Born in Tooting on 22nd April 2015 and adopted at ten days old, George Cole spent his childhood in Morden, his earliest memory being his mother’s ire when she discovered he had sold a pair of new shoes to a rag-and-bone man in exchange for a toy windmill. Whilst he excelled academically, Cole first love was acting, and as he later remembered, ‘I was always in plays at school and in school concerts – you could say I liked to show off.’
After leaving school at the age of 14, he worked first as a butcher’s delivery boy and dreamt of joining the Merchant Navy, a dream that was hastily abandoned when he landed a role in the musical comedy The White Horse Inn and then Cottage to Let, which was turned in to a film in 1941, starring Alastair Sim and John Mills. Sim and his wife offered Cole and his mother lodgings and Cole was to live with them until he married the actress Eileen Moore in 1954.
Between 1941 and 1947, Cole would appear with Sim in eight films, most notably The Belle’s of St. Trinian’s and Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s in which Cole played Flash Harry, a spiv who encouraged the girls to get up to all sorts of mischief, and Sim their indulgent headmistress, Miss Fritton. Oher significant roles included the part of ‘the Boy’ in Olivier’s Henry V (1944) and Curley, a member of the Lancaster Crew in the 1945 war film Journey Together, with Richard Attenborough and Jack Watling. The latter enabled Cole to draw upon his own experiences as an R.A.F. radio operator from 1944 to 1947.
Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, Cole was a consistent presence on British television and cinema screens as well as on the stage, appearing as Tom Bates in Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle at the Open Space Theatre in London in 1979. But his biggest role was yet to come. In 1979, he was offered the part of Arthur Daley, a used-car salesman and a middle-aged version of Flash Harry in a new ITV series called Minder, which was intended as a vehicle for Dennis Waterman who was then enjoying great success alongside John Thaw in the police drama, The Sweeney.
Initially, the programme focused on Waterman’s character Terry McCann, a retired boxer and ex-con who is hired by Daley as a minder to protect him from the wrath of those stung by his dodgy dealings. However, Daley proved to be such a hit with his trademark Castella Panatellas, quotable misquotes, such as ‘the world is your lobster,’ and his references to his unseen and long-suffering wife ‘er indoors,’ that he was given increasingly more airtime as each series progressed.
Above: The opening credits for the first series of Minder (1979)
Millions of viewers tuned in each week to watch Daley’s get-rich-quick schemes which often left both him and McCann trying to avoid the long arm of the law under the watchful eye of Detective Sergeant Chisholm, or Daley orchestrating his latest ‘nice little earner’ over a V.A.T (vodka and tonic) at The Winchester Club. I Could Be So Good For You, the show’s theme tune, was a No. 3 hit for Dennis Waterman in 1980 and in 1982, The Firm‘s novelty song Arthur Daley E’s Alright reached No.14 in the UK charts. Daley even cropped up in adverts for The Leeds Building Society during the 1980s. Minder ran for a total of ten series, with the final episode broadcast in 1994.
Above: The Firm performing Arthur Daley E’s Alright on Top of the Pops (1982)
In 1992, Cole was awarded an O.B.E. After Minder finished he continued to regularly feature on British television in comedy series like An Independent Man (1995) Dad (1997-1999) and the crime drama Diamond Geezer with David Jason (2005-2007). In 2008, he starred in Shot at Dawn a critically acclaimed episode of Midsomer Murders, as WW1 veteran Private Tommy Hicks, who faces his old adversary Colonel Henry Hammond, played by Donald Sinden. His autobiography, The World Was My Lobster was published in 2013.
Cole’s last role was in the as yet uncompleted horror, Road Rage with reports stating that Cole was eager to finish one last film, demanding that its director Spencer Hawken ‘get a move on.‘ On 5th August 2015, George Cole died at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading near his home in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, where he lived with his second wife, Penny Morrell. Summing up a remarkable career that had spanned more than six decades, Cole simply said, ‘I was paid to be cheeky and people clapped me for it.’
The World Was My Lobster – George Cole and Brian Hawkins (2013)