When I started in the newspaper industry in 1982, my first real ‘guvnor’ was a fella called Bill Bateman. Bill was in his late 50s, and someone we all had respect for. He was a real sweetheart who somehow kept control of a room full of a load us ‘nuisances,’ London lads in our early 20’s and the same amount of ‘I can’t afford to retire’ old boys, who we worked alongside. To say there was a generational clash would be too massively underestimate the work force he had to deal with but deal with it he did. His stop gap phrase to quieten yet another row that had broken out would be, ‘Markie, keep it down son, ‘er indoors wouldn’t like language like that…’ for which I would immediately apologise to him for. He had a phrase or two, to deal with most of the grief he encountered every day and all of it revolved around quotes taken from the ‘Minder’ TV series.
I mention that by way of demonstrating how popular that show was in the early 80’s. It of course made a national star of its lead character Arthur Daley, played by the inestimable George Cole.
In truth it was only when ‘Minder’ went big, that he became that star. George’s career up until that point had been one of the occasional success in among mainly British ‘B’ movies. He first came to my consciousness when he portrayed the wide boy/spiv, ‘Flash Harry’ in the St Trinians films for many years from 1954. I can still whistle his theme tune when he appeared on screen if asked, as I’m sure some of you are doing now, whilst reading this.
His own real-life story was one of a tough start . Born in Tooting in 1925, he was adopted when 10 days old by George senior, who worked for the council and his cleaner wife, Florence. Cole’s schooling was in Morden. He discovered he was adopted when he turned 13, but Flo was keen for him to keep that quiet, which he did for many years. Upon leaving school at 14, he was all set to join the Merchant Navy, but his love of entertaining his friends, with songs he learned off the radio at the time, got the better of him and he instead joined a musical troupe and went on the road as an understudy on 28 shillings a week.
When he acted opposite Alastair Sim, the actor took Cole under his wing, eventually moving George and his mum Florence into his family home, alongside him and his wife Naomi. As a result of Sim’s tutelage, Cole lost his strong cockney accent (oh the irony,) learned stage craft, and eventually went on to act with Sim in eleven films overall . This gave him a tremendous grounding in the acting discipline and found him working with the likes of Laurence Olivier on a couple of occasions.
George served his national service in the RAF from 1944 until 1947 and then returned to his acting and became a fairly well known ‘jobbing’ actor on stage, TV film and a familiar voice on radio. Among the 118 films he eventually appeared in, the highlights for me would be…
Henry V (1944) – Boy.
Scrooge (1951) – Young Ebenezer Scrooge
The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) – ‘Flash’ Harry
Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957) – ‘Flash’ Harry
Notable TV roles in the 60s and 70s included a role as the story teller on ‘Jackanory’ and playing a bank manager in an episode of ‘The Good Life’ that was recorded in front of our current Queen.
‘I don’t like abroad, Terrence. Iffy water, sawn off toilets and plod with guns…’
Then came ‘Minder’ created by Leon Griffiths. The Thames Television produced programme, started in October 1979 and ran until March 1994. He stated in his autobiography ‘The World Was My Lobster’ (of course it was called that) that he despised the kind of person that Arthur was, so he definitely had mixed emotions taking the part. The show was in fact devised initially as the next step for Dennis Waterman’s career, once his previous TV show ‘The Sweeney’ had ended.
Waterman played Terry McCann, Arthur’s bodyguard or minder and he wanted the actor Denholm Elliott to play the Arthur role originally. Thankfully all was right in the end and a beautiful friendship with Cole blossomed as the show became a success. Dennis even getting to sing the theme tune. ‘I Could be So Good for You.’
As I mentioned at the start of this, some of the lines and language of the show, entered the everyday speech of everyday people, and it became national treasure time. Off the top of my head, I’ve only got to say Dave the barman, The Winchester Club, a large VAT, the lock up, Used Cars, ‘er indoors, Castella cigars, and Mr Chisholm, and all of the above will be fondly recalled all these years later. ‘Minder’ lasted for 114 episodes and reached a viewing peak of 16 million viewers in 1984.
Later roles for Cole, included Sir Giles in the BBC adaption of ‘Blott on the Landscape’ and a memorable run of adverts for ‘Olympus’ cameras alongside celebrated photographer David Bailey.
George was married twice and had four children. He was made an OBE in 1992 and lived out his life in Oxfordshire until his death aged 90 in August 2015.
Last word from his mate Dennis at the time of George’s passing.
‘I’m so grateful to have been a friend of this wonderful man. We worked together for many years and my boast is that we laughed all day every day. He was an amazing man, a wonderful actor and besotted with his family. ‘Farewell old friend.’
The Mumper of SE5