This post was written a couple of days before the sad news of George Cole’s death. I hope this is a fitting tribute to the actor and his greatest character…
There are few people whose names enter the lexicon of a language. If you hate the thought of spending money you’re a Scrooge. Block progress with bureaucratic excuses; be prepared to be called Sir Humphrey. And if you like to do a bit of crooked wheeler dealing, you’re an Arthur Daley.
In 1979, riding on the success of The Sweeney, Dennis Waterman was given his own television programme: Minder. He was to play the role of Terry McCann, a former guest of Her Majesty’s prison service, McCann leaves gaol and becomes an associate of local businessman Arthur Daley. However, the series didn’t quite go in the direction the producers had planned.
Arthur Daley was played by veteran British actor George Cole, who made a living from portraying shifty characters, always on the fiddle or up to no good. Prior to Minder, Cole was probably best known for playing Flash Harry in the original St. Trinian’s films. The call would go out from a dormitory window and Flash Harry would emerge from the perimeter bushes, collar up, trilby down, and scuttle across the school lawns to the music of ‘Let’s All Go Down the Strand (‘Ave a Banana) played on a barrel organ!
And he played the part so well. The mannerisms, the talk, the wink in the eye and doff of the cap. Cole could have been a con in real life, he had the image down to a tee. The first series of Minder centred around stories involving McCann and utilised Waterman’s hard image carried over from The Sweeney. But Arthur’s character caught the public imagination and from series two onwards the stories involved McCann being dragged into or along by yet another of Arthur’s dodgy scams.
On the way down to Brighton on the train, Arthur reminisces about the Brighton Belle and its passenger list of the great and good travelling up to London from the coast. He looks at McCann with his usual disdain and says, “You wouldn’t catch Gielgud sitting there shoving an individual fruit pie into his north and south.”
Cole was born in 1925 and given up for adoption. His success as an actor may never have happened if he hadn’t been taken in by the British actor Alastair Sim of all people. Sim showed him the ropes and helped him in his early acting career. After a stint in the Royal Air Force, Cole’s career took off and by a circuitous route arrived at Thames Television in 1979 where he went on to play Arthur Daley for the next fifteen years.
Some might say Cole was typecast, that the character of Arthur Daley engulfed the actor George Cole, but Cole never complained, never came across as the pained actor undervalued by an ignorant public: a torment endured by the likes of Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams. Or maybe, like Michael Caine, Cole saw acting as nothing more than a nice little earner, a few sovs in the pocket and money to keep ‘Er Indoors happy.
As enduring as summer, Arthur Daley’s words will persist. But don’t take my word for it. Have a look at the man in action.
RIP George Cole. 1925 – 2015