When Gunfight at the O.K. Laundrette aired at nine o’clock on Monday the 29th of October 1979, many Britons were unaware as to what precisely constituted a “Minder”’. However, the opening credits promised an everyday slice of London low-life in the great Euston Films tradition. It was intriguing to see Dennis Waterman on the other side of the law, and the second lead was the great George Cole. Besides, it had to be more entertaining than a screening of Caravan to Vaccarès on BBC1.
“A British institution.”
By the time Minder commenced its seventh season on Boxing Day 1988, it was one of the few television programmes to merit the description ‘a British Institution’. Greil Marcus observed how certain films achieved a folkloric state, one where ‘the borders between the movie and nation cease to exist. The movie becomes a fable; then it becomes a metaphor. Then it becomes a catchphrase, a joke, a shortcut’. Such was the case with the misadventures of Terry McCann and Arthur Daley, but the process was not instantaneous. Season one of Minder is akin to The Sweeney with its very real violence – an elderly lady is threatened with a shotgun in the opening episode – and an air of grey, almost resigned, seediness. There is also the remarkable sight of Sgt. Chisholm sporting long hair.
Some critics were uncertain how to react to Minder. Nancy Banks-Smith wrote in The Guardian: ‘Dennis Waterman is solid and shining (I never saw a man sweat more) but the effect of the series on the satellite stars is oddly unhappy. George Cole, that fine comic actor, seems subdued as Waterman’s greasy governor’.
But here one must take issue, for Leon Griffiths and one of Britain’s master character actors created an unforgettable figure from the outset of Minder. The writer later observed ‘I’ve always been fascinated by low-lives, the semi-villains of this world. I like observing them, wondering how they make out’. Arthur’s accent is not quite in place in the early stories, but his venal nature is much in evidence, whether he is plotting over a vodka & slimline in the Winchester Club or hiring out the services of Terry.
“The best thing of its kind on the air.” Clive James.
By 1982, Clive James thought Minder ‘the best thing of its kind on the air’, singling out Cole’s Arthur as a figure whose ‘past might catch up with him’. You can image a young Arthur rubbing shoulders with Harry Fowler or Harold Lang, as they carry out the orders of Sydney Tafler. Daley may well have children attending a private school and delight in wearing mock-Savile Row suits, but he forever carries a taint of smog.
The following year saw the release of What Are We Gonna Get ‘Er Indoors, a definitive sign that Minder was now widely regarded as a comedy programme – Waterman and Cole’s performance live on Top of The Pops remains one of the most bizarre sights of 1980s television.
The series was intended to conclude with the 1985 Christmas Special Minder on the Orient Express, but three years later Terry and Arthur returned for seven more stories. The guest stars were as splendid as ever – especially Michael Kitchen’s “Maltese Tony” – but any relationship between McCann and Daley seemed to have dissipated. Yet, even though the mood was now overtly comic (in An Officer and A Car Salesman, Chisholm appears to be channelling the spirit of Lionel Jeffries), Cole never lost sight of the fact that Arthur is not a nice man. With Only Fools and Horses, Derek Trotter gradually became “lovable”, to the detriment of the show, but Daley always remained his mercenary and unprincipled self.
Perhaps that is the key to the success of the McCann era Minder, for the underlying theme was always that Arthur used Terry to protect him from the consequences of his own greed. In Mr. James’s truly memorable words, Cole’s portrayal of Daley attained ‘such heights of seediness that a flock of starlings could feed off him’. The actor was initially concerned that the character might resemble Flash Harry, but the resident spiv of St. Trinian’s was an amiably dim-witted figure while a younger Arthur might have conceivably sold a used Vauxhall Cresta to an acolyte of the Krays. The Daley business philosophy is ‘You only get out of life what you put in and a bit more if you can find a couple of mugs’ – and poor Terry is frequently one of them.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA