With a script that called upon him to yell “Get your trousers on, you’re nicked”, with an air of both authority and menace, there was only ever one choice to play the 21st century Jack Regan.
Ray Winstone has been on a path that would lead to him becoming head of the “Todd” at the “Sweeney” since he made his TV debut as an extra on the original show, 35 years ago.
Back then he was a “good looking geezer” who kept talking while stars John Thaw and Dennis Waterman were trying to say their lines in an attempt to get his fee increased.
Ray knew he had iconic shoes to fill in taking this role, so he didn’t even try to copy the late Thaw.
“He was a fantastic actor. That was one of the things about doing this, how do you follow that? How do you make it better or even as good? And you can’t. It’s impossible. So you have to reinvent it and make it your own.”
Ray was lucky enough to work with John Thaw on a number of other occasions, and came to appreciate his tolerance when he nearly wrecked a day of filming on Kavanagh QC.
“I was rehearsing Nil By Mouth (the Gary Oldman directed project in which he played an abusive husband), I was doing a play at the Royal Court and I had a really bad day on Kavanagh,
“I had this 15-minute scene and I couldn’t remember a line. As they said ‘action’ I forgot it. My brain had switched off. It was my body’s way of saying ‘I’ve had enough’. I remember the extras thanking me at the end of the day for giving them another four hours on set that they’d get paid for,” he recalls ruefully.
“It was a confidence killer but John Thaw was terrific about it and the next day I came back and I was right as ninepence. It was probably one of the best scenes I’ve ever done as an actor.”
He also dismissed other actor’s accusations that Thaw could be unsociable.
“He had so much dialogue to learn, he’d go to his Winnebago. That’s what happens when you carry a show like that, on your shoulders, you have to lock yourself away. He was a complete and utter professional.
“I kind of learnt something from him about being humane about things, and giving people time. He was a very special man.”
Though TV’s The Sweeney may seem hopelessly outdated these days with its flared trousers, kipper ties and bloke-ish attitudes, back in the 70s it was groundbreaking stuff that redefined police series.
“You had Dixon of Dock Green and Softly, Softly, which were great in their own right, but this was the first show on TV that was down and dirty,” says Ray. “Round where I lived we could all kind of relate to it in a way. It was real.