Obituary: George Cole

George Cole

George Cole was a veteran of more than 60 films in a career that spanned eight decades.

However his role as used-car salesman Arthur Daley, in the long-running TV series Minder, is the one for which he will be best remembered.

His character became synonymous with dodgy dealing and phrases such as "nice little earner" and "er indoors" passed into the national lexicon.

As well as his numerous screen appearances, he also starred for 15 years in the BBC radio series A Life of Bliss, later adapted for TV.

Image caption Cole (centre) had the lead role in A Life of Bliss, a weekly series dealing with the domestic affairs of a bachelor David Bliss

George Edward Cole was born in Tooting, south-west London on 22 Apr 1925. His 16 year old mother abandoned him when he was just ten days old and he was adopted by the Cole family and brought up on a London council estate.

He left school at 14 intending to work as a butcher's boy but, following the death of his adoptive father, ran away to Blackpool where he successfully auditioned for a part in a touring musical show.

In 1940, he played a Cockney evacuee in Cottage To Let, first on stage and then on film. He had gone to the audition for the stage version purely to accompany a friend but ended up getting the part himself.

"I was always in plays at school and in school concerts," he said. "You could say I liked to show off."

Together with his adoptive mother, he was taken in by the actor Alistair Sim and his wife, Naomi, and appeared with Sim in a number of plays.

The Sims ruthlessly worked on ironing out his cockney vowels, determined that he shouldn't be type-cast.

Cole joined the RAF in 1943, where he trained as a wireless operator. When it was discovered that his eyesight wasn't good he was removed from flying duties and transferred to Coastal Command HQ in Northwood before going to Allied occupied Germany to run the bar in an officers' mess.

After the war he returned to acting and, by his late 20s, was a veteran of more than 30 films, few of them memorable, including a role as the love interest of a newly-emerging starlet called Joan Collins, in the 1951 film Bikini Babe.

He did have a small role in Laurence Olivier's epic production of Henry V and was, at the time of his death, the last survivor of the huge cast.

In 1953, he took over the role of David Bliss, the somewhat bumbling bachelor in the BBC radio comedy, A Life of Bliss. The series ran for 118 episodes, transferring briefly to television in the early 1960s.

Image copyright Studio Canal / Rex
Image caption Flash Harry was cut from the same cloth as Arthur Daley

It was the 1954 film, The Belles of St Trinian's that brought him to the attention of a wider audience and, incidentally, allowed him to establish the character of the cockney rogue that he would later portray in Minder.

As the spiv, Flash Harry, he was a ready source of nylons for the girls in the school and drink for the teachers. The film featured his mentor, Alistair Sim in the dual roles of the headmistress and her crooked brother.

He would go on to reprise the role in Blue Murder at St Trinian's in 1957, Blue Murder at St Trinian's in 1960 and The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery in 1966.

He was seldom out of work, proving to be a versatile performer who could turn his hand to serious roles, as in The Inspector Calls and musicals like It's a Wonderful World.

There was a minor role in the Taylor/Burton version of Cleopatra in 1963 and he even turned his hand to horror in the 1970s, with The Vampire Lovers, which shocked many with its lesbian love scenes.

The following year, in another horror film, Fright, he found himself working alongside a young actor named Dennis Waterman - later to star alongside him in Minder.

Image caption A memorable TV role was his portrayal of politician Sir Giles Lynchwood in Blott on the Landscape

Cole was also shortlisted for the part of the butler, Hudson, in the London Weekend period drama, Upstairs, Downstairs, a role that eventually went to Gordon Jackson.

He remained much in demand appearing in a variety of roles. These included playing the potter, Josiah Wedgewood in a BBC drama, The Voyage of Charles Darwin and the unscrupulous MP, Sir Giles Lynchwood, in the BBC adaptation of Tom Sharpe's novel, Blott on the Landscape.

In one scene of the latter production his character, a secret fetishist, was left naked, trussed and bound on a bed by a good natured, but particularly forgetful call girl, memorably played by Julia McKenzie.

He also played the author, George Maple, in the BBC sitcom, Don't Forget to Write

In 1979 he was offered the part of Arthur Daley in a comedy-drama called Minder, a role that would come to define his career.

Image copyright ITV / Rex
Image caption Arthur Daley "a little dodgy, maybe, but underneath he's alright," according to the lyrics of a 1982 hit single by The Firm

The character reflected the entrepreneurial era of Thatcher's Britain. "In an era of greed, he was fairly greedy, but also so unsuccessful," Cole once recalled. "He had the appeal of the eternal loser."

Originally written as a vehicle for Dennis Waterman, Cole was not the first choice for the part but Waterman's preference for the actor, Denholm Eliot, was overruled by the producers, much to Waterman's annoyance.

"We circled round each other for three or four days," Cole later recalled. But the pair soon became close friends and developed a rapport on set that saw them improvising scenes to good effect.

The drama ran for eleven series, with Gary Webster replacing Dennis Waterman as Terry in 1991, and delivered huge ratings figures for ITV.

It also made Cole an unlikely pop star when his duet with Dennis Waterman, "What Are We Gonna Get 'Er Indoors?", reached the UK Top Thirty in 1983.

Although Cole was approaching 70 when Minder finally ended, he continued to work regularly into the new century with guest appearances in a number of series, including Midsomer Murders, and various film roles.

He married the actress Eileen Moore in 1954 and the couple had two children. They divorced in 1962 after she left him for someone else. Cole subsequently married another actress, Penny Morrell

A genial and warm-hearted man, Cole always had mixed feelings about the wheeler-dealer character that had brought him fame and fortune.

"I've earned a few sovs from him over the years, so I shouldn't complain, but he was a rogue; a dreadful character, really. I'd certainly lock up the silver if he was coming to dinner."

Related Topics