For much of his distinguished career, George Cole played a host of loveable rogues on television with a vibrant flair. He made dodgy second car dealers appear whiter-than-white and brought a certain credible glamour to the devious trader, Flash Harry, in the early St Trinian’s films. The latter were all opposite Alastair Sim, who guided and mentored Cole’s career like a father.
But it was the double-dealing spiv Arthur Daley (“Every Car a Go-er”) in Minder for which Cole will be so fondly remembered. Daley was always on the look-out for a fast deal and as Cole puffed his cigar with a trilby at a dodgy angle and in a much-worn camel-hair coat, he captured the very essence of a ropey car dealer. He was always out to find “a nice little earner” and delighted in referring to his unseen wife as, “’er indoors”.
It was a beautifully moulded character and Cole and Dennis Waterman (playing the minder) became one of the most engaging double acts on television. They played off each other with a cunning ease and, after some initial worries, they became fast friends. Waterman said yesterday: “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.”
Cole came to Scotland on theatrical tours and he is particularly remembered for a season at the Glasgow Citizens in 1952, at the beginning of his career, when he played Joe Mascara in The Blaikie Charivari. It was James Bridie’s last play in which he introduced the Devil and the play ended in a scene of manic destruction. Cole was also seen that season at the Citz as Walter Anderson in Bridie’s classic The Anatomist.
In 1966, Cole appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in a star-studded production (by the future Festival director Frank Dunlop) of Shaw’s Too True To Be Good. Cole played Sergeant Fielding alongside Dora Bryan, Alastair Sim and James Bolam. Amongst the “great riches” that The Scotsman’s Ronald Mavor found in the production, he singled out Cole for his “rigidly intellectual sergeant”.
George Edward Cole, who was adopted as a baby, grew up in Morden, south London. He left school at 14 and found some work backstage where he had the good fortune to meet the Edinburgh-born star Alastair Sim and his wife, Naomi. They became his substitute parents and even provided a home for him in Oxfordshire when he was evacuated from the East End. Sim guided Cole’s career and cast him in several of his films.
Cole was also in cameo roles in The Demi-Paradise (1943) starring Laurence Olivier and in Olivier’s film version of Henry V the following year.
Apart from his national service – running an officers’ mess in Germany with the Royal Air Force – Cole was hardly ever out of work. After the radio sitcom A Life of Bliss, in which he was the awkward, absent-minded bachelor David Bliss, film work was central to his career. In 1963, he played Flavius in the epic Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison.
Many television dramas followed, in particular the role of the stuffy bank manager in The Good Life, which was filmed live in front of the Queen.
The year 1979 saw the start of Minder and it was to occupy Cole for more than 100 episodes until 1994. There were also two feature-length specials, Minder On The Orient Express in 1985 and An Officer and A Car Salesman in 1988.
From the outset, the show was a charming blend of comedy and underworld skulduggery. The series was devoted to a couple of ne’er-do-wells who didn’t trust each other, let alone the police or other crooks. But Cole gave “Arfur” a loveable honesty, no matter how contrived and devious his actions.
In his autobiography (The World was My Lobster), Cole admitted he had been astonished by the popularity of Arthur Daley. “He behaved terribly to people who got in the way of him making a quick quid,” he wrote. “And the audience still loved him.”
A lot of that love was because Cole delivered a character rich in personality and cock-sure, tongue-in-cheek warmth.
Other series followed – the played the know-it-all father in BBC TV’s Dad in 1997. Cole also gave strong cameo performances in Miss Marple, Heartbeat, New Tricks and Midsomer Murders.
Cole, who was awarded the OBE in 1992, was devoted to his family and much enjoyed horse-racing and “pottering in his garden” in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire. He had built the house next door to the Sims and remained there for 70 years.
His first marriage, to Eileen Moore, was dissolved and he is survived by his second wife, Penny Morrell, and two children from each marriage.