Ray Winstone gets back to his Cockney roots in “The Sweeney”


Visit any website devoted to British films and TV shows, and the talk’s been there for years.

“When will they make a movie of ‘The Sweeney’?” And “Ray Winstone should play Regan.”

“The Sweeney” is the iconic, gritty and violent British cop series of the ‘70s. And Winstone, the burly, tough Cockney star of “Sexy Beast,” “44 Inch Chest” and “The Departed” seemed like the only logical choice to bring the series’ central character, the any-means-necessary brawler at the heart of the story, to the screen.

But Winstone wasn’t so sure.

“My first job as an actor was working on the original series,” the actor, who just turned 56, recalls. “That’s going back 30-odd years ago. I was kind of an extra. I grew up watching it, and got to work with the original Regan, John Thaw, one of the great British actors.

“But I was fearful of taking it. He did the part so well, and I just wanted to hide away inside the character. Once you get over that fear, you realize you’ve got to bring something of yourself to the guy and make him your own. I felt a lot of responsibility to the show, and I think we all did, making this movie.”

“The Sweeney,” opening in U.S. theaters Friday, is a distinctly British take on the police procedural – two-fisted, action-packed, gritty and brisk. And Winstone is its beating heart.

He was the only logical choice, said London’s Daily Mirror. He “has the bullish charm, necessary hint of ­violence and mastery of Cockney rhyming slang to play” Regan, a cop who seems to be on the take, who sleeps with a member of his team who is married to one of his superiors.

“The Sweeney,” nicknamed after the infamous murderous Fleet Street barber Sweeney Todd, was “ground breaking TV” in 1970s Britain, Winstone says. “Before that, it was shows like (1960s) ‘Dixon of Dock Green,’ and ‘Softly Softly,’ chappies playing policemen, all oh-so-nice. ‘The Sweeney’ was the first time that British TV depicted working class cops living a working class life. Here was a show that got dirty in showing how the police really go about their business. Not only ‘the villains,’ liked it. The actual straight-goer, as we call the man in the street, could relate to it.”

Winstone could connect to the show, even as a boy, “having met my share of cops, sometimes under less-than-pleasant circumstances. My preparation for this role, I have to say, was 50 years of my life.”

They set out to make a movie to show “how London has changed in 30 years,” Winstone says. “It’s a prettier city, now. It’s still got villains. But a chase through The National Gallery? Why not?

“It’s not a Hollywood chase movie or a French car chase. We made a tough as nails British movie, all about our culture, our slang, our class differences. I think people abroad like that kind of thing.”

It will require a little work on the part of the viewer, he concedes. Those working class accents, the rhyming slang of Cockney, take some getting used to.

“Listen, I remember watching ‘Raging Bull’ for the first time. And for fifteen minutes, I had no idea what those guys were talking about. I could tell it was good, and I stuck with it and eventually I got it. You get used to making out what guys from The Bronx, Brooklyn, New Jersey or Boston sound like. You have to listen carefully for the first bit, and then you get into the rhythm to it.

“In Britain, we understand’em. American gangster speak is like a second language to us. Same with Americans listening to the Cockney accents here. You’ll pick up on it. Even if you live in Louisiana. It is English, after all.”

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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