Remembering George Cole all at sea away from the Arthur Daley car-lot. He wasn’t acting either

So farewell to actor George Cole who has died aged 90. In a career that spanned more than 60 years he played the wily spiv Flash Harry in the St Trinians films and appeared with everyone from Olivier to Burton and Taylor before becoming known to a generation of Tv viewers as dodgy car dealer Arthur Daley in Minder. I met Cole a couple of times in his later years. Read about our encounters here. 

George Cole as Arthur Daley turning a little green while criossing the Channel in a force nine gale
George Cole as Arthur Daley turning a little green while crossing the Channel in a force nine gale. Picture: Hattie Miles

By Jeremy Miles

TURN the clock back 30 years and I’m in the middle of the English Channel , standing unsteadily on the bridge of a ferry, and clinging on for dear life as the ship pitches and tosses through heavy seas.

My eyes settle on Arthur Daley, one hand on the navigation console, the other clasped to the side of his head: “Oh my good Gawd,” he says, before letting out a moan that sounds not quite human. Inspector Chisholm and Terry McCann look on wanly.

No, not a bizarre dream, but real memories of being despatched to write a feature on the filming of the classic Christmas TV special Minder on the Orient Express. It had all seemed like a great idea, until we realised that we were expected to cross the Channel in a force nine gale.

Most of the cast, which included Honor Blackman and a then completely unknown Ray Winston, made their way reluctantly aboard. Some, however, had other ideas. Adam Faith insisted on staying firmly on dry land until the wind dropped enough for him to nip aboard a hovercraft and make a late dash for France, where he could be reunited with the Minder crew.

A decade ago I was briefly reunited with veteran actor Cole remembered the occasion well.

“Oh, that crossing – wasn’t it dreadful?” he said. Just weeks before his 80th birthday, Cole was doing a round of interviews to flag up the release on VHS and DVD of the tenth and final Minder Series. The programmes, carefully packaged in a three-volume box set, was the end of the road as far as Minder was concerned. Broadcast between January and March 1994, it saw the original Minder of the title – Dennis Waterman’s Terry McCann – sidelined and replaced by Gary Webster as Daley’s nephew Ray. These were considered far from vintage episodes but watching them again I realised  just how good they actually were. For it wasn’t only the last gasp for Minder – it marked the dying days of a level of TV production that had simply ceased exist. You only had to glance at the technical credits to see that there was a serious budget at work.

Cole, who told me that he accepted the role of secondhand car dealer Daley because the original synopsis of the character said that he “dressed like a dodgy member of the Citizens Advice Bureau”,  admitted he is eternally grateful for the part. It gave a late boost to an already long and illustrious career and right up to the date of our interview in 2005 he was still being deluged with fan mail.  Hardly surprising perhaps when you remember what an impact the character had on the British viewing public.

But Cole was quick to remind me that Minder was far from an instant success . “The first series didn’t get into the ratings at all nor the second but the third went like a rocket. “I knew something was happening when taxi drivers started saying: ‘How’s her indoors?’ or ‘You ought to give that Terry a bit more money’.”

Suddenly second-hand car lots all over Britain started using the Daley brand as a kind of jokey advertising slogan. “Very strange,” chuckled Cole. He also found himself getting a few sideways looks whenever he tried to cash a cheque and to this day you can buy Arthur Daley bank notes on e-Bay. “They keep sending them to me to be autographed. They’re supposed to be issued by the Bank of Fulham.”

A keen fan of the TV re-runs, Cole was delighted that the shows were going out on DVD saying that he particularly loved watching old episodes to try and spot the ‘It’ll Be Alright on the Night’ moments. “You recognise those times when there were problems but we managed to get out of it without stopping.”

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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