul were both newcomers to the series, and would both return with separate season four episodes. Menaul in particular does strong work here, adding touches of class, including juxtaposing a brutal beating with swimming and classical music.
     One element of The Sweeney that stands out in 2014 is, of course, the now-dated attitudes to minorities, be it "poofs", "slags", "coloureds" or "Jocks". Very much a flavour of the time is the amount of abuse guest star Kenny Lynch receives from his friend, all in the name of light-hearted banter. One particular exchange sees Lynch told: "you don't half rabbit, you blackies." Terence Budd actually goes through so many mock-Jamaican accents in this episode it's like watching a Jim Davidson highlight reel.
     There is the feeling with season three that it's not as sophisticated as what came before, the plots more basic, just with added trimmings, and the villains often almost comicbookish, even by the normal standards of the show. But this is an engrossing, decent instalment, even though little touches like Regan meeting up with his young daughter tie in a little too conveniently with the narrative of the gangland villain being concerned for his own offspring.

9 Bad Apple

Watching The Sweeney is a new experience here at The Anorak Zone, where, even by my advanced age, only scraps of the original broadcasts were seen as childhood memories. One misapprehension I had was that the programme regularly featured gratuitous female nudity. But while it's fair to say that the female roles in the show aren't generally that three-dimensional, up until the end of season two there had only been one topless shot in the show. This is upped for season three, with more instances of implied nudity, as well as rear shots, and two topless shots. It gets increased even further for the movies, particularly the second one, where the rules of cinema weren't as strict as those for television.
     Bad Apple is one of the "sexed up" episodes, featuring one of the aforementioned topless shots and opening with Carter asking Regan to go with him to watch porn films. After a stop off at a drag act strip club, the plot sees the Sweeney investigate police corruption in another branch. The fragmented plot and tricksy direction by Douglas Camfield keep the whole thing moving, even though the plot makes it explicit that the rival police are crooked, leaving no real suspense in the narrative.
     A point of trivia is the moment where Regan, undercover as a gas reader, tells one lady: "it might never happen... especially with the government we've got." James Callaghan's Labour government had just got in in 1976… in the second Sweeney movie they make this explicit, with Regan asking an underling to put a "vote Tory" sticker on his car.

8 Selected Target

The most-watched episode of The Sweeney when it was chosen for a repeat during the season four run, gaining over 19 million viewers. However, it should be noted that the BBC were experiencing industrial action at the time, and also that the way TV ratings were calculated changed in 1977, so even the lowest-rated season four episode (a repeat of Visiting Fireman, which just scraped under 11 million) still achieved higher viewing numbers than any episode from 1974-1976.
     The episode itself sees two criminals released from jail, with the Sweeney involved as they believe one might be out to kill the other. The various plot mechanics are probably above-average in sophistication for the show, and the ending refreshingly sees the Sweeney lose, something they rarely did before, but frequently do in this run. However, for a season opener, this commendable but never quite engrossing episode maybe feels more like a mid-season filler.