WatermanSad but true – Dennis Waterman is dead, and another one has bitten the dust. Perhaps he can lay claim to being one of the most active actors on vintage TV channels specialising in mining the rich archive of British television via his decade-long stint as a household name via ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Minder’ – stalwarts of the schedules such channels live by. But there was more to Waterman’s CV. Take, for example, ‘Joe’s Ark’, a 1974 ‘Play for Today’ by another Dennis, this one being Potter. Angharad Rees, soon to become better known as Demelza in ‘Poldark’, played a terminally-ill cancer sufferer retreating to the rooms above her father Freddie Jones’s pet shop in Wales to breathe her last. Dennis Waterman played her wayward brother, eking out a seedy living providing a musical accompaniment to strippers in dodgy clubs; Waterman’s character makes his way home to see his sister and build a few bridges with his God-fearing father, but arrives a little too late. It’s one of Potter’s most underrated and moving plays, and Waterman gives a touching performance that would probably surprise those only accustomed to his more beefy roles.

The risk of typecasting was a genuine gamble for actors on television in the 1960s and 70s – one thinks of Harry H Corbett’s tragic failure to evade the long shadow cast by ‘Steptoe and Son’ – so it’s no wonder many successful character actors approached the prospect of a hit series with trepidation, particularly those who were in the process of establishing themselves as familiar faces. Dennis Waterman had been a minor child star – starring in an early 60s TV adaptation of the ‘Just William’ books – and adolescent one-to-watch, making a mark as a young man in the movie version of the celebrated (and controversial) ‘Wednesday Play’ set in his own Clapham backyard, ‘Up the Junction’; but he carved a career for himself as a significant grown-up character actor by appearing in one-off episodes of numerous popular small screen series in the early 70s.

His versatility was apparent by the fact he occasionally ventured into the comedic arena, such as his appearance in a 1973 episode of ‘Man About the House’; by contrast, that same year he also scored a memorable cameo in ‘Special Branch’, the hard-hitting police series produced by Euston Films – the speciality film wing of Thames Television. He’d also appeared as a customarily sinister Gestapo officer in an episode of ‘Colditz’ and in another characteristically labyrinthine Potter play, ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ as well as the token Hammer horror outing (1970’s ‘Son of Dracula’), which was a rites-of-passage necessity for up-and-coming actors at the time. By this stage of his career, Waterman was certainly being noticed, though as a recognisable face rather than name. However, all that was about to change.

‘The Sweeney’ began life as a TV movie called ‘Regan’, which aired in the ‘Armchair Cinema’ slot on ITV in 1974. The potential for a series was immediately evident, and Dennis Waterman resumed his role as the reluctant second-in-command to John Thaw’s DI Regan when ‘The Sweeney’ went into production a few months later. Debuting on ITV at the beginning of 1975, ‘The Sweeney’ famously rewrote the rulebook in the way the British police force was portrayed on television, and Waterman’s George Carter was the perfect counterpoint to Thaw’s Jack Regan, exuding a less cynical and less grizzled persona than his superior. The two together exhibited a macho chemistry that has ultimately outlived them both, setting the template for a nostalgic, Brut-drenched, buddy-buddy relationship which breezes into contemporary touchy-feely sensibilities as no-nonsense fresh air.

When ‘The Sweeney’ ended in 1978, John Thaw took several years to find a character which could represent his middle age in the same way Jack Regan summed-up his prime. Dennis Waterman, on the other hand, moved on far quicker, but even the character of ex-boxer Terry McCann wasn’t an instant hit. It took a good series-and-a-half before Waterman’s character and the winning dynamic alongside veteran George Cole as Arthur Daley struck a chord with the viewing public, though by the early 80s ‘Minder’ had established itself as one of the UK’s most popular and culturally prescient TV shows. One thing it did do was to extend Waterman’s televisual omnipotence; he even scored a top ten hit with the ‘Minder’ theme tune, ‘I Could Be So Good For You’, in 1980, and he found himself back on ‘Top of the Pops’ three years later via an unlikely Christmas novelty duet with George Cole, ‘What Are We Gonna Get for Er Indoors’.

Whilst starring on ‘Minder’, Dennis Waterman also remained open to other, more intriguing, offers. His passion for the beautiful game inspired an affectionate tribute to football’s amateur beginnings with the 1982 TV movie he himself financed, ‘The World Cup: A Captain’s Tale’, which dramatised the famous triumph of West Auckland FC in winning the first attempt at an international soccer tournament, the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, in 1909; he also played a major part in the BBC’s landmark feminist fantasy, ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’ in 1986. By this time, he had quit ‘Minder’ and starred in several TV series without making the kind of impact he’d previously enjoyed, though he was the ideal host for the retro-football series, ‘Match of the 70s’, which aired on the BBC in 1995-96, tapping into the vogue for the decade Waterman was inexorably linked with; around the same time, renewed interest in ‘The Sweeney’ led to him becoming the programme’s unofficial curator whenever it was profiled on clips shows in the absence of contributions from John Thaw.

Ongoing affection for ‘The Sweeney’ unquestionably played its part in Waterman’s final TV success, ‘New Tricks’, in which he starred from 2003 to 2014; this BBC series focused on a team of ageing ex-police detectives brought back to solve cold cases and featured many familiar faces from the 70s, including in its original line-up James Bolam and Alun Armstrong. Despite the indisputably odd appearance of an unnaturally white set of dentures, Waterman’s strong presence and association with the era the old jacks were supposed to have been prominent coppers in aided the show’s success and contributed to its ultimate longevity; he also once again ‘sang the theme tune’, which was played upon in a typically surreal recurring sketch in ‘Little Britain’ that left Waterman himself more than baffled. At the same time, however, the skit seemed to solidify his enduring place in British TV’s cultural wallpaper.

The cause of Dennis Waterman’s death at the age of 74 has yet to be revealed, though one often formed the impression he was a man who enjoyed life in ways that are now frowned upon by the acting profession; he received two convictions for drunk-driving and was married four times, the most eventful (from a tabloid perspective) being his 11-year relationship with Rula Lenska, one marked by physical violence on Waterman’s part. He was certainly ‘old-school’, though one suspected this was a tag he himself wouldn’t have objected to. Part of the appeal of ‘New Tricks’ was, like ‘Life on Mars’, its knack in reflecting late 20th century generations’ inability to get to grips with the constantly changing unwritten rules and regulations of the 21st century and, in turn, mirroring the audience’s similar confusion at what could and couldn’t be said both in polite company and in the corporate business the police force has morphed into. Dennis Waterman was undoubtedly one of yesterday’s men, though that’s not a criticism; it’s a compliment.

© The Editor

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The only episode of ‘The Sweeney’ I was allowed to watch when it originally aired was a late entry in the series; the bargaining chip was the inexplicable presence of Morecambe & Wise as guest stars. I suppose maternal permission was influenced by the expectation that Eric and Ernie would help tone down the violence for which the show was notorious in 1978. Unbeknownst to my mother, I’d already seen an episode screened past my normal bedtime whilst staying at my grandparents’ place during a school holiday; there was never any set bedtime there, so I sat in on ‘The Sweeney’ with granddad and grandma and was treated to a full-frontal pair of tits on their little telly as a reward. If there was one element that gave the adventures of Regan and Carter playground plus-points in the 1970s, it was the perennial possibility of naked female flesh. Along with the anticipated car chases and punch-ups, there was always the outside chance of a scene in a strip-club. There’d be no proper swearing beyond the use of ‘bastard’ (pronounced baa-sted) a lot, so a glimpse of bristols was the next best thing.

I don’t know why it was such a big deal when even our house’s tabloid of choice at the time – the Daily Mirror – had its own equivalent of page 3 back then, so it’s not as if you couldn’t catch a snatch of mammaries, anyway; but ‘The Sweeney’ had a special position in the minds of 70s children. It was the Holy Grail of adult TV shows. Everyone at school claimed to watch it regularly, but such claims were no different from pubescent bullshit bragging about sexual encounters. 9.00 was the cut-off point for most when it came to viewing habits; you might be familiar with the show’s theme tune wafting up from the front room as your head reluctantly hit the pillow, but few from my generation saw it during its original run. It was regarded as ‘hard’ TV – far more realistic than ‘Starsky and Hutch’, and routinely featuring unsettling cockney villains with stockings on their faces, robbing banks clutching sawn-off shotguns – just like the headline crimes you heard during the bongs on ‘News at Ten’ before you finally fell asleep.

To a 70s child, ‘The Sweeney’ had a similar mystique as X-rated movies or girlie magazines, a grown-up world you yearned to be part of but knew you frustratingly had to wait for – a wait that felt like an eternity. In the absence of the real thing, your imagination painted a picture so graphic that by the time you were old enough to see the series during its first full run of repeats in the early 80s, half of the entertainment value came from the dated fashions. Reruns continued well into the 90s, passing through numerous postmodern and ‘ironic’ appreciations or condemnations. Then came the spoofs, the parodies, the pastiches and the eventual homage of ‘Life on Mars’; along the way, the series was simultaneously praised as a slice of gritty realism that blew ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ and ‘Z-Cars’ out of the water as well as a misogynistic example of old-school macho attitudes we were well rid of. ‘The Sweeney’ remains all of these things, yet so much more.

After the best part of 20 years without seeing a single episode – though consistent viewings of VHS off-air recordings preserved numerous lines and scenes in memory’s amber for decades – I recently got round to adding ‘The Sweeney’ to my bulging library of archive British TV shows on DVD. I decided to start proper with the movie-length pilot, titled ‘Regan’. Even 46 years on, it’s possible to see the promise of both the lead character and the set-up in this groundbreaking entry in the ‘Armchair Cinema’ anthology series. John Thaw was a familiar face to viewers by 1974, appearing as a guest star in endless programmes as well as managing an early starring role in the mid-60s series about the military police, ‘Redcap’; but in the gruff and grizzled, hard-boiled character of DI Jack Regan, he stumbled upon the role of a lifetime.

Produced by Euston Films, the Thames division established to make drama entirely on film, ‘The Sweeney’ had some of its ground laid by the final two series of ‘Special Branch’ (1973-74) and recruited Dennis Waterman as Regan’s sidekick Sgt Carter, having impressed in an episode of the earlier series. ‘The Sweeney’ would take the approach of ‘Special Branch’ and push the grittiness to a new level for television. Unlike its predecessor, by focusing on the cases of the Flying Squad, Regan & Carter didn’t have to concern themselves with occasional espionage interludes and had free rein to concentrate on ‘blags’ of the kind that were commonplace when most businesses had physical cash delivered to their premises on pay day.

‘The Sweeney’ is far from being crass, one-dimensional action, however. There’s an abundance of wit in the dialogue, and Regan & Carter are well-rounded, wholly believable characters whose banter and buddy-buddy relationship rings true in the context of their situation. The line between copper and criminal was never more blurred than in ‘The Sweeney’, though in his own way DI Regan possesses as strong a moral streak as Sgt Dixon; he’s averse to bribery and would never be in the pocket of a villain. At the time of its original broadcast, a series of high-profile exposés on real-life Met corruption hogged the headlines, so for all its seemingly unflattering portrait of Scotland Yard, ‘The Sweeney’ actually paints the police in an encouragingly positive light. If anything, Regan’s true nemesis is not the blagger, but the ‘fifth-floor bottlers’ at the Yard, forever frustrating his investigations with bureaucratic interference. Regan is more comfortable as the Wild West sheriff than being marooned behind a desk, happier tooled-up with a shooter than pushing a pen, in his element on the street rather than undergoing ‘diversity awareness’ courses.

In many respects, ‘The Sweeney’ is the definitive British TV series of the mid-70s; the landscape that Regan & Carter screech their tyres through is one of a rundown, worn-out country falling to pieces – and Regan himself often appears to mirror the state of the nation. Despite being able to chase villains on foot, he and his second-in-command smoke a breathtaking amount of cigarettes, they drink like borderline alcoholics, and they each bed a different ‘scrubber’ every episode. Men like them probably still exist, but they’re not portrayed on emasculating primetime television anymore. In one episode, Regan’s ex-wife looks despairingly at him and says ‘You’re 35 and you look 45’, and it’s true that all the men in the series whose ages are stated do indeed look at least a decade older by today’s standards, though I guess all those fags, booze and birds took their toll. Interestingly, however, very few of them are obese.

Regan & Carter take no prisoners and no outsiders are exempt from their contempt. They don’t single anyone out for special treatment, failing to distinguish between posh-boys, northerners, Scotsmen, Irishmen, blacks, Arabs, gays, lesbians, prostitutes – all are fair game for piss-taking and disdain, and all have their derogatory nicknames characteristic of the era. Watching it with a 21st century head on is a pointless exercise; one has to enter into the spirit of the times as much as viewing a Hollywood Film Noir from the 1940s; it’s a different world and one with its own surreal rules and regulations. Even something as basic as the bizarre side-partings and fuzzy barnets of the bad guys becomes the norm after a few episodes, as does the slang. One quickly accepts this world as a separate entity from reality – which is ironic considering realism was a key factor that gained the programme such critical and commercial success first time round. Coming to it anew at a moment when the contemporary world seems a more uncertain environment with each passing day, there’s something oddly comforting about the world inhabited by ‘The Sweeney’; it’s rough and it’s ready, but you know where you stand.

© The Editor