Street Fighting Man – Ian Kennedy-Martin Interviewed
With the original series making its Blu-ray debut and Nick Love's amped-up remake currently kicking in cinema doors, The Fan Can chats to Sweeney creator Ian Kennedy-Martin.
This month, Ray Winstone and Plan B (known to his mum as Ben Drew) became the latest incarnations of those icons of 70s TV Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Detective Sergeant George Carter. They were first brought to a police show-hungry audience nearly 40 years ago in the Armchair Cinema TV film Regan, the pilot for the benchmark 1970s series The Sweeney (rhyming slang for 'Flying Squad', but you probably knew that). Whether because of continued repeats or homage/pastiches like The Black and Blue Lamp and Life on Mars, the tough, anti-establishment archetype of the troubled copper has become an evergreen staple of British popular culture. Writer Ian Kennedy-Martin brought Regan to life in 1974, and though he created other well regarded series such as Juliet Bravo, The Chinese Detective and The Fourth Floor, has written for TV greats such as Armchair Theatre and The Onedin Line and authored several novels, The Sweeney's grip on the English imagination is so strong that it's what he's primarily remembered for. With a new wave of Sweeney activity almost upon us – the Winstone movie, Blu-rays, re-released novels and updated official companion – The Can caught up with him at his London home in Little Venice.
Ian, how does it feel with all this new attention on The Sweeney nearly 40 years on?
It's very flattering. We've been through a phase where there were a lot of US remakes – Starsky and Hutch, Mission: Impossible – so it seemed time for an English one. The Sweeney was first optioned [as a film] by DNA. They couldn't put it together, so the rights were reassigned to Vertigo. I was informed that the director, Mr Love, didn't direct anything he hadn't written himself, so that was it as far as my involvement in the writing side of things was concerned. My kids went to the premiere last night – I couldn't go – and they were pretty impressed. Tomorrow I'm going in [to London] to see some of the new Sweeney prints. I'm looking forward to it. Network have done a slightly ironic box for the Blu-Rays. It says something like 'There's only one Jack Regan'. Ha, ha! A slight pop at the new film there, I think.
What do you think of the casting of Ray Winstone?
Look, nobody could raise the money for the film, so they said, "We've got to make [this movie] so we've got a chance of selling it to America," and Ray's well known in America. There are thousands of other marvellous British actors who could have done it, but a US-friendly face was THE big selling point. [Damian Lewis, featuring as Regan's superior Frank Haskins, is also well known in America through playing the lead in Homeland.] The same thinking was behind the casting of
Plan B: he was deliberately put there to get the kids in.
Why do you think un-PC characters like Gene Hunt – whose Sweeney roots are obvious – have caught on with the contemporary viewing public?
I don't know… What goes around comes around. The next thing will be suave, James Bond type characters I shouldn't wonder. These days things are commissioned backwards: it's down to what the guys who green light things and make the decisions want to see, rather than what a writer comes up with. Nowadays a crime show has to have some ethnic casting and be hard but not TOO violent. One thing I am pleased about is that the language is a lot more authentic now. It was rather daft when we were doing Regan [and The Sweeney] that those hard cases were never allowed to say 'fuck'.
Do you think The Sweeney could work as an ongoing film franchise?
Depending on how the film does, Sky1 might get off its butt and make 3 90-minuters. I don't think ITV wants to invest the kind of money that would be required for a 13-part series, but 3 TV films would be doable. I'm not sure… [my involvement] would depend on who the people were who were involved with it. The basic problem is I'm now 76! Commercial TV companies want a young and happening audience with money to spend, and that usually means they want to work with writers under 40.
Wasn't your second Sweeney novel, Regan and the Manhattan File, in which the DI goes to New York, written with a movie adaptation in mind?
George Taylor [one of the two directors – with Lloyd Shirley – of Euston Films, the film making wing of Thames Television who produced The Sweeney] said it would be nice to make it. But then again, they'd have to have found the money. When they made the first feature film, Sweeney! [in 1976], they had such a small budget they were nicking facilities off the TV show, which was being made at the same time. Sweeney! was made for very little money – £100,000, or thereabouts. The people at Thames were very tight fisted. It's a myth that after  episodes John Thaw and Dennis Waterman said, "That's it, we've done enough." That's absolute nonsense. John left because he wasn't getting paid enough money. And a few years later he went to Central [TV] and became a million pound actor with Inspector Morse.
If you hadn't fallen out with the producer and had remained on The Sweeney, what direction would you have taken the stories in?
I'd have made it much more 'state of the nation', looking at the politics of the day, and a bit more of a collision between the police and the secret state. That was growing very much at that time – Harold Wilson was absolutely paranoid that he was being followed by the security services, there was the 3-day week, strikes nearly all the time… the collapse of Great Britain as a great power would have been an interesting subject to have tackled.
What did you think of the way the series eventually turned out?
I was very pleasantly surprised, actually. There was some wonderful stuff in The Sweeney: wonderful actors, wonderful directors. But the success of it was really down to John Thaw – he had a huge impact. He took what he'd done in Redcap [the Military Police series Ian created for John in the mid-1960s], saw the opportunity, grabbed it and perfected it. It was great for him, as in the ten years between Redcap and The Sweeney he hadn't had a lot of work. If you were a lead actor in a series then, when it was over they wouldn't cast you in anything else. Now, if you're a successful actor, everybody wants you. John was a STUNNING performer to watch. He was spellbinding without being conventionally handsome. He was, I think, only 31 when he started doing The Sweeney and he already looked about 40! I'm very proud of [the series], although it was an odd situation. My brother Troy had walked out on Z-Cars after a row with [producer] Elwyn Jones, who wanted to do this new series about the new motorised police units as a documentary. Troy insisted that it would be better as a drama series, wrote about 7 or 8 episodes and left when he couldn't stand fighting with Elwyn any more. The same thing happened to me on The Sweeney. The producer was really being difficult. It got to the point where I knew my brother (who was broke) was going to write some scripts for it, [writer] Trevor Preston was also involved and I knew by then that John and Dennis were going to make it a success. I also knew that the various rights I had in The Sweeney would be valuable, so I left. I wasn't that keen to go into Colet Court [Euston's production base] and have rows every day. There's a little regret there, but not much.
What are you working on at the moment?
The way things work these days is that you have a successful series of novels that then get turned into a TV series or films. I didn't go to The Sweeney premiere because I was finishing off my latest one – when you've got the bit between your teeth you just have to keep going. The three I've just done are about a dissolute Welsh detective who resigns before he's fired for stealing a squad car when he was pissed, driving into a field and killing a cow! He's in loads of debt and has to go off and do a few private cases. The books are called The Dark Shepherds, Road of Bones and Travel Tips for the Dead. The same publisher, Lulu, have also re-released my three Sweeney novels [The Sweeney: Regan, Regan and the Manhattan File and Regan and the Deal of the Century] in Kindle and [hard copy] format. Reformatting them for Kindle was no easy task, I can tell you, but it's good to have them out there again.
Finally, what do you think John Thaw would say if he was around now to see all this new attention on The Sweeney?
He'd probably say, "Where's my cut?"!
The Sweeney – The Complete Series One is out now on Blu-ray from Network
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