ARMCHAIR CINEMA: Regan (Pilot for The Sweeney) / Blu-Ray Review

Euston Films, the subsidiary of Thames Television founded in 1971 by executives Lloyd Shirley (Controller of Drama), George Taylor (Head of Film Facilities) and Brian Tesler (Director of Programmes), recognised that British drama, at the time predominantly a mix of location filming and studio based video taping, could be made faster, cheaper and entirely on film. All three realised that the template of using lightweight film cameras, ten-day turnarounds with little or no rehearsal, non-union crews, and all-location filming -  the 'kick, bollock and scramble' approach coined by the crew of The Sweeney - would require some time to develop and establish.

The inspiration came from director Mike Hodges. Hodges's commitment to shooting and editing drama on 16mm film derived from his work on The Tyrant King, Trevor Preston's adaptation of Aylmer Hall's book as a serial for children, one of the first produced by Thames in 1968. He then wrote, produced and directed two television dramas on film for Thames Television under the 'ITV Playhouse' (1967-83) banner, Suspect (17/11/69 - Thames's first evening of colour programmes) and Rumour (02/03/70). Not only do they anticipate the development of Hodges's own style, a documentary aesthetic honed while working on Granada's World in Action (1963-98) and used in his seminal British crime film Get Carter (1971) that also influenced the creation of The Sweeney's pilot Regan, but it also proved to Shirley, Taylor and Tesler that their drive towards authenticity and realism could be produced without the need for a television studio and this particular way of making drama would make economic sense.

"a reasonable bet to take a tape series that had enjoyed decent public acceptance on to film"
With this in mind, Euston Films turned their attention to their first production Special Branch (1969-74), a video taped drama they had inherited from Thames and which they reworked for two further series in 1973 and 1974. As Lloyd Shirley commented in Made for Television: Euston Films Ltd, Euston believed it "a reasonable bet to take a tape series that had enjoyed decent public acceptance on to film, so at least we would know there was some sort of audience for it." Euston replaced the studio based, multi-camera production with all 16mm shooting on location, emphasising action and realism, and re-cast the series - out went Derren Nesbitt (negotiations over fees broke down apparently), Fulton MacKay and Wensley Pithey and in came George Sewell and, half way through the first run, Patrick Mower.

For their second series of Special Branch, Euston also gained producer Ted Childs, who had worked mainly in documentaries for ABC and then Thames, and who would become a key producer and writer at Euston. However, despite good viewing figures, no one at Euston particularly liked Special Branch and Jeremy Isaacs, Director of Programmes at Thames,  reflected that they had already started looking for something better: "It was obvious that in the crime area if we could find the right people and the right sort of format, that was perhaps the most useful thing Euston could do."

As they completed production on the final series of Special Branch, Euston was commissioned by Thames to produce Armchair Cinema, both an attempt to reverse the fortunes of ITV's highly regarded but by now seriously flagging single play strand Armchair Theatre and to produce a series of filmed dramas as potential pilots for future drama series, with the grittiness of Hodges's films as their primary inspiration. Regan was the second play shown under the Armchair Cinema banner and Euston, enthused by the play, had already gone into production on The Sweeney before the play was scheduled for transmission. However, the commission for Regan itself developed out of ideas for a drama series that the writer Ian Kennedy-Martin had pitched to Thames and then to Euston.

Kennedy-Martin had already, like his brother Troy, carved out a significant career in writing for television by the time he started chatting to Thames's Head of Script Development, George Markstein, about Special Branch. He'd already written scripts for drama series, including Mogul/The Troubleshooters (1965-72), Hadleigh (1969-76), The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1971-73) and The Onedin Line (1971-80), or created his own, such as Parkin's Patch (1969-70). He had adapted Bridget Boland's The Prisoner for the BBC (considered an early inspiration for the ITC series of the same name according to Sweeney! The Official Companion) back in 1963 when he spent a number of years in the BBC's writers' pool. When he script-edited ABC's Redcap (1964-66) it also cemented his long term professional relationship with actor John Thaw and for whom he specifically created the role of Jack Regan. His first encounter with Lloyd Shirley can also be traced back to the Armchair Theatre play 'The Detective Waiting' in 1971.

Of more relevance in the development of Euston's approach to Regan and The Sweeney, Kennedy-Martin had worked with producer-director James Gatward at Southern Television in 1969 on police drama Letters from the Dead, which he describes on his own website as "all on film, had ranged aound the City of London, the countryside, four-wallers and all over the place, plus snatched shots where we couldn’t get permission to film." This is interesting in light of the disputes that Kennedy-Martin had with Regan producer Ted Childs who had claimed that his script for the play was too rooted in studio based video-taped drama production.
'that's how we function, we gather information by meeting villains. We're right in there with them.'
George Markstein, a former journalist who had allegedly worked in military intelligence, had been story consultant on Court Martial (1966) the final episodes of Danger Man (1960-68) and was best known as the script editor for ITC's The Prisoner (1967-68) before moving to Thames and story editing Callan (the last two series 1970-2), Special Branch (the first series in 1969), a selection of Armchair Theatre plays, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (the first series in 1971) and producing the first series of Man at the Top (1970-71). Markstein and Shirley both invited Kennedy-Martin to come up with ideas for a series to replace Special Branch which Euston and Kennedy-Martin felt didn't depict modern policing realistically at all.

Kennedy-Martin had been watching with some considerable interest new Metropolitan Police Commissioner Robert Mark's attempts to clean up what he saw as a seriously corrupted Scotland Yard. It was an era in which an elite branch of the Metropolitan Police, the Flying Squad, had cultivated very close connections with criminals as part of its strategy that all cases should more or less be informant driven. To this end, Mark created A10, an internal body that would investigate and root out corrupt officers and to ensure that all work with informants was totally transparent and by the book. By the mid 1970s, several scandals about bribery and corruption in the force had come to light, including the Flying Squad's own commander Detective Chief Superintendent Kenneth Drury, who was jailed after being convicted of corruption. These scandals eventually led to an extensive internal investigation between 1978-84 codenamed Operation Countryman.

Kennedy-Martin knew that there was a great deal of unrest about Mark's clean up campaign at the Flying Squad through his connections with officer Dave Wilson, who he'd met when his brother Troy was researching for Z Cars. In Shut It! The Inside Story of the Sweeney, he explained: "My friend on the Flying Squad didn't like this at all. He said, 'that's how we function, we gather information by meeting villains. We're right in there with them.'" Wilson provided Kennedy-Martin with background details about the Flying Squad, perfect material for the story of an anti-establishment Squad officer that he was developing, and by the beginning of 1974 he had submitted a script, entitled McLean, to Lloyd Shirley and George Markstein. They both refined the script with Kennedy-Martin and then greenlit the project as an 80 minute drama for Armchair Cinema.

At about the same time, Kennedy-Martin and Shirley mutually agreed that Regan, as it was now titled, would suit John Thaw and a contract had been offered to the actor for the pilot and series, then called The Outcasts. However, the relationship between Kennedy-Martin, producer Ted Childs and the original director, Douglas Camfield, deteriorated when both Childs and Camfield wanted to make changes to the Regan script that he couldn't agree with. Camfield insisted on the scenes he wanted to add, including one featuring a gang rape according to Shut It! The Inside Story of the Sweeney, and Childs felt that the Regan script was full of too many long speeches and little action, something more suitable for a studio-based drama. Kennedy-Martin also refutes that claim on his website and asks, "slow action? Long speeches? Where are they?" of his pilot script. The dispute eventually saw the departure, before shooting began, of Camfield and Kennedy-Martin, but not before Kennedy-Martin had cannily negotiated the film, book and merchandising rights to what would become The Sweeney. Camfield would later return to direct a number of episodes for the series.
... the police primarily as controllers, heralding the upsurge of a tough law and order politics in the late 1970s
Regan not only had its finger on the pulse when it came to examining the sweeping changes that were occurring within the Metropolitan Police, with the central character of Jack Regan articulating the resistance by some officers to how Marks wanted them to abandon some of their unorthodox investigative methodologies and practices, but also reconstructed the genre of the police drama which, although had been revitalised in the 1960s by Allan Prior and Troy Kennedy Martin's Z Cars, had by 1974 become a much tamer series and had already spun off into the various regional crime squad iterations of Softly Softly and Barlow at Large. Even cosy old Dixon of Dock Green, which started life in 1955, was still on air when Regan and The Sweeney burst onto the scene.

This reconstruction can be partially traced via director Tom Clegg's documentary aesthetic, his use of hand-held cameras and all location filming, the grittier approach to crime drama that British cinema was already tapping into with Peter Yates's Robbery (1967), Mike Hodges's Get Carter (1971) - with the static shot of a police officer's injured body at the side of the Thames in the Regan title sequence clearly an homage - and Michael Tuchner's Villain (1971). Clegg and Kennedy-Martin were also very enthusiastic about the improvisational acting that they'd seen in Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973) and had hoped that Thaw would bring a similar quality to his playing of Regan. Childs and his Special Branch crew had recently seen Friedkin's The French Connection (1971) again and realised that its gritty attitude was something they could connect with. Friedkin's film was just one of a number of American films of the period that were setting out to transform the received view of the police and lawlessness and certainly Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971) was another influential film that depicted an officer willing to trangress the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in law enforcement.

At the same time, Regan and The Sweeney could be seen as a refracted response to what many perceived as the ungovernable Britain of the 1970s. As the counter-cultural dream of the 1960s dwindled and the Heath-Wilson era of politics was about to give way to a further swing to the right under Thatcher, the country found itself the victim of soaring crime rates, trade union action and terrorism while attempting to come to terms with Britain's transformation into a multi-cultural society. With public confidence in the role of the police under scrutiny, perhaps Regan and the unorthodox approach of the Flying Squad articulated what Stuart Hall, quoted in Leon Hunt's British Low Culture, saw as the "consequence of legitimating the recourse to the law, to constraint and statutory power as the main, indeed the only, effective means left of defending hegemony in conditions of severe crisis." As Robert Reiner suggests in The Dialectics of Dixon: the Changing Image of the TV Cop, Dixon and Regan are the polar opposites of each other within the police drama genre: "Dixon presents the police primarily as carers, lightning rods for the post-war consensual climate... The Sweeney portrays the police primarily as controllers, heralding the upsurge of a tough law and order politics in the late 1970s."

Clegg opens Regan with hand-held shots of the denizens of a smoke filled East End pub, beneath the surface clearly denoted as a threatening environment where villains and the police meet, and he carries this vérité approach to shooting the pilot through various locations around Wapping, Chamber's Wharf and Bermondsey, a skating rink in Richmond and for added authenticity the Thomas a Beckett pub on the Old Kent Road "where the worlds of legitimate boxing and organised crime overlapped" notes Shut It! The Inside Story of the Sweeney. The noirish cinematography depicting Detective Sergeant Cowley's death at the hands of villain Dale and his cohorts is mixed with equally considered landscape views of warehouses, docklands, shabby looking streets and the claustrophobic interiors of houses blessed with some alarming colour schemes.

Regan's investigation into the death of his colleague Cowley (Del Baker) is motivated not just by achieving justice but also about exacting revenge. This posits Regan as an individualist rule-breaker with often right wing and, what would now be seen as, politically incorrect views about women, ethnic minorities, foreigners ("I've never met a Kraut I liked") and his superiors. As early as Regan, the line between orthodox policing and criminal activity in order to secure a conviction is blurred by Regan as he resorts to 'borrowing' a gun from the armory, blackmail and threats of violence to bring Cowley's killer to book.

But it is also about a man needing to prove himself as the younger Detective Inspector Laker (Stephen Yardley) is handed the case and a rather unhealthy competition ensues between them. There is additional pressure on Jack from his bosses Haskins and Maynon who despair at his methods and who, just as he gets closer to Cowley's killer, threaten to suspend him. As Maynon warns Jack at the end of the play, even after he has successfully arrested Dale for the death of Cowley, there will be "No more lone rangers. From now on you'll be one two-hundredth part of any successful case - not the hero of the hour."

Regan, whose marriage is over and who finds intimacy in affairs with the likes of Annie (Maureen Lipman), is addicted to his career, drink and cigarettes and is the epitome of unreconstructed masculinity undergoing crisis that Andrew Tolson described in The Limits of Masculinity as a "contemporary 'problem of masculinity', involving adjustment to disintegrating images of the 'self'" and where Regan and Carter find themselves in a world where the idea of masculinity is in flux and domestic life becomes an arena of emasculation. When Regan visits his ex-wife Kate (Janet Key) there is a very ironic moment played out where she suggests "it would be a good idea if you ate regular meals and drank less. You're 35 and you look 45." Kennedy-Martin and the crew regularly ribbed the 32 year old Thaw about his own rather haggard looks. Carter (Dennis Waterman) himself is very unsure about working with Regan on the case because he has made a very conscious effort to return to divisional duties in order to protect his own marriage and disapproves of the methods that Jack uses. By the end of Regan that lack of confidence in his 'guv' has been partially replaced by an acknowledgement of Regan's observation that they are two of a kind, outcasts who prefer to work out in the cold of the streets to get results rather than sit behind a desk and do the paperwork.

There are then three versions of Regan in the pilot - the rookie cop Cowley who wants to be just like Regan but gets killed for his troubles, Regan himself who mismanages Cowley because he's too busy tilting at windmills like Haskins (Garfield Morgan) and Maynon (Morris Perry) whom he sees as two among "hundreds of little grey men, all working on top of each other, pots of tea and committees", and Maynon himself, who not only understands why Jack is so resistant to change and admires his tenacity if not his methods but also sees that the changes in policing are inevitable. Kennedy-Martin shows how guilty Regan feels about the death of Cowley in an extremely tender but awkward moment when he realises that he'll have to break the news of Cowley's death to his grandmother, "How can I walk in there and tell that old lady that it's over?" he asks Carter. This is placed in direct contrast to a Regan who will pose as a blackmailer to flush out Dale, the gang boss who killed Cowley because he discovered that two rival gangs, the Tusser and Mallory boys, were uniting. Regan instinctively understands that this has happened only because Dale has murdered his opponent Mallory.  

While the pacing on Regan is more sedate compared to the series that followed six months later, the building blocks for The Sweeney are definitely in place. There is the growing relationship between Regan and Carter, with their domestic lives as a contrast to their journey through the murkier underbelly of London and the internal politics of the Squad and Regan's antagonistic challenges to his bosses. Dropped into this raw and gritty soup are some very funny set pieces and one-liners where Kennedy-Martin captures the absurdities of the job and this world, from the opening raid as Regan declares to his criminal quarry, caught in flagrante with his girlfriend, that now infamous line, "Get yer trousers on, you're nicked!" to the larger than life photographer cum forger George South (Michale da Costa) who is interviewed by Regan as he attempts, to no avail, to get a smile from a child he is photographing with a rather dreadful looking ventriloquist's dummy. There's even a pot shot at Maynon's pompous self-importance as he's preparing for a television interview and asks Haskins, "Do I look shifty?" Later, Regan introduces Carter to small time criminal Morton (Barry Jackson) with, "this is a colleague of mine. He hits people. Isn't that right, colleague?" and finally, after arresting, physically attacking and leaving Dale slumped over his car in the climax of the play, Regan notices that Dale's "stinking heap is licensed till March. It's April the twentieth. I'll have you for that, an' all!"

Another key aesthetic is the use of library music to score the play and subsequently much of the series that followed. Music featured in Regan is from the KPM, De Wolfe and Chappell libraries and is comprised of fast paced jazz funk pieces from the likes of Keith Papworth, Simon Park, Alan Parker, Steve Gray and John Cameron. In a way, this was the equivalent of television following in the wake of Roy Budd's exceptional music for Get Carter and also capturing the flavour of Lalo Schifrin's work on Bullitt (1968) and Dirty Harry or David Shire's soundtrack to The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (1974) to underline the important influence that 1970's American crime cinema had on the series.

Dominated by John Thaw's extraordinary performance as the loner, maverick Regan, the drama also boasts a splendid supporting cast including Lee Montague as the intimidating Dale, Don Henderson as a rather effete bodyguard to Mallory's girlfriend, Janet Key as Regan's ex-wife Kate, David Daker as Tusser and Morris Perry's laconic Maynon. Touching, violent, gritty and funny and superbly set up by director Tom Clegg, it comes as no surprise now that Euston were so confident about turning Regan into a series.

About the transfer
The original remastered and restored DVD version from Network was pretty good quality at the time but with this being shot on 16mm it's hardly surprising that it will never really attain the real depth you'd find in 35mm picture reproduction. Often the image is quite soft and grainy but that's commensurate with the 16mm format. That said this does look good in high definition and definitely is the best this play will ever look but only intermittently does it attain real depth and offer good detail. The best detail can be found in the close ups of faces or in clothing. Colour is certainly more vibrant and there are very good contrast levels, especially in the scenes shot at night, but it's borderline as to whether this is worth upgrading to in high definition.

Special features
Commentary with Dennis Waterman, producer Ted Childs and director Tom Clegg
Ported over from the original Network DVD this is a lively, rambunctious chat between three men who clearly enjoyed making the series and delight in sharing their often very funny recollections. Well worth a listen. 
Interview with Ian Kennedy-Martin
Although it's listed on the press release, this interview with Kennedy-Martin from the Network DVD is not present. Shame about that.
Dolby 5.1 surround, original mono and music-only tracks
The 5.1 remix is reasonably good if not exactly strident and you get the original mono if you're a purist. Some of the library music mentioned above is provided on a separate track but many of the cues are not the full versions and are only extracts used for scoring the play itself.

Armchair Theatre: Regan
Euston Films and Thames Television 1974
Network Blu-Ray / Released 10th October 2011 / 7957045 / 77 mins approx / Region: ABC / Subtitles: English / Sound: Dolby 5.1 and Mono / Picture: 1080p HD / 1.33:1 / Colour


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