Friday, 12 December 2014

Seventies TV: The Sweeney, with particular reference to Taste of Fear as an excuse for some local reflections

(Pub Bombings memorial picture credit: http://www.robertcjones.co.uk/Birmingham%20Cathedral%20Churchyard,%20UK.html)
I went to the Dental Hospital yesterday. I didn't need any work done - just my dentist fussing unnecessarily - & as it turns out I can relate that fact to the subject matter of this blog quite easily. For a start the present soon-to-be replaced building is a gem of 1960s architecture if you like that sort of thing, very much out of the same stable as the building in the opening scenes of Danger Man:
'The late Professor Alexander MacGregor, the then Director of Dental Studies and Mr H. Locksley Hare, the architect, visited many of the newer and outstanding schools in Europe. The design of the building incorporates many ideas acquired during these visits. The new building was opened in 1965 at a site next to the General Hospital (now Children's Hospital). This building was the sixth home of the Hospital and School.' (http://www.dentistry.bham.ac.uk/admissions/schoolhistory.asp)
For a fan of this sort of rapidly-disappearing architecture, it's a real treat because it's had relatively little done to it. Many of the original wall & ceiling finishes are still in situ, & the building gives an idea of how light & space were intended to work in it originally: it actually doesn't feel like it's shoehorned into an odd corner next to the STI clinic. This element of originality will of course also be its doom - it's simply filthy for a start. It can't be that difficult to put a safe system in place to clean to the top of the windows. The original finishes are plainly going to be the doom of this building, in addition to the unfashionable architecture. Removing the asbestos alone would be an incredibly expensive matter.
While I was there a Black woman came into the waiting room. She chatted about how cold it was & when I was called, wished me luck & called me Bab. That word will set a lot of people's teeth on edge, but is a Birmingham dialect term of endearment, which is one of the things that makes me think of home. (If you want to learn the gorgeous & sexy Brummie accent I would recommend <http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A496352>. If you've never heard it, most videos on youtube are few too Black Country, but for the real thing I would suggest <http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lEyYaLFm3Xc>). This relates to this blog in the way a Black person can also be a Brummie, be at home here & be settled, without fear of people referring to 'you people' or whatever. Quite different from the approach of It Ain't Half Hot Mum.
The Sweeney is out of a very different, gritty as a cat's litter tray, stable. I think one of the things that is influencing me most about these 1970s shows is the troubled history of the decade in which they were made. Continual labour disputes brought whole areas of the country to their economic knees & it was impossible to rely on mains power at the time. The Sweeney, unlike It Ain't Half Hot Mum, is set contemporaneously against this troubled time, but manages to portray a cleaned-up image of one of the areas of scandal at the time:
'The series aired during a dark period for the real-life Flying Squad, which in the late 1970s had been publicly censured for being involved in bribery, police corruption and excessively close links with the criminal fraternity. Unlike the unwavering high standards seen in the fictional Sweeney, the actual commander of the Flying Squad, Detective Chief Superintendent Kenneth Drury was convicted of five counts of corruption and jailed for eight years on 7 July 1977. An internal investigation, called Operation Countryman, was then launched to stamp out more corruption. A further 12 officers were convicted and many others resigned.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sweeney)
Taste of Fear references another painful feature of the 1970s - the conflict in Northern Ireland & terror attacks by the IRA. In the case of this episode, what appear to be IRA attacks are actually by an army deserter, made sick & twisted by his experiences in Ulster. Apart from the blithe ignoring of the likely effect of the trauma of serving somewhere like that, this also references another local (to me) connection, because this year is the fortieth anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_pub_bombings). It is once again striking how, in complete contrast to the unreality of The Avengers these 1970s series refer straight to some very difficult subjects. The Birmingham pub bombings have been a continual source of disgust for four decades. Men have been unjustly jailed for them. There was a strong backlash against the local Irish community at the time. It remains unestablished who was responsible for the three bombs - one didn't go off - & the whole matter is one which has shown West Midlands Police up in a very poor light (for the ongoing effects locally see http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/birmingham-pub-bombings-victims-remembered-8154396).
So the engagement with sheer gritty realism is what strikes me most in these 1970s shows. Jimmy Perry even states that It Ain't Half Hot Mum was a realistic portrayal of his own army life. The portrayal of reality remains - even though I think nowadays a realistic portrayal of an army unit's life would either have bits cut out or definitely be after the water shed.
The Sweeney, I'm finding, has another effect on me. I only have an odd disc with two episodes, so can't speak for the whole show, but I'm finding the way the plot is shaped gives a feeling of trudging through police work. The only real cliffhangers are where I imagine commercial breaks would have been originally, & the effect is one of -almost - eventlessness & pointlessness. I like the combination of Denis Waterman (better than I liked him in Minder) & John Thaw (better than I liked him in Morse). The relationship works to bring out aspeccts of the (?actors') characters I wouldn't have expected.
My neighbour's comment, when she told me her other half likes to watch The Sweeney, was how dated it is. And so it is. But the main effect for me personally is the relentless realism: in the division un/real, I definitely prefer unreal.

------------------

No comments: