Now on the Big Screen in colour!

As the Nick Love-directed remake of The Sweeney reaches British cinemas, Dene Kernohan looks at the history of British TV in the cinema.

The subgenre of films based on British TV series is one I have a great deal of affection for, even if critical acclaim has been limited.  And it’s one which has been around almost as long as commercial television itself.  The earliest example seems to be I Only Arsked!, a 1958 Hammer comedy in which Bernard Bresslaw reprised his role of Pte “Popeye” Popplewell from Granada Television’s national service sitcom The Army Game.

The mid-60s saw the two Dalek movies, starring Peter Cushing and cashing in on the ‘Dalekmania’ craze – unique in that despite being contemporary to Doctor Who on television, the original cast did not appear.  Producer Milton Subotsky had his eye outside the domestic market and favoured an international star.  With hindsight he probably could have stuck with William Hartnell.

But it was another few years before the cycle truly began. Between 1970 and 1980, I count an astonishing 26 British TV shows turned into movies – mainly comedies.  The reason?  Well, financial of course.  The bottom was falling out of domestic production but these films had a built-in audience and were made for a relative pittance – about half the budget of the already economical Carry Ons.  Only a fraction of the 18 million or so viewers watching a popular show on TV needed to buy tickets for them to clean up – which the earliest ones did. In 1971, the film versions of On the Buses, Up Pompeii and Dad’s Army all made the UK box office Top 10¹.  For the fans, it was a chance to see their favourite characters in colour – it was 1976 before colour televisions outnumbered black and white in the UK.

Were these films any good?  Some of the first aren’t bad – they had the benefit of the original cast and writers, and have been transferred with some imagination.  Johnny Speight’s Till Death Us Do Part (1968) traces Alf Garnett’s exploits from World War II up to when audiences first met him on TV.

The first Steptoe and Son film (No. 5 for 1972, higher than The French Connection) is my personal favourite.  Like Till Death, it takes place over a number of years – Harold meets and marries a stripper, much to Albert’s chagrin, and possibly becomes a father.  Galton and Simpson know how to write a film script, and Corbett and Brambell were fine film actors.  It’s funny and poignant, the story rings true, and it retains the dynamic of the TV show.

But being handed over to film producers didn’t always please.  Pte Pike actor Ian Lavender on Dad’s Army, produced by Columbia: “[Their] attitude seemed to be: ‘We’re doing the film.  We’ll do it differently’.  The thought that went through our minds was: ‘What’s wrong with how it was?  Why do you want to make it different, if what you wanted to make was that?’”²

The cycle hit its peak in 1973, when nine of these films were released.  Only one however made it into the Top 20 (Love Thy Neighbour, 15th!).  After that it was about one a year, most of the later examples terrible.  Grace Bros. visits the Costa Plonka (in reality, Elstree Studios)?  I shudder, mainly at the double entendres.

Some 70s drama made it to cinemas as well – fewer in number than sitcoms because they tended to be costlier and therefore riskier.  But the 1974 Callan movie is an excellent thriller: an expansion of the 1967 Armchair Theatre production “A Magnum for Schneider”, which had launched the series, and with a typically superb Edward Woodward.  Economically directed by Don Sharp, it’s a contender for the best movie ever made from a British TV show.

The Sweeney, in its original, inimitable form, enjoyed two big screen outings during its TV run.  The change in style was minimal – the series was made on celluloid already, and the Euston Films production simply transferred from 16 to 35mm.

They fudged the first, released in 1977, somewhat – a ludicrous conspiracy thriller, its OTT bloodletting got them an X certificate.  But the second, about a bunch of live-by-the-sword/die-by-the-sword blaggers commuting from Malta, scripted by creator Ian Kennedy Martin’s brother Troy, is a worthy offshoot.  John Thaw even intimated he would be happy to continue with movies after the series was put to bed, but it was not to be.

Other examples mooted but not made: Budgie, directed by Michael Winner; “Doctor Who Meets Scratchman”, potentially starring Vincent Price opposite Tom Baker; and a Shoestring feature, which was written but collapsed when Rank pulled out of film production in 1980.  I’d love to have seen all three.

The domestic market continued to slow down: by the early 80s, cinema attendances were about to reach their nadir.  The last in the comedy cycle, George and Mildred, was released in 1980.  But a few years later, the BBC started making their own sitcom movies, for TV only. The first was a Last of the Summer Wine in 1983; the last, One Foot in the Algarve in 1993.  On the whole these were superior to the ones for cinema, probably because the original production team had complete control.  Often they were more spectacular – Only Fools and Horses’ “Miami Twice” in 1991 cost £2m.  It’s a bit pants, mind.

There was still the occasional cinema outing for domestic TV throughout the 80s and 90s – Whoops Apocalypse, Bean, Guest House Paradiso (Bottom) for instance – but they were few and far between.  With increasingly splintered television viewing, there were fewer and fewer properties well enough known even domestically to inspire financing of a film version.

Yet the contemporary movie spin-off certainly isn’t dead. Last year saw the most successful of them all: The Inbetweeners Movie.  With a modest budget of £3.5m, makers Bwark Productions and Channel Four transferred the TV production team, who understood the show better than anyone, over to the movie.  The result was the no.3 film of 2011 with about 7½ million admissions, more than double the amount a showing of the programme ever enjoyed on TV.  Indeed, I’d be interested to know what percentage of the film’s audience had never seen it before.  It didn’t matter – the movie was a strong vehicle in its own right which dovetailed perfectly with today’s cinemagoing demographic.

But this is difficult to do if the programme is several decades in the past.  The notorious The Avengers (1998) is one of very few ‘big-budget’ features based on a British show – playing prime time on US network television 1966-69 means it is fairly well known in the States, so Warner Bros. was happy to put up $60m.

Disappointingly, it was a complete failure.  My theory on why is because the original was a style, rather than a strong idea that could withstand retelling (like say, The Fugitive) – and one which developed almost accidentally over several years.  The medium was the message with The Avengers and that proved impossible to replicate three decades later.  Not involving the likes of Brian Clemens, the writer/producer who had been so instrumental in the development of that style, didn’t help.

To anyone embarking on a remake of an old TV show, I’d advise them to think long and hard about whether it is a good enough idea for a film in its own right.  And then, try to be faithful to what was unique about it.

The new Sweeney movie has a good shot at success, not least if the reported £2m budget is accurate.  The cops and robbers formula alone is probably enough to guarantee some measure of popularity if the film is competently made, but I hope proper attention has been paid to making Regan the complex character created by John Thaw and Ian Kennedy Martin.

In my opinion the character of Jack Regan is The Sweeney.  A civilised man who has dedicated his life to chasing villains, with all that that entails, he is a flawed but fascinating character.  His relationship with the slightly younger, less experienced Carter is also important.  Everything else is window dressing, albeit likely to have a Ford Cortina drive through it.

As for the future, I don’t think we’re likely to see much more British TV turned into movies, although Doctor Who is a strong probability.  If The Sweeney is successful it’ll help.  In the offing are a long promised Alan Partridge movie and, maybe, Absolutely Fabulous.  As in the past, I think comedy will continue to be the default, for budgetary reasons as much as anything else.

¹Box office data taken from Guinness Box Office Hits: No. 1 Movie Hits in the UK’ by Phil Swern and Mike Childs (Guinness Publishing, 1995)

²Quoted in “Dad’s Army: The Story of a Classic Television Show” by Graham McCann (Fourth Estate, 2001)

Dene Kernohan (@Dene71) works for Libraries NI.  Likes include Doctor Who, The Avengers, The Prisoner, Only Fools and Horses…., Rising Damp, Shoestring, Columbo; also, film directors Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, Spielberg and Woody Allen.  And cats.  Don’t forget cats.

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5 thoughts on “Now on the Big Screen in colour!

  1. Great piece! I was about confused about the timing of Sweeney and its sequel because I thought Regan came first, but didn’t realise Regan was a TV play – it was usually shown as a sort of consecutive nights triple bill on late night ITV with the other Sweeney movies when I was at home a lot as a teenager. But yes, Regan *is* the Sweeney because the Sweeney began with him. I can now no longer write or read Sweeney, it’s looking funny.

  2. I am concerned that MostlyFilm has now claimed, in two articles that both George and Mildred (1980) and Rising Damp (1980) were the last of the 70’s sitcom movies. Your obvious knowledge of the subject leads me to suspect that you were right and I was wrong.

    I like the idea that colour was a big attraction – another possible reason for the eventual demise of these films.

    I haven’t seen The Sweeney (but oh, I really want to) but suspect its take on Regan will be less John Thaw, more Ray Winstone.

    Great article, although you shamefully ignore Keith Lemon: the Film.

  3. Hugely successful series from Granada TV that started in 1957 as a fortnightly live sitcom, which was moved to a weekly spot when it became so popular. Loosely based on the 1956 movie ‘Private’s Progress’, the series followed the fortunes of a mixed bag of army conscripts in residence at Hut 29 of the Surplus Ordnance Depot at Nether Hopping in remote Staffordshire. At the forefront of this gang of misfits was Pte ‘Excused Boots’ Bisley played by diminutive comedian Alfie Bass, Pte ‘Cupcake’ Cook (Norman Rossington), Pte Hatchett (Charles Hawtrey who would become a ‘Carry On’ film regular), Pte ‘Popeye’ Popplewell (East End born comedian Bernard Bresslaw, another ‘Carry On’ regular) and future ‘Doctor Who’ William Hartnell as bellowing Sgt Major Bullimore. Popplewell’s catchphrase “I only arsked” became a national catch phrase and became the title for a 1958 feature film based on the series.

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