Strictly speaking, George Cole was never really a star, not in the proper accepted sense of the term: he rarely took the lead and his best work often found him playing wingman to other performers. And yet, over a career that started when he was in short trousers and which has only been ended by his death, aged 90, he established himself as one of Britain's favourite actors.
He will, of course, be best remembered as Arthur Daley in Minder. For all Arthur was meant to be a supporting character (Minder was originally conceived as a vehicle for Dennis Waterman), he soon eclipsed the nominal lead in the public imagination, in large part because of Cole's incorrigible performance, the ultimate embodiment of dodgy geezerdom. But as glorious as Arthur was, he shouldn't be allowed to overshadow the rest of Cole's work.
Image via ITV/Rex Features
Cole was born in 1925 and raised, by adoptive parents, in London. After leaving school at 14 with a vague plan to join the merchant navy, the fates intervened and found him a job as an actor; it was only a small role (in a touring musical) but enough to make him want to do more. At the tender age of 15, he began to audition for films.
He didn't have to wait long for a role: Cottage to Let, released in 1941, is a still-engaging comedy-thriller with young George as a Cockney evacuee looking to put the kibosh on a dastardly Nazi scheme. It was a film Cole always remembered fondly, not just because it was his debut but because it introduced him to someone who would have an incalculable influence on his life.
Image via BT
Alastair Sim was one of British cinema's greatest comic actors. The star of Cottage to Let, he was impressed by his younger colleague and became not just Cole's mentor but virtually a surrogate father, even inviting the boy to live with he and his wife at Sim Towers (don't worry, his parents said it was alright).
Under Sim's tutelage, Cole blossomed as an actor. He found his way to Laurence Olivier (who cast Cole as The Boy in Henry V) and appeared in films directed by Robert Hamer (The Spider and the Fly) and Powell and Pressburger (the much underrated Gone to Earth). And there was often a small role to be had in films which starred his patron: an official in The Happiest Days of Your Life or playing the younger incarnation of Sim's titular character in Scrooge.
By the time Cole appeared in The Belles of St Trinian's (also starring Sim), it was clear his apprenticeship was complete and that he had matured into a superlative comic actor. Cole played Flash Harry, a spivvish forerunner of Arthur Daley who assists the young ladies of St Trinian's in their illicit endeavours; he made such an impression that he was called back to the school again and again; his was the only character to appear in all of the four original films.
Image via the Independent
By the end of the 1950s, George Cole was one of the most reliable actors in the British film; he was a regular comedy foil to Terry-Thomas (Laughter in Paradise, Too Many Crooks) and was just as comfortable in drama, in films like The Weapon. Best of all was the wonderful The Green Man, which again paired him with his mentor: Sim is an unlikely hit-man, while Cole is the mild-mannered vacuum cleaner salesman who must to stop him.
Although he managed to star in a couple of films opposite Liz Taylor (the mega-budget fiasco Cleopatra and the more modest The Blue Bird) Cole's later films were less distinguished than his early work. Still, the movies' loss was television's gain; even before Minder cemented him in British popular culture, he was one of the most familiar faces on the goggle-box, a welcome presence in both comedy and drama, one familiar to many generations: no wonder he is being mourned so widely.
He made it all look so easy, so effortless: almost as though he wasn't acting at all. But only a very fine actor could play so many, and such diverse, parts – and do them so well.