Villains cross the street or swing a pick-axe handle when they run into Regan and Carter of The Sweeney, which returns for a new series this week. But off-screen, John Thaw and Dennis Waterman, who play the tough Flying Squad colleagues, are greeted by their fans like old friends

Cover of the TVTimes
From the TVTimes for 2 September 1978

THE BACK STREETS of Baron’s Court in London could hardly be described as a tourist attraction. Even on a sullen Monday morn- ing, you’d have to be charitable to pick out the area’s redeeming features. Milk bottles line the steps of faded terraces, and “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” is daubed aggressively on a peeling front door. The streets around here wake up slowly and painfully. Only the activity outside number 11 has brought a dishevelled couple to an upstairs window to see what’s going on.

A large television company truck squats in the street, and several early- morning strollers are dragging dogs slowly past the house.

“What you doin’, mate?” one of them asks a cameraman.

“Rentokil,” he says, straightfaced. “We’re doing a film on urban wildlife.”

But it’s more likely to be a villain who crawls out of the woodwork once the cameras start to roll – the villain The Sweeney are here to put the finger on. They’re back for a new series.

The house is just one of the locations in “alternative” London which gives the series an air of seedy authenticity.

Watermn and Thaw in character

On the doorstep, the ritual lighting of cigarettes precedes a brief discussion on the next shot between the director, John Thaw, and Dennis Waterman. Lights flood the inside of the house; people, sound-equipment and a haze of cigarette smoke fill the narrow hall. And Regan and Carter proceed to feel the collar of another “blagger.”

Waterman and Thaw finally finish the scene and emerge into the street. It’s now past opening time. “There must be a pub round here somewhere,” insists Waterman. So they set off to “suss out” the area.

“When we walk in,” says Waterman, “someone will say, ‘Ello, The Sweeney’s in’.”

“Ello,” says a boiler-suited Guinness drinker as they walk into the pub, “backs to the wall, lads, it’s The Sweeney.”

Waterman grins. “We never have any trouble in pubs. Perhaps it’s because neither of us is a muscle man – they know they won’t get much pleasure out of hitting us. What I like is that we’re always called John and Dennis, never Regan and Carter.”

Thaw has barely got his vodka to his lips when a character unhooks himself from a bar-stool and approaches. Is he a “snout”?

“I just wanted to meet you, John,” he says, “and to say I think the show’s great.”

Thaw shakes his hand. “It’s nice of you to come over, mate. Thank you. Like a drink?” Regan would probably have pinned him up against the wall.

We discuss the heavy schedule they keep – Dennis Waterman talks about his dual career as singer and actor, and John Thaw explains the difficulties of being married to a successful actress. His wife, Sheila Hancock, is starring in the musical Annie, and he is feeling tired after a night out celebrating yet another acting award. “When Sheila’s working in the evening, and I’m filming all day, we don’t see much of each other,” he says, “and that can’t be good. I couldn’t play the chauvinist and insist she stay at home. Regan might try it, but if I was like him, I wouldn’t be married to Sheila; she wouldn’t have had me.”

Waterman makes derogatory comments about Thaw’s desirability as a husband, and one-line jokes whizz back and forth.

Waterman signs autographs on the way to the bar. “He’s just learned to do joined-up writing,” says Thaw. “Dennis and I get on very well and I think that comes across. You can’t define it. You just know Regan and Carter are mates.”

They see themselves as “part of a matey team, where everybody works for everybody else”, and believe that is a major factor in the series’ success. They actually enjoy getting up at dawn to go to work. “That has to be the clincher,” says Thaw.

Waterman and Thaw smile at the camera.
In The Sweeney, Dennis Waterman and John Thaw are the dynamic duo of the Flying Squad. Off screen they are pals too. They see themselves as part of a matey team where everybody helps everybody. [Photo: John Paul]

We leave the pub and on the way back to the scene of the fictional crime, Waterman shadow-boxes a lamp-post and explains why The Sweeney fights can look heavy.

“The fights can be dangerous if the other guy doesn’t know the routine. I can move a bit because I’ve done some boxing.” (His brother, Peter, is a former British and European professional champion). “But the good fights are usually with minor villains, played by stunt-men who know exactly what they’re doing.”

Later in the week, the unit will be filming a car chase.

“People think the car chases are speeded up,” says Waterman, “but nothing is. In four years, there have been only two occasions when the driver has said, ‘I don’t trust this, I don’t want to do this with John and Dennis in the car’.”

Their driver, Frank Henson, a man who has been known to catapult a car through a plate-glass window, park it neatly and then stroll back to demand “a fry-up with all the works”, was at the wheel during a car stunt they filmed in Wandsworth one Sunday morning.

By the time the director was ready for action, an audience had gathered. “Listen,” an assistant shouted through a megaphone, “we’ve only got one take. I don’t want a load of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and definitely no applause!”

You could never accuse The Sweeney of playing to the crowd.

About the author

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Jan Etherington is a writer, best known now for the sitcom "Second Thoughts" and the audio series "Conversations from a Long Marriage"

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