Worst to Best
The Sweeney
Season Three

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7 Visiting Fireman

On the Internet Movie Database this episode is the lowest-rated of all Sweeney episodes, and only one of two (along with season two's Supersnout) to be rated less than 7/10. How much can be drawn from this is open to debate: apart from the first episode, Ringer (suggesting 21 voters didn't want to watch another after seeing it) then all of the episodes have only been voted on from a range of 15-35 times. Such a small number is in contrast to the number of IMDb voters who rated the TV movie, the cinema movies, or even the series overall itself. (Currently 8.2 out of 10, with over 760 votes).
     It should also be noted that many of the overly comic episodes of the series do well in the voting, with the season two Patrick Mower vehicle Golden Fleece being regarded as the joint-third greatest episode of them all. The upshot is, unless a wider range of people can be polled, we may never get a good indication of what the most popular Sweeney episode truly is... and even if we did, you can always make up your own minds.
     So going against the apparent grain, Visiting Fireman was much enjoyed here at the Anorak Zone. Although some of the excesses, such as a cartoonish bomb exploding scene, a sex scene with a Nazi helmet and a far-fetched plot about plutonium sales jar badly with the more serious tone, this is one that rewards by being a little different.
     Lastly, the references to what may be regarded pejoratively as a lack of "political correctness" in the series are not here to either criticise or praise the programme, merely to acknowledge that it was made in a different age, and the series, as an historical document, can't really stand or fall on what was the parlance of the time. But this episode may still contain the power to shock with Regan's mocking of a Turkish friend, including such lines as "If I get my head cut off, I'm sending you the bill!" and "you've still got your three pensions, haven't you? One for each wife."

6 In From The Cold

A strong, functional plot sees Regan after a man who shot a police officer on a raid. Helping the criminal, "Billy Medhurst", to get away is a crooked solicitor, involved in corruption. Other than a left-field "identify the corpse's penis" scene, there isn't anything especially unique about this episode, and it doesn't go anywhere new in terms of the series, but it's the kind of story they could do every week and keep viewers happy. Look out for Dennis Waterman doing a decent impression of James Taylor, one of the more eccentric actors in what is otherwise a very straight episode.

5 May

Karl Howman, here just 23, will illicit one of two responses, depending on your age: older readers will cry out "it's Jacko from Brush Strokes", younger ones may remember him as the guy from the Flash adverts. Playing the young son of the titular May, he does good work here, suspected of aggravated robbery and GBH.
     As the plot unfolds, we find that Howman has been sleeping with the wife of an incarcerated criminal, and is beaten senseless by mobsters before being delivered back to his mum. Regan, an old flame of the mother's, is left to reflect on the fact that, for another of many instances in this season, he's been involved in a case where he ends up losing.

4 Pay Off

PJ Hammond is a huge favourite here at The Anorak Zone, a man who has given much to the cult TV genre: we've only recently ran an article on Ace of Wands, and he was of course the creator-writer of the superb Sapphire & Steel.
     Credited here as Peter J. Hammond, it's important to remember that at this stage in his career he was a crime show writer through and through, Ace Of Wands an aberration on his C.V. Up to this stage he'd script-edited and written for Z Cars, and also written for numerous series including Dixon Of Dock Green, Special Branch, New Scotland Yard and Villains. It's also perhaps important to remember that Ace Of Wands' Tarot, like Sapphire and Steel, is also ostensibly a detective. The upshot is that the two series which list Hammond as creator (including forgotten sitcom Lame Ducks) are far more out of character for the writer than The Sweeney ever was.
     Although Pay Off doesn't necessarily reinvent the wheel in terms of the programme, it does see its world populated with Hammond's off-centre imagination, and an unusual decision to make Carter the main character for an episode. Naturally for a man who had never written for the series before, even one as experienced as Hammond, there are the odd moments where certain elements feel out of character, but it's small, left-of-centre character beats that make the episode work, filling in the content and avoiding just working through a system of familiar tropes.
     If there is a criticism that can be levelled at this episode, it's that there is, admittedly, a lot of contrivance, from them just happening to find a body, to Carter happening to chat up the croupier in the first place, to Carter's superhuman ability to dodge bullets. It must also be acknowledged that one of The Sweeney's biggest weaknesses is its reliance on stock music. For such a distinctive series it's a shame they didn't spend more time on their own incidental soundtrack, and not rely on library music, much of which, particularly in the modern day, sounds ill-fitting with the images it accompanies. Imagine violent Schwarzennegger movie Commando juxtaposed with Miles Davis' Kind of Blue... that's the vibe from many of the episodes, and especially so with parts of this instalment.

3 Loving Arms

Perhaps most famous for featuring Ray Winstone in a minor role, the actor who would go on to star in a generic yet not awful movie based on The Sweeney in 2012. Cult TV fans might also like to see Stephen Pacey in a role, just under four years before he would be cast as Tarrant in Blake's 7.
     The Sweeney is, by its very nature, a TV series with a limited scope. Not an express criticism, but without a chance to break the status quo (Carter will always be a Sergeant, for example) or a chance to seriously move outside its remit (Regan will never build a space rocket and travel to Mars), the basic format will stay the same. After three years on air, there's naturally a sense of familiarity with the programme, as not only are the leads comfortable with their roles, but a handful of the stories, while decent, do have a vague feeling that we've seen them before.
     Loving Arms scores highly due to the fact that, while a deeply eccentric episode, it feels fresh and treading new ground. One-time writer Robert Wales crafts a bizarre script that sees Regan on the hunt for toilet rolls, while a man agrees to invent toy replica guns that can shoot real bullets to help his wife who is ill and has turned brown. There's also a spiv character, Artie Ward, who is an overt comedy character in an otherwise straight tale, and an armed raid climax that sees Regan and Carter gate crash a church meeting group in a bedroom. Whether or not you enjoy this episode, you have to ask yourself... what would the script pitch meeting have been like?

2 Taste Of Fear

The episode to introduce George Sweeney's villain Tim Cook, this one again sees him act without undue restraint, but without the full excesses that made the follow-up, On The Run, such a questionable exercise.
     The main thrust of the plot focusses on Norman Eshley (forever to be known to a generation as Tristram's dad in George and Mildred) as a new cop on the team. Although so questionable in his interrogation methods that even Regan pulls him up over it, Eshley's cop is a fundamental coward, and his breakdown on cases becomes a liability. Any television series that introduces a new character who befalls a bad fate in the same episode is unlikely to be truly successful; for a storyline of that nature to really work, we have to have got to know and care about the person first. However, this episode does it better than most, and pulls off some engaging character moments over what is fundamentally a basic plot.
     Violence in The Sweeney can look tame today, largely due to the fact that any blood shown in the series during the first three seasons is static, consequently acting like fresh blood doesn't, ie. not pouring. But Taste of Fear works well with violent content, bringing in shotgun blasts and beatings that give it a gritty edge. Lastly, look out for a lengthy dialogue scene where Carter talks about how much he finds young schoolgirls sexually attractive... it really was a different time.

1 Sweeney!

The increasing popularity of the series saw Euston decide to make a cinema release mid-way into the season three shooting schedule. Made for a reputed £130,000 (just £952,393 today) it's a modestly budgeted yet worthwhile entry into the canon.
     The appearance of this film at the top spot here may be open to question, as, while a decent film, it can be argued that it's not necessarily a decent Sweeney film, feeling off-kilter with the series it's supposed to represent. A movie with a denser plot than many season three episodes, it contains a still-topical storyline involving political conspiracies and oil trading. However, this is The Sweeney with an exclamation mark, where the characters are taken away from gritty streets and into global conspiracies and heavy artillery. The end is not John Thaw in an alleyway, having a staged fist fight with some "slag", but uzi submachine guns blazing a trail across the London streets.
     Yet what earns the film its prime ranking here is the powerful ending, with Regan, being told that a crooked diplomat being arrested would result in his execution by secret services, goes ahead and arrests him with wilful intent. It adds much-needed bite to the character at a time when both the actor and viewers had started to become a little too comfortable with Jack Regan...