Thursday, April 21, 2011

THE SWEENEY: Chalk and Cheese

Shane Briant’s four iconic appearances in Hammer productions are the main feature of Shane Briant week here on The Agitation of the Mind. But let’s take a mid-week break and consider his deliciously amoral turn in “Chalk and Cheese”, the first episode of series two of ‘The Sweeney’.

I’m going to throw out a statement here which might sound like fan-boy rhetoric, but I can assure you it’s not mere opinionism but a statement of fact. Ready? Here it comes: ‘The Sweeney’ was British TV’s finest hour. With Patrick McGoohan’s ‘The Prisoner’ (I spit on the remake) and ‘Inspector Morse’ coming joint second. Two of these shows starred John Thaw. Coincidence? I think not.

‘The Sweeney’ debuted in January 1975; for purposes of comparison, the cosy ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ was still on air, in its penultimate season. ‘The Sweeney’ kicked down the doors of staid and generic TV, came charging in with pistols pulled and put the finger on complacency, cliché and moral exactitude. It depicted a world in which coppers were as dirty as the blaggers and nonces they took down; where the bad guys sometimes outwitted them; where the rule book was torn up, fair play didn’t exist and violence was an occupational hazard.

‘Hill Street Blues’, ‘Miami Vice’, ‘NYPD Blue’, ‘CSI’ – fuhgeddaboudit! ‘The Sweeney’ got there first – and if anyone reading these pages remembers John Thaw solely as the opera-loving, poetry-reading, real-ale savouring Inspector Morse, then they might need a stiff drink before exposing themselves to his boozing, brawling attitudinous incarnation of the hard-as-nails Jack Regan.

It was a characteristic of the series that the opening credits juxtaposed hard-hitting imagery with a pulsating, edgy theme tune, while the closing credits were a slower, more melancholy variation on the theme, accompanied by shots of the protagonists in more contemplative mode. The creative talent behind ‘The Sweeney’ weren’t afraid to end episodes on a sour note, or leave a shard of discontent in the viewer’s mind.

In “Chalk and Cheese”, the melancholy subject is a father’s grief at a son going down the wrong path. Tommy Garrett (Paul Jones) is vaguely embarrassed by his gruff but honest father (David Lodge) and out of his depth with society girlfriend Caroline (Lesley-Anne Down). Caroline has hooked Tommy up with upper crust playboy Giles Nunn (Briant), and together they pull robberies on upper classes Giles knows socially. Tommy wants money (flash car; high maintenance girlfriend); Giles needs it (gambling debts). Tommy still has some shred of conscience that he’s plagued by. Giles, however, is louche, amoral and not above playing hide the salami with Caroline behind Tommy’s back.

With Detective Inspector Regan (Thaw) backgrounded for much of the episode, the dynamic is driven by Detective Sergeant Carter (Dennis Waterman)’s friendship with Garrett’s father – a friendship that threatens to become compromised when Carter suspects Tommy is up to no good – and by the increasingly volatile relationship between Giles and Tommy … the chalk and cheese of the title.

Briant and Jones are well matched, the latter delivering a performance so much better than his turn in ‘Demons of the Mind’, while Briant revels in Giles’s elegant villainy. “Bright boy, good looking in an androgynous sort of way,” is how one of Regan’s informers describes him. Giles is a kind of Dorian Gray but with a poor run at the tables, a line of credit that it would be ungentlemanly not to settle, and a taste for using firearms when the robberies get a bit dicey.

Lesley-Anne Down does a nice line in ice maiden as Caroline – “a snotty bit from Kensington” – while Lodge invests his role with gravitas. ‘The Sweeney’ always benefited from high calibre supporting players (Colin Welland in “Faces”, for example, or James Cosmo in “Hard Men”) and “Chalk and Cheese” is no exception.

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