Obituary: George Cole

“The world is your lobster”

George Cole, who has died aged 90, was a man of considerable skill and panache in his character performances. In many ways he was a jobbing actor – work came his way and he took it, which he would remark on in tones which suggested that this explained any flops in his career. It did not really explain the way he lit up any film he was in and that the overwhelming majority of his work justifies a return visit – or, indeed, several return visits.

He was born in 1925 to a mother, and remained non-specific about the details of this mother even in his autobiography, which was published when he was 88. She handed him over for adoption and he regarded his adopted parents as his mother and father. Acting always seems to have been of some interest and he said he wanted to do that at his careers interview, but it fulfilled a particularly valuable opportunity to get out of the apprenticeship at a butcher’s that the Board of Trade man gave him instead. After walking out of his unsuccessful careers interview, he saw the advert for actors for a musical called The White Horse Inn on Friday, auditioned on the Saturday, caught the train to Blackpool that afternoon, told his parents (in that order – “Have gone on the stage, will write”) and failed to turn up at the butcher’s on Monday. So a star is born. There is an alternative universe where Minder was a flop and an unknown Morden butcher died 20 years ago reflecting on how nice it would have been to do a few stage roles.

While he was away on tour with The White Horse Inn his father died. Subsequently he was taken under the wing of a formidable character actor called Alastair Sim, who (with his wife Naomi) sort of adopted Cole from his adopted parents. Sim cleaned up Cole’s Cockney accent (which ironically would bring him his two greatest roles, but being able to suppress it confidently avoided risks of typecasting) and provided him with early experience. He would go on to recall Sim’s way of teaching him where the front of a tree is (what front?). War then intervened, but in 1944 he was cast in the Lawrence Olivier film version of Henry V as “The Boy”; his youth at the time and subsequent longevity gained him the status of the last surviving actor from the film. It was a film ordered by Winston Churchill to encourage morale, so counted as a sort of military service.

His post-war experience was initially quiet and unmemorable; it was a string of Alastair Sim vehicles which got him on his way. For The Happiest Days of Your Life in 1950 he portrayed the only person that a headmistress could get through to at the Ministry of Education – the boiler stoker. This was followed the next year by Laughter in Paradise – a rather larger role as a quiet and unassuming bank clerk that entailed carrying about a fifth of the film. It also featured Audrey Hepburn in one of her earlier roles. 1951 was a good year for starting a career – he also appeared in Lady Godiva Rides Again as a boyfriend. Joining him on the cast list for that were Diana Dors, Sid James, Joan Collins and Ruth Ellis – the last being more notable in legal circles than acting ones, after she got angry with her boyfriend a few years later, shot him dead and was duly hanged.

Laughter in Paradise is a much happier film, with certain stock characters from late 1950s and 1960s British comedy. Most notable is the gap-toothed rich caddish Terry-Thomas character – played by Guy Middleton. Joyce Grenfell is being very proper as usual. Alastair Sim puts in his usual silent comedy performance. Everything ends ludicrously.

Sim did a film of A Christmas Carol under the title of Scrooge that year; Cole was the obvious candidate for Young Scrooge while Sim looked terrified at the Ghost of Marley. Sim had a very large face; it conveyed a great deal of emotion through big eyes and a puzzled tone. Cole’s expressions were much smaller, sharper and keener, better suited to peering from behind things nervously. It was in this peering capacity that he appeared shortly afterwards in one of the characters that will define his career.

In the wake of their production of The Happiest Days of Your Life, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat decided to do another public school-based production based on the cartoons of Ronald Searle. Searle had created a girl’s school called St Trinian’s, where the parents had horns and tails, the teachers had an air of perpetual alarm or aloofness and the girls brought weapons to games classes – and missed the bit about “unarmed combat”. He drew himself as the Founder and came to visit the cartoon school in the back of a horse-drawn hearse. In 1953 he rounded off his drawings by announcing that St Trinian’s had been destroyed in an incident caused by experiments in nuclear fission. It was a blow from which the school was not intended to recover (“the building fund has been embezzled anyway”).

The next year (while Searle went off to draw Molesworth and St Custard’s for Geoffrey Willans’s error-riddled skool tail) Alastair Sim played Clarence and Millicent Fritton in the big screen adaptation, The Belles of St Trinian’s. On many levels it is a rather innocent film. Guy Middleton has escaped from the Ministry of Education with a fellow school inspector and they are now the gardener and fencing master (although still trying to draw their Government pay). In Happiest Days of Your Life he had been betting on the horse Windsor Cottage, which played a leading role in Belles. Joyce Grenfell was excellent as a put-upon police sergeant; Richard Wattis did his civil servant routine trying not to think about his missing inspectors; George Cole was… well…

Flash Harry was a rather good role; close to the girls, directing their activities and being forgotten by the headmistress:

I’m not absolutely sure… It could be Harry – a boot boy, who I engaged in 1940. Of course, he was only 12 and didn’t have any moustache then but… well, apart from that I see no reason why it couldn’t be Harry.

For reasons not entirely clear, her school owes the bank £4,000 and she has resorted to writing post-dated cheques (for 1959).

References to the Americans building airbases in the Middle East give it a certain currency today; horse racing is still popular too, though the inspectors would have been carted off to prison.

Harry returned for the 1957 installment Blue Murder at St Trinian’s, for which Alastair Sim’s role was somewhat reduced owing to Clarence Fritton having vanished and Millicent Fritton being in prison. Harry has been left in charge of the school (ineffectually aided by the Army), so he takes himself off to see who he can marry off to Prince Bruno in Italy. Lionel Jeffries plays the con-man this time, with a good bit of rubbing against Harry and a rather dim view of the school:

Your mother and I could perfectly well have afforded one of the better public schools after that marvellous job she pulled off at Lord What-sis-name’s.

The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s was weaker in itself, although the line about Herefordshire (“Fire engines raced to the scene from four counties – Essex, Middlesex, Bedfordshire and Herefordshire!” – “Herefordshire? Surely you mean Hertfordshire?” – “No, no, they rang the wrong number”) would be worth watching it for were it not in the prologue and therefore not even necessary to wait for. Cecil Parker keeps his end up as a manipulative person of dubious background; Irene Handl is perfect as ever; Cole meets our expectations for Harry.

Cole’s last appearance as Flash was in The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery, opposite Frankie Howard and Dora Bryan; he has been elevated from boot boy to “Chairman of the Board of Governors”, though retains his theme tune. He rounds off his career as Flash crammed onto the footplate of an “Austerity” saddle tank locomotive in his flash suit, along with a group of schoolgirls in ties, short skirts and tights, chasing Frankie Howard, Reg Varney, Cyril Chamberlain and gang (in another Austerity, much rebuilt with plywood) and being pursued in turn by a “Thumper” diesel train stuffed with police officers and some puzzled regular passengers. Meanwhile a Wickham railcar sailed up and down the other running line, loaded with the teaching staff and falling over two girls breaking speed records on a pump trolley. Anyone intrigued as to what happened to the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan will be relieved to see that she ended up in 1966, working as a French teacher at a disreputable school which collected back fees at the gate of open days.

Cole benefited from a certain amount of luck. He was arguably too old by the time the fifth St Trinian’s film was made  (Wildcats of St Trinian’s, 1980) to appear as Flash opposite Sheila Hancock as the new headteacher, with a new generation of young actresses (like Suzanna Hamilton, of Swallows and Amazons and 1984) to administer. He was, however, also far too busy. Joe Melia took on the poisoned chalice of being in a film so unsuccessful that 1950s “B” movies and deservedly-forgotten Ealing Studios films (along with, let’s be fair, some very good ones) have beaten it to be released on DVD. Wildcats has no plot to speak of, except something about trying to make fun of trade unions, a lot of girls running around and Thorley Walters looking stressed. There’s a laugh. Somewhere. It was a very sad end to Frank Launder’s brilliant career as a comedy director.

While St Trinian’s was on – not necessarily making Cole much money, as Launder and Gilliat never had much money left over for actors and Cole reckoned most what there was went to Sim – he picked up the role of David Bliss in the radio sitcom “Life of Bliss”, of which a handful of episodes survive and were repeated last summer. Cole considered that the best role was the bloke playing the dog. (Not to be confused with the Bliss family in Noel Coward’s Hayfever, who are anything but clean and wholesome.) There was also The Green Man – opposite Sim again, with Sim playing a wonderfully mad assassin and Cole a vacuum cleaner salesman who makes a mess of a nice young lady’s house so he has something to demonstrate with before discovering that she has no electricity (and that it’s the wrong house). Terry-Thomas is now playing Terry-Thomas and Arthur Brough is running hotels in the days before he went on to sell clothes.

The film Cleopatra was a large-budget affair which called for the talents of everyone who was anyone plus a few more people on the side, so Cole appeared in it – alongside such names as Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Rex Harrison – as a chap called Flavius. If nothing else, being in one of the grandest epics ever made filled in time. The plot was a simple one – girl meets boy, girl meets other boy, first boy gets murdered, second boy is done in by first boy’s nephew, girl persuades snake to poison her, end credits – and already moderately well-known. Some of the sets were borrowed to save money on making Carry On Cleo. Notably Cole was not in any of the Carry On films – a remarkable achievement shared with Sim. Both floated around the more serious edge of comedy, drifting into drama, rather than the bawdy seaside humour of the Kenneth Williams/ Charles Hawtrey end of things. He did, however, appear opposite Sid James in various films – aside from Lady Godiva there was also his role as an incompetent criminal alongside Bernard Bresslaw and Joe Melia in Too Many Crooks. This was something of a name-studded film, where familiar faces roll out of every corner – Terry-Thomas being robbed, John Le Mesurier looking puzzled over a magistrate’s desk, Sydney Tafler desperately trying to invent defences on the spot and Nicholas Parsons being friendly. There was also a joke about changing hearses in mid-stream. A clip from the film was recycled for an electricity advert a few years ago.

In the wake of Train Robbery and the general collapse of the British film industry Cole went back to theatre and combined it with television work. Sim and he largely pursued separate careers for the 1960s; Sim died in 1976. There followed a decade of general work and bringing up children. His first marriage collapsed and he mentioned it once – to say he wouldn’t speak further of it – in his autobiography. His second was very successful and survived until his death.

In 1979 ITV was looking at providing Dennis Waterman with a vehicle that was a bit fresher than his previous one, a relatively short-lived show called The Sweeney, which also starred John Thaw (perhaps better known as Inspector Morse – another crime drama, which ITV has generally been good at). Cole appeared in one episode of The Sweeney, playing a character called Dennis Longfield. For its replacement the scriptwriter Leon Griffiths produced a show based around a modern spiv and his pet heavy, or “minder”. The spiv, when he didn’t need someone to carry things for him or look like he’d bash interfering people over the head, would hire this minder out to other people and thereby provide variety for plots. Griffiths took inspiration from the sort of places that he occasionally found himself in, such as one where a load of rather heavy blokes sat around the bar and gruffly told him that they worked in removals. The executive producer, one Verity Lambert, selected Cole of the part of the spiv. There was some disagreement. Dennis Waterman wanted someone else. But Lambert had form at creating long-running TV shows (over 50 years for one rather notable BBC affair created early in her career) and Cole it was. The heavy was Terry McCann. The spiv was Arthur Daley. The show was Minder.

Minder warrants a chapter of its own in Cole’s autobiography, for obvious reasons. It ran for 107 episodes, 11 series and 15 years; it appeared at around the same time as Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, was held to epitomise some of the seedier elements of the 1980s and lasted slightly longer. It generated a great deal of work in making commercials, for which he was very well paid for a day of filming. It remarkably survived the departure of Dennis Waterman – the two remained friends as Daley continued being minded by someone else. It also featured a most amusing incident when Waterman persuaded Cole to do a Christmas record. The show was a hit – so this was a bit of an inevitability for the record.

The “noise abasement society” is typical of the Daley-isms which made up a good portion of the show’s comedy (along with Daley’s attempts to sell things, what he was trying to sell in the way of knock-off goods – series 2 episode 5 featues water-damaged umbrellas – and the general incidents of being just on the wrong side of the law). Daley’s pledges of things like his “sainted mother’s grave” (his mother was “alive and well and living in Frinton” according to Terry) make up a nice line, as did the constant references to his usually unseen wife as “‘er indoors” but “the world is your lobster” and other such terms filled out his pompous character. Cole never saw what it was that anyone else saw in Daley, but this was a long way from the Independent’s careful mangling of remarks on this in his autobiography to suggest that he hated playing the character. In fact he rather enjoyed it. A picture of him as Arthur Daley appeared on the cover of said autobiography, though the cigar is airbrushed off. For its title, Cole went with The World was my Lobster.

After Minder life became less high-profile, but he remains a figure where to two generations the name is instantly recognisable – for two different roles. The political comedy-drama An Independent Man took up some time. There are other roles out there for old men showing off wisdom, grouchiness or general age. He returned to the theatre. Russell Brand played him in the first St Trinian’s reboot; for the second the girls looked after themselves in the face of the immense threat of an invasion by The Doctor.

As is occasionally the case, he proved sufficiently long-lived that the Guardian obituary also has a note that the obituary writer has died since compiling the obituary. Cole himself never stopped working to the end. The news articles on his death are in a disconcertingly large number of languages – spivs do not just appeal to the British. He leaves his second wife, four children and a naturally very upset Minder co-star, although few of his St Trinian’s co-stars are still around. (The French teacher is one of a handful of exceptions.) The Internet Movie Database, at the time of his death, had him down to play “Cyril” in the upcoming film Road Rage. Precisely how this will now work out is unclear. Meanwhile, St Peter has another star name for this year’s pantomime.

George Cole, born Tooting 22nd April 1925, died Reading 5th August 2015.