Coppers & Spies Revisited
Continuing with the re-written versions of the original Coppers and Spies blog posts published on the MovieMail site in 2014. Each part contains additional research material and information on the various crime and spy adventure series the original blog series covered, timed to celebrate Network's highly-anticipated release of The Professionals in high-definition last March.

5: Jack or Knave - From Special Branch to The Sweeney

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), set out to make television faster and cheaper. It swapped studio taping for lighter film cameras, ten-day turnarounds with minimal rehearsal, non-union crews, and all-location filming. Affectionately described by the crew of The Sweeney as the ‘kick, bollock and scramble’ approach, Euston’s operation transformed television drama in the 1970s.

Prior to Euston’s formation, directors Jim Goddard and Terry Green and writer Trevor Preston had already proposed to ABC the creation of a small group to produce work on 16mm film, a gauge normally used to film inserts on location for video taped drama but not considered as a format for an entire drama's production.

Over at Thames Television George Taylor also believed there was potential to make drama on film rather than tape. The first production to test the water was director Mike Hodges’ all-16mm shoot on Preston’s 1968 children’s drama The Tyrant King. Hodges had worked with Preston, Goddard and Green on ABC’s arts documentary series Tempo and their influence on Euston’s drama output would be significant.

Shirley, impressed by Hodges’ work, commissioned him to direct two filmed television plays, ‘Suspect’ and ‘Rumour’, for the ITV Playhouse strand in late 1969. Their success convinced Shirley, Taylor and Tesler that moving to film not only made economic sense but also shifted drama towards greater realism and authenticity. The challenge for Euston was to make a complete series on film using freelance crew and equipment. 

Retooling Special Branch

To put this into practice Thames’ crime drama Special Branch underwent an overhaul. Edited by former journalist, script editor of Danger Man and The Prisoner George Markstein, it featured a British police unit, affiliated to the Metropolitan London Police and responsible for national security. Markstein ruled out consultation with the real Special Branch due to the secret nature of its work and asked his writers to use their common sense and available research.

He observed, “I regard fussy authenticity as questionable… I am against expert advisers. They tend to concentrate on small, unimportant details so that their ex-colleagues in the police won’t criticise them.” Writers such as Preston, Roger Marshall and Peter Hill, a former detective in Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad, brought their considerable knowledge and experience to the series.

The series, first made in 1969 and 1970 with the standard mix of tape and film inserts, focused on cat and mouse Cold War espionage, featuring various threats to international security from terrorists, dissident students, assassins and Russian diplomats. Markstein was concerned with Special Branch’s efforts to “prevent the erosion of freedom” and felt the series was a reflection of current news headlines. Lead actor Derren Nesbitt made such an impact as DI Jordan he was guest of honour at a Special Branch dinner. Dubbed the ‘copper with a kipper tie’ by TV Times, he was the dandyish foil to co-star Wensley Pithey’s supremely grouchy DS Eden.

In 1973 Special Branch’s third series switched to shooting on 16mm film and utilised direct sound recording. Actors George Sewell and Patrick Mower, playing the harder, cynical duo of DIs Craven and Haggerty, replaced the original leads. The stories gained a grittier, realistic patina, more socio-political insights and showcased the ambiguous relationship between police and villains.

Producer Ted Childs recalled the changes to the series, “… Although I felt that Special Branch as a television film format left something to be desired, I learnt a great deal. I brought in directors I’d worked with, some with a documentary background, and really what we tried to do was incorporate the ‘wobbly-scope’ techniques of 16mm documentary film-making into a drama situation.”

The move onto film did not go smoothly. Opposed to Euston operating as a freelance film unit, the Film Production Branch of technicians’ union the ACTT disrupted filming of Special Branch, concerned that television’s move into film production would exacerbate the collapse of the UK’s old film studio system. This dispute was a catalyst to policy reform but union issues about television film production affected Van der Valk in 1976 when it graduated from taped studio production at Thames to an all-film series made by Euston.

Simultaneously writer Ian Kennedy-Martin, who had written for The Troubleshooters, Hadleigh, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, The Onedin Line, story edited Redcap and created Parkin's Patch, was discussing a new police drama with Thames. Parkin's Patch was ostensibly a variation of the Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars community policing theme. This early Yorkshire Television drama transmitted in 1969, was, no surprises given the theme, the brainchild of Elwyn Jones (see the Coppers and Spies entry on Z Cars).

Again, the series recruited an 'expert' on the unit beat policing of the time in the form of Yorkshire copper Detective Chief Superintendent Arnold Robinson. This policing, which had influenced the development of Z Cars and Softly, Softly Task Force, was distinguished by the introduction of technological changes such as patrol cars, two way radios and the introduction of intelligence-led policing where constables were briefed about crime trends and wanted suspects.

Jones recruited a number of writers from his previous police dramas, including Robert Barr, Allan Prior and Ian Kennedy-Martin. Ian also persuaded his brother Troy to contribute to the series. To describe it today as the precursor to Heartbeat is to do it some disservice and, while it didn't quite qualify as some halfway house between Softly Softly, Special Branch and The Sweeney, there were some fine episodes directed by the likes of Michael Apted and Stephen Frears and the contributions from Ian and Troy Kennedy Martin were particularly noteworthy.

Euston was open about being not particularly fond of Special Branch, despite its popularity, and Ian Kennedy-Martin, who thought it was unrepresentative of crime and policing in 1970s London, was asked to devise its replacement. He was inspired by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Robert Mark's attempts to clean up a seriously corrupted Scotland Yard with his new department A10. The Flying Squad had cultivated unsavoury connections with criminals and Mark wanted to oust corrupt officers and ensure working with informants was legitimate. Several scandals about bribery, evidence planting and corruption broke before 1978’s internal investigation, Operation Countryman.

After police officer Dave Wilson introduced him to the internecine worlds of Flying Squad coppers and East End villains, Kennedy-Martin developed a script titled McLean. Featuring a tough, alcoholic police officer drowning in bureaucracy, criminals and informants, he retitled it Regan and wanted actor John Thaw, a good friend since working together on Redcap, for the lead.

A not so Flying start

However, during Regan’s production Kennedy-Martin had a major disagreement with Childs and its original director, Douglas Camfield, over their changes to his script. He was also unhappy about Euston’s management of writers and how his honest depiction of the Flying Squad was being diluted in the name of entertainment. He soon left the production after negotiating a severance deal.

Director Tom Clegg replaced Camfield and cast the key characters. Clegg originally preferred Stanley Baker for DI Jack Regan but changed his mind when Kennedy-Martin arranged for him to meet John Thaw. Having worked with him on Special Branch, Clegg cast Dennis Waterman as DS George Carter. Respected character actor Garfield Morgan was signed as Regan’s bureaucratic boss DCI Frank Haskins, originally named Thomas Laker in Ted Childs’ writers’ brief.

Euston, confident about Regan’s success, started production on The Sweeney under the working title of The Outcasts before the play’s June 1974 Armchair Cinema transmission. Like Special Branch, it was filmed at Colet Court’s old Hammersmith school buildings (where Montgomery planned the D-Day landings) and used local London locations. Made by a committed cast and crew on tight budgets and deadlines, The Sweeney, with its iconic titles developed by director Terry Green and pounding Harry South theme, debuted January 1975.

Troy Kennedy Martin, co-creator of Z Cars, joined core writers Trevor Preston, Ranald Graham and Roger Marshall to develop his brother Ian’s format for The Sweeney. The series was a study of cynical police officers, a witty, acerbic view of their criminal nemeses and an unflattering exposé of modern policing. Its tough world and ambiguous characters were a far cry from Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars.

Although, like The Professionals, it has been somewhat eclipsed by the Comic Strip’s metafictional parodies, nostalgic references in a Nissan Almera ad and ironic reconstruction in BBC series Life On Mars, The Sweeney’s original appeal lay in the realistic relationships between the criminals and the Regan-Carter-Haskins trio and the keenly felt deleterious effects of the job on their life-work balance. The post-modern accrual of unreconstructed masculinity, the reshaping of its music, fashion sense and production modes does not diminish The Sweeney's core appeal - characters.

Regan, smoking and drinking himself to death, separated from his wife and child. Eventually, Carter’s wife Alison was murdered and Doreen Haskins suffered a breakdown. Women were victims in this violent, corrupted male dominated world and female officers were conspicuous by their absence. Equally, stories did not ignore the traumatised relatives and innocent victims of the criminal classes.

The hierarchies between villains, henchmen, informants and sympathetic police officers provided structure. Villains evading capture, failed operations and lapses of judgement were a backdrop to Regan’s clashes with Haskins and A10 over their demands for his accountability and fierce criticism of his old school policing methods.

Before the third series went into production Euston made a spin-off cinema film in partnership with EMI. David Wicks, who directed Sweeney! in the spring of 1976, compared the film to William Friedkin’s gritty 1971 police thriller The French Connection, which had partly inspired Childs, Lloyd and Shirley to set up The Sweeney in 1973. Writer Ranald Graham had the daunting prospect of transferring the series to the big screen and his script referenced 1973’s oil crisis and featured corrupt deals between UK government officials and multinational oil cartel OPEC.

The film was such a success EMI bankrolled a sequel, Sweeney 2, made in 1977 prior to filming on the final Thames series. Troy Kennedy Martin provided a script that, in spirit, was much closer to its television inspiration. The plot focused on armed robbers abandoning a seedy, economically depressed Britain for the sunny bolthole of Malta, reflecting Troy's cult caper film The Italian Job (1969) and anticipating films such as The Long Good Friday (1980) and Sexy Beast (2000).

More humour, best defined by the Morecambe and Wise escapades in the episode ‘Hearts and Minds’, was incorporated into the last series of The Sweeney but there was a very tangible sense Regan’s fall from grace was imminent and Carter had become as disenchanted as his ‘guv’. In the final episode ‘Jack or Knave’ a weary Regan, cleared of bribery charges but bitterly disillusioned with his job, climbed into a taxi and disappeared into the traffic, his resignation an acknowledgement perhaps of the public perception of the police’s tarnished reputation in 1978.

From Regan to Morse

The Sweeney influenced The Professionals and the less successful Target, one of the BBC’s first attempts at all-film crime drama series. Starring Patrick Mower, it endured a difficult production journey, hastily reformatted from a gentler, character-based drama, created by Roger Marshall and intended for actor Colin Blakely, into a hardnosed, humourless, violent series. 

Many of The Sweeney’s writers and crew worked on Target, including director David Wickes who helped its BBC film unit overcome some familiar union restrictive practices. Despite toning down violence for the second series, Target’s unsympathetic characters misfired with viewers. Writer Robert Banks Stewart’s redevelopment of Target’s third series was dropped in favour of his pitch for Shoestring.

G.F. Newman’s controversial Law & Order plays, transmitted in April 1978, went where The Sweeney feared to tread. They were an excoriating view of the judicial system from the viewpoints of the police, the criminal, the barrister and the prisoner. Their bleak, low-key, documentary realism, based on stories told to Newman by detectives, criminals and lawyers, generated a debate about the format of drama, whether such realism blurred the line between fiction and fact, and how this reflected the BBC's public service remit.

According to Newman, at a time when Thatcher was championing a new law and order agenda, uncomfortable questions about the terrible state of the criminal justice system were asked in the House of Commons and pressure applied to the BBC not to repeat or sell the series again (BBC Four did eventually repeat it and it was released on DVD in 2008).

In order to distance the plays from The Sweeney and The Professionals, producer Tony Garnett emphasised "we knew we didn't want to do a squealing tyres show" and Law and Order eschewed, as Charlotte Brunsdon notes, the social aspect of previous police dramas and preferred to unpack, with forensic detail, the operations of the police and the criminal justice system in relation to one criminal's life and his involvement in a crime. The central character of Detective Inspector Fred Pyall (a remarkable performance from Derek Martin) was seen as simply one amongst many individuals who brutally twisted the system in their favour.

However Regan’s bitterness, the conservatism of The Professionals and the corruption of Newman’s DI Pyall were juxtaposed with the BBC’s likeable Eddie Shoestring, Jim Bergerac and Euston’s own replacement Minder, Leon Griffiths’ light-hearted crime drama starring Dennis Waterman and George Cole. Ian Kennedy-Martin developed the genre further with The Chinese Detective, dealing with institutional racism, and Juliet Bravo, a revival of the community policing of Z Cars.

Like The Gentle Touch, the latter’s strong, sympathetic female police officer was placed at the centre of a male dominated profession. Indeed Stephanie Turner, who played Inspector Jean Darblay in the first three series of Juliet Bravo, indicated she had auditioned for the lead in The Gentle Touch. She saw Jean as "a career policewoman - fair, honest and with good humour. It was unusual to have this woman in authority, because previous TV police dramas were male dominated."

Both Juliet Bravo and The Gentle Touch attempted to overturn gender stereotypes and reflect the popularity of American series such as Cagney and Lacey. Juliet Bravo was also seen by the BBC as an antidote to the excessive violence of previous police dramas. These were dramas of social and cultural transition and yet were instrumental in pioneering the depiction of female police officers that would eventually lead to the critically acclaimed Prime Suspect.

Colliding together the worlds of Dixon of Dock Green and The Sweeney, Arthur Ellis also explored the changes in policing and on screen dramatisations since the 1950s in his 1988 Screenplay ‘The Black and Blue Lamp’. Ellis’s observations paralleled John Thaw’s transformation from Regan into Morse in 1987. Inspector Morse’s contemporary ‘heritage’ setting of Oxford was in vast contrast to The Sweeney’s gritty London. Yet, Morse and Regan were not dissimilar in melancholic temperament and no-nonsense attitude and, as Charlotte Brunsdon observed, ‘the two series share the invocation of what is presented as an old-fashioned integrity.’


  • Alvarado, Manuel, and Stewart, John, Made For Television: Euston Films Limited (BFI Publishing / Thames Television, 1985).
  • Brunsdon, Charlotte, ‘Structure of anxiety: recent British television crime fiction,’ in Screen (Volume 39, Issue 3, Oxford Journals, Autumn 1998).
  • Brunsdon, Charlotte, Law and Order, BFI TV Classics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
  • Cornell, Paul, Day, Martin and Topping, Keith, The Guinness Book of Classic British TV (2nd Edition, Guinness Publishing, 1996).
  • Fairclough, Robert and Kenwood, Mike, Sweeney! The Official Companion (Reynolds & Hearn, 2002).
  • Feasey, Rebecca, Masculinity And Popular Television (Edinburgh University Press, 2013).
  • Gilbert, Pat, Shut It! The Inside Story of The Sweeney (Aurum Press, 2010).
  • Hill, Peter, ‘Murder was my business,’ in TV Times, (IPC, 17 October 1970).
  • Leishmann, Frank, ‘From Dock Green to Life on Mars: Continuity and Change in TV Copland,’ inaugural lecture at University of Gloucestershire on 7 May 2008 (The Cyder Press, 2008). 
  • Padman, Tony, 'Whatever Happened to Juliet Bravo's Stephanie Turner?' interview in Daily Express (16 March 2013)
  • Potter, John Deane, ‘Why they invented the copper with a kipper tie,’ in TV Times, (IPC, 8 August 1970).
  • Robert Reiner, ‘The Dialectics of Dixon: The Changing Image of the TV Cop’, in Mike Stephens and Saul Becker (eds), Police Force, Police Service (MacMillan, 1994)
  • Rolinson, David, ‘The ‘Appening: Parkin’s Patch (1969-70)’ 31 December 2012, British Television Drama (2009), available at
  • Rolinson, David, ‘The Blue Lamp to The Black and Blue Lamp: The police in TV Drama’, 24 April 2011, British Television Drama (2009), available at, accessed 3 March 2014.

Next time: The Professionals and beyond
Earlier: Callan and Public Eye
Last time: ITC and The Prisoner
Previously: The Avengers and Z Cars
Originally: Fabian of the Yard and Dixon of Dock Green

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