Earlier this year one of my favourite actors, George Cole passed away. At the time of his death in August I was unable to write a tribute to him and would like to so so now as 2015 draws to a close.
George Cole was born in Tooting, south London on April 22nd 1925. At just 10 days old, he was given up for adoption and taken in by a couple named George and Florence who lived in a council flat in nearby Morden.
Whilst fighting in the Great War, George senior had suffered a gas-attack leaving him in very poor health and unable to maintain secure employment. Consequently, the young George Cole grew up in considerable poverty and left education as soon as possible in order to gain work and help his family. One of the jobs he took on was that of a newspaper delivery boy and, in 1939, it was in one of the papers he was tasked to deliver that he spotted an advert calling youngsters to audition for a West End production. George responded immediately and was successful, kickstarting an acting career in which he would remain for an incredible 75 years.
During one of his earliest productions- playing a then topical London evacuee– George Cole met the great Scottish actor, Alistair Sim who, along with his wife Naomi, took George in as an evacuee for real. This act of kindness blessed George with a second adoptive family and a loving relationship which would last a lifetime.
In 1943 George joined the RAF where he remained in service until the end of the war. Once the conflict was over he returned to acting, landing one of his first major roles in the classic 1951 film, ‘Scrooge’.
In this acclaimed adaptation of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, George Cole played the young Ebenezer (as seen during the Ghost of Christmas Past’s visit) whilst the older, grumpier incarnation of the famous miser was played by George’s beloved surrogate father, Alistair Sim. George’s portrayal is a moving one, providing the character with an emotional depth which reminds us Scrooge was once a decent, young man before life’s hardships made him hard and cynical.
A few years later, George played a far different character- ‘Flash Harry’, the cheeky, Cockney spiv in the 1954 comedy, ‘The Belles of St Trinian’s’.
In a way, Flash Harry was a prototype for George Cole’s most celebrated role- the shady, but loveable wheeler-dealer, Arthur Daley in the ITV series ‘Minder’ which ran for over 100 episodes between 1979 and 1994.
The end credits to ‘Minder’ famously featured images of Arthur Daley and his long-suffering bodyguard, Terry (played by Dennis Waterman) at various locations across London; a sequence which I enjoyed from a young age and which no doubt helped nurture my own love for the capital.
Rest in peace, George.
Towards West London, on Hammersmith Road as you approach the traffic-noose that is the Hammersmith one-way Gyratory, there is a rather grand old building called Colet Court.
Fashioned from traditional, red brick, Colet Court was originally part of St Paul’s Boy’s school.
After the school moved out in 1968 (to larger premises in nearby Barnes), Colet Court quickly found itself adapting to a new and unexpected purpose- it became a television production base.
The company who moved in were Euston Films; a newly established team who had been set up to create programmes for Thames Television; a subsidiary of the ITV network.
Between 1971 and 1994, Euston Films were responsible for many popular, critically acclaimed television series and films.
Shows which were made by Euston are very distinctive; their key feature being that they were filmed entirely on location around London. The capital was their stage.
Because of this, I have a personal fondness for work produced by Euston Films. It is great fun to watch these old shows and see how many streets and landmarks one can recognise… and, in many cases, take note of how much they’ve changed. In my opinion, they are also important records of recent social history.
Here is a selection of some of the most notable pieces created by Euston Films….
The Sweeney (1975-1978)
The Sweeney is by far one of the most famous shows created by Euston.
A ground-breaking police drama, The Sweeney takes its name from the Cockney rhyming slang phrase, “Sweeney Todd”- which translates as Flying Squad; the Flying Squad being a wing of London’s Metropolitan police force who deal with serious violent crimes such as armed robbery.
The Sweeney’s two central characterswere Jack Regan (played by John Thaw) and George Carter (Dennis Waterman) who tore around London in their bronze, Mark I Ford Granada.
Both chaps are very much of their time; hard drinkers and heavy smokers, who are quite content to administer their criminal foe with a few well-placed slaps if it gets the job done (especially if they’re in a rush to get to the canteen for their dinner!)
When it was first shown, The Sweeney was revolutionary, introducing a bold new realism and levels of violence which had previously been unknown in more vintage cop shows such as Z –Cars and Dixon of Dock Green.
It also demonstrated that life is full of grey areas. The ‘good guys’ certainly had their flaws- and didn’t always win the day.
So popular was the series, that two big-screen adaptations were made in 1977 and 1978 respectively.
Filming of The Sweeney (an episode of which generally took a mere 10 days to complete) took place all over London and, at the Colet Court studio in Hammersmith, a set representing the Flying Squad offices was constructed in what used to be the old school’s gymnasium.
In later series, episodes of The Sweeney featured this sequence as part of the closing credits, filmed around London’s West End at a time when the area was at its seediest.
Danger UXB (1979)
Danger UXB was a period drama, set during WWII and the Blitz on London.
‘UXB’ stands for unexploded bomb, and the series followed the terrifying work of a bomb disposal team; men from the army’s Royal Engineers, who would often have to rely on luck, hunches and the barest of information when disarming unexploded Nazi bombs.
13 episodes of Danger UXB were made, with much of the filming taking place around South West London; namely Tooting, Streatham and Clapham.
Out was a brooding, six part serial about Frank Ross, an ex-bank robber who has just been released from prison after an eight year stretch.
Returning home to his native London, he discovers that the lives of his wife and son have sunken to a desperate low during his time away.
Consumed by hate and an urgent desire for revenge, Frank sets out to track down the informer who had him sent down in the first place…
The following is a short clip from the first episode, which sees Frank arrive home, fresh out of jail.
He has travelled by Taxi from Paddington Station to Tulse Hill (just south of Brixton) – a fare which, in 1978, apparently cost the princely sum of £4!
Luckily, as the Taxi driver demonstrates, we cabbies do have a heart!
Taking a year to make, Fox was an epic drama about a large, Clapham-based family. So complex were the themes and structure of the story, that it has sometimes been likened to the Godfather set of films.
The head of the Fox clan is Billy Fox (played by noted actor, Peter Vaughn), a former Covent Garden market porter and staunch community figure, who has held his family together throughout the years.
However, when Billy dies, the cracks and tension in the family begin to show…
Fox was notable for featuring the actors Ray Winstone and Bernard Hill (who, in 1982, would go onto portray the infamous ‘Yosser Hughes’ in Alan Bleasdale’s brilliant, Liverpool-based drama, Boys From the Blackstuff).
Quatermass (taking its name from the programme’s main protagonist, Professor Bernard Quatermass), is a science-fiction franchise, first conceived by the BBC in the 1950s.
In late 1979, the series was taken on by Thames Television, and Euston Films were given the task of producing the expensive show.
ITV’s Quatermass was set in the final days of the 20th century, a horrifying near-future in which civilisation seemed poised on the abyss.
In the first episode, Professor Quatermass travels to London and witnesses first-hand how far the capital has plunged into a dystopian nightmare.
One example of this is the taxi which the Professor arrives in.
Seen in the serial’s opening sequence, and as the screenshot below illustrates, the Black Cab is heavily fortified, Mad Max style, in order to guard against marauding gangs!
To add to humankind’s woes, a joint effort between the USA and USSR to link up two spacecraft, which Professor Quatermass has been invited to discuss on television, is destroyed by a mysterious alien force.
Despite this aggression, some people- especially those of the younger generation- believe the aliens are here to provide a gateway to a better life, and so gather at ancient, Neolithic sites where they believe the mysterious visitors will be beam them up. However, when the aliens cast their light over these groups, the unfortunate victims are vaporised.
In one episode, a crowd of thousands gather at a rather decrepit looking Wembley Stadium (the site being chosen, we are told, because, in years gone by, football was followed by some like a religion; the pitch itself being nicknamed the ‘hallowed turf’!)
Consequently, many thousands who are naïve enough to put their trust in the aliens, are killed by a powerful death-ray, which illuminates and consumes the stricken stadium…
The Nation’s Health (1983)
The Nation’s Health was a series of four plays, made for Channel 4 which, at the time, had only been broadcasting for one year and was keen to prove itself as a provider of controversial, challenging output.
The drama, which is told through the eyes of Jessie Marvill, a junior doctor, aimed to reveal the true state of the NHS at the time which, unsurprisingly, was pretty grim.
Frustrated by increasing levels of bureaucracy and a general lack of humanity, Jessie, becomes rather jaded. Each episode of The Nation’s Health was followed by a live studio debate.
Widows, penned by prolific crime writer, Lynda La Plante, was a gritty series, putting a feminine spin on a genre usually regarded as being the domain of the masculine.
The widows in question were married to a gang of armed robbers; a ruthless bunch who we see in the drama’s prologue as they attempt to pull off an audacious hijack in the heart of London.
This particularly striking scene was filmed around London’s Southbank; not far from the Royal Festival Hall and National Theatre.
After passing the Tennison Way, bull-ring roundabout (where the huge IMAX cinema now stands),the subsequent chase then heads over Waterloo Bridge, reaching its explosive finale in the Strand Underpass tunnel, deep beneath Aldwych…
Following the fatal accident which took the lives of their spouses, the three widows- Dolly, Shirley and Linda decide to adopt their late husbands’ criminal careers…
Along with The Sweeney, Minder was the most famous series to emerge from Euston Films. It was also their most profitable and longest-running franchise.
The huge success of Minder owed much to the excellent casting of veteran, comic-actor, George Cole and the younger, Dennis Waterman, who was already popular with audiences thanks to his recent stint in The Sweeney.
The premise of the series was simple. Terry McCann (Dennis Waterman) was a small-time crook and ex-boxer who has just finished a stretch in Wormwood Scrubs prison. Despite his criminal past, Terry is an affable character who always had the viewers on his side.
Arthur Daley (George Cole) is a roguish personality; a second-hand car salesman and general wheeler dealer, whose shady business dealings often land him in all sorts of bother.
In need of work after coming out of jail, Terry has agreed to be Arthur’s bodyguard; a ‘Minder’, thus setting the scene for all sorts of scrapes and criminal run-ins.
A secret to the success of Minder was that it mixed many elements; drama, pathos, comedy and, of course the Euston Film staple of gritty, London locations.
It also featured the immensely catchy tune; “I Could Be So Good For You” in its opening and closing credits.
Written by Dennis Waterman and his then wife, Patricia, the song proved so popular that it reached number 3 in the charts in November 1980.
The London locations used throughout Minder’s entire run are far too numerous to detail here. However, an idea of how much the city featured can be garnered from the famous end credits which can be viewed below.
Here is a guide to the locations featured in Minder’s end-credits sequence:
1) The cabin on Arthur Daley’s second-hand car yard, which was located on Blythe Road, in Shepherds Bush. Today, this plot has been built over.
2) Hammersmith Bridge
3) The Royal Albert Hall, Kensington
4) The Blue Anchor Pub, Lower Mall, Chiswick. This pub has also been used in the more recent BBC detective show, ‘New Tricks‘- also starring Dennis Waterman (and yep, he sings the theme tune for that too!) The Blue Anchor is still going strong today… why not pop along for a pint? Their website can be found here.
5) The wonky lamppost was on Newman Passage, off of Newman Street (just north of Oxford Street). Sadly, this quirky, little London landmark has now been replaced by a boring, straight version!
6) The ‘Winchester Club’; Arthur and Terry’s favourite drinking den. This was on Adelaide Road, just behind Chalk Farm tube station. Today, the location is pretty much unrecognisable.
7) Leicester Square
8) The final picture was taken outside Fulham Police Station (Heckford Place, near Fulham Broadway).
The Knowledge (1979)
Last but not least, we have The Knowledge, a one-off play written by the late, great Jack Rosenthal.
Broadcast during the Christmas of December 1979, the play follows a group of four men who have decided to undertake the gruelling process known as ‘The Knowledge’; the intense training course which you must undertake and pass in order to drive a London Black Taxi.
The process is well explained in the candidates’ ‘acceptance interview’, in which the frightful Mr Burgess (wonderfully played by Nigel Hawthorne) lays down the rules:
Having of course undergone the The Knowledge myself, I can confirm that Jack Rosenthal’s treatment of this process is very true to life indeed!
Filming of the scenes featured on this page took place at the Public Carriage Office; a 1960s building on Penton Street in Islington which, until recently, was the HQ for the Knowledge. Just thinking about Penton Street is enough to stir up the fear in my stomach!
Today, the process is handled at the modern ‘Palestra’ building, opposite Southwark tube station.
Mr Burgess was based on an actual examiner who, in real life, was in fact a Scotsman who took great delight in laying on his accent in order to bamboozle the poor students! I have spoken to a number of older cabbies, who encountered this individual during their training, and they all remember him with great dread!
Everything to do with learning The Knowledge is included in the play; the frustration, the nagging doubts, the suspension of one’s social life and of course, the terror of ‘appearances’- the regular verbal examinations which test what students have learnt so far (as well as subliminally assessing your personality and ability to deal with tricky members of the public).
Personally, I had to undergo 27 of these ordeals before I was considered good enough to drive a cab…
Because it is so lovingly and accurately portrayed, The Knowledge has a special place in the hearts of just about every London Cabbie, and also of those who are training to be.
If you would like to know more about my own personal experiences of learning The Knowledge and training to be a London Cabbie, please follow the links in the ‘On the Rank‘ side bar, or alternatively, click here.