Bending the rules

Copping to it … <i>The Sweeney</i> was too good for Ben Drew too pass up.
Copping to it … The Sweeney was too good for Ben Drew too pass up.

As a musician, filmmaker and, increasingly, actor, Ben Drew was in a bind when he was offered a starring role in The Sweeney, the British movie based on the hit 1970s TV series about a take-no-prisoners London police squad.

He was deep into editing his own film, the crime drama Ill Manors, and finishing the soundtrack album as his hip-hop alter ego Plan B.

But the role of Carter, made famous by Dennis Waterman as offsider to John Thaw's hard-case Regan in the landmark TV series, was too good to pass up, especially when it meant acting opposite fellow London East-Ender Ray Winstone. And writer-director

Nick Love (The Football Factory, The Firm) was prepared to delay filming until Ill Manors was finished.

''Shit, it almost killed me,'' Drew says. ''I was living at Revolver, where we was cutting the film. I was also training to lose the weight for The Sweeney. So I did extremely late nights, going to bed at four, waking up at nine, going to the gym. And obviously I couldn't eat bread, pasta, potatoes. I couldn't eat sugar. I couldn't have alcohol. I couldn't have dairy products.

''So when you're trying to work and edit, you're just exhausted and your brain's not working properly. It's the hardest thing I've ever done.''

Drew says he had to let go of editing Ill Manors - ''I ran out of time'' - to start filming The Sweeney. But just acting was like a holiday - ''a lovely break, really'' - after that intense effort getting to the set. The movie brings the Flying Squad, whose rhyming slang nickname is short for ''Sweeney Todd'', into the present, where they bend the rules as they investigate a shooting murder during a jewellery robbery that leads to a Serbian gangster.

Their work gets more complicated when the snarling Regan, who is closer to a father figure to the younger Carter than the colleagues of the TV series, runs afoul of his superiors with his dinosaur attitude to policing.

A role rumoured to have been offered to Ewan McGregor, Daniel Craig and Jason Statham was a major break for Drew after acting opposite Michael Caine in 2009's Harry Brown. But his music career as Plan B has been thriving since his critically acclaimed debut album Who Needs Actions When You Got Words in 2006, which he followed up with the hit album The Defamation of Strickland Banks in 2010.

Drew, 29, watched The Sweeney TV series but found it dated.

''So many people are massive fans of it,'' he says. ''But for me there was no romanticism. I couldn't relate to it because I'm from this day and age. You can respect it for what it is … but it's dated in terms of the language, the crime, the weapons, everything.

''So that's why knowing that we was going to set this version of The Sweeney in this time, that's, like, a great freedom to have because we knew we had to reinvent things. We had to update things.''

Still, Regan is so old-school that he chain-smokes, drinks, womanises and even pockets gold ingots from a crime scene to buy information from an informant.

Although it's believed the real-life Flying Squad were not keen to be associated with the movie because of such dodgy behaviour, Drew is fine with it.

''There's a moral conduct I've lived with my whole life,'' he says. ''I'll smoke weed and I'll sell weed because I don't think weed is a drug that should be illegal. I don't think it damages people the way crack and heroin does. Or alcohol does …

''If I was a policeman, that wouldn't change. It would be exactly the same. That's what these guys are: they have their own kind of morals. They live within the law. They bend them to make things work.''

In Sydney at the end of a tour, Drew sounds exhausted as he considers whether the future holds more acting, music or directing.

''I've been working solid for three years,'' he says. ''I've had no time to reflect on the successes I've had. I don't know what I want to do.

''It's very strange to have worked this hard to get into a position where you can pretty much do what you want and not know what you want to do next.

''I don't have a personal life. Don't see my mum. Don't see my friends or family. Don't have a girlfriend. Don't see my f---ing cat. I'm never home.

''That's not a normal way to live. I just need a bit of normality back in my life.''


GENRE Crime/action.

CRITICAL BUZZ Action-packed TV reboot that is stronger on spectacle than story logic.

STARS Ray Winstone, Ben Drew, Hayley Atwell, Damian Lewis.



RELEASE Thursday.

This story Bending the rules first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.