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Cole, George Edwardlocked

(1925–2015)
  • Alex Jennings

Cole, George Edward (1925–2015), actor, was born in a nursing home at 19 Defoe Road, Tooting, London, on 22 April 1925. His birth was not registered, details of his parentage are unknown, and he was given up for adoption when he was ten days old. His adoptive parents were George Edward Cole (d. 1939), a printer and occasional council employee, and his wife, Florence (d. 1976), a charlady. Cole’s adoptive father suffered gas poisoning during the First World War, and his consequent poor health made regular employment difficult. His mother worked long, arduous hours in menial jobs to support the family. Young George was thirteen when he discovered, while rummaging for Christmas presents on top of a wardrobe, a letter saying he had been adopted. His mother was anxious that the ‘secret’ should remain just that. In his autobiography Cole wrote, ‘I loved my adoptive parents; they treated me wonderfully, and I had a tremendous childhood. As far as I was concerned, they were my parents’ (Cole The World Was My Lobster, 7). They also instilled in him the value of an education they had been denied, and he was a conscientious student, attending local primary and secondary schools in Morden.

On leaving school in 1939, Cole worked briefly as a butcher’s delivery boy, and made some extra money with a newspaper round. He already knew that he wanted to go on the stage. As a boy he had taken part in school plays, and sung comic songs in British Legion concerts, accompanied by his mother on the piano and his father on the drums. Fortuitously, he saw an advertisement in an edition of one of the papers he was delivering: ‘Small boy wanted for London musical’. He auditioned, reciting, in his broad Cockney accent, Mark Antony’s ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech. He did not get the part, but was asked to ‘walk-on’ and to understudy, and to start that very day in Blackpool. Cole sent his parents a telegram: '"Have gone on the stage, will write.” It was nine words for sixpence … I can’t remember what the other two were. Maybe they were just “Love, George”' (ibid., 10). The show was White Horse Inn, a revival of the popular musical comedy by Ralph Benatzky and Robert Stolz, and Cole’s part consisted of crossing the stage with two goats and six pigeons, all of which shared his dressing room. The production toured before a run at the London Coliseum. He rarely returned home, and sent his now widowed mother 5s. a week out of his weekly wage of 28s. 6d.

Cole then landed the plum role of Ronald, a pugnacious child evacuee caught up in a tale of espionage, kidnapping, and wartime derring-do, in Cottage to Let, by Geoffrey Kerr. The play opened at the Wyndham’s Theatre in 1940, and toured when the blitz closed the London theatres. Graham Greene, writing in The Spectator, was just one of many who heaped praise on Cole’s scene-stealing performance:

the honours must go to Master George Cole as the evacuee-schoolboy who is following in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes … This is as fine a bit of natural acting as you will see in London in a part that has all the swagger of a story in Chums.

(The Spectator, 15 May 1941)

Cottage to Let starred the great Scottish actor Alastair Sim. Sim and his wife, Naomi, were to become a huge part of Cole’s life. They gave him, and for a time his mother, a home away from the bombs of London, at Stoke Row, Oxfordshire. He was devoted to the Sims, stayed with them for more than ten years, and eventually built a house next door to theirs, where he was to live for the rest of his life. Cole credited Sim with teaching him, more by observation and assimilation than by any formal training, the craft of acting, and both Sims were insistent that he be able to shed his Cockney vowels, thinking they would be a handicap to his acting. The two actors were to appear together in numerous films, plays, and television productions.

Cole made his film début, with Sim, in Anthony Asquith’s fine version of Cottage to Let (1941). On the West End stage he was in J. B. Priestley’s Goodnight Children, Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path (both in 1942), and Mr Bolfry (1943), the first of several appearances alongside Sim in the plays of James Bridie. In 1943 he was called up and joined the RAF, after failing to qualify as a wireless operator he was assigned to ‘general duties’, which included ‘clean[ing] out the Winter Gardens’ in Blackpool and ‘shovel[ling] coal’ (The World Was My Lobster, 37, 39); he and ended his service career running an officers’ mess bar in occupied Germany. While in the RAF he was given leave to appear as the boy in Laurence Olivier’s morale-boosting film of Henry V (1944), and after demobilization in 1947 he was rarely out of work. His films with Sim included Scrooge (1951), in which Cole was young Ebenezer, his mentor the definitive older version; Laughter in Paradise (1951), as a timid bank clerk encouraged to hold up his own bank to fulfil the conditions of an inheritance; and The Green Man (1956), Cole’s own favourite of all his films, as a hapless vacuum-cleaner salesman who blithely foils Sim’s would-be assassin. In these, and other, post-war roles, Cole played an innocent who ‘despite being all fingers and thumbs, blunders through in the end’ (Quinlan, 66). Then, in the series of St Trinian’s films, based on the timeless drawings of Ronald Searle, he established another side to this comic persona. Starting with The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), with Sim gloriously in drag as the beleaguered headmistress, Cole was Flash Harry, the archetypal ‘spiv’. Swaggering ‘from side to side like a pompadoured metronome’ (Roberts, ‘George Cole’), placing bets and smuggling in bootleg gin for Searle’s rampaging schoolgirls, he created the first of his imperishable Cockney ‘wide boys’.

Cole had a long-running success as the befuddled David Bliss in A Life of Bliss on radio (1953–69) and television (1960), and continued to work in the theatre, mostly in West End comedies, with the occasional diversion into the classics and musicals. He was Tesman to Joan Greenwood’s Hedda Gabler (St Martin’s, 1964), Captain Hook to Lulu’s Peter Pan (Cambridge, 1987), and Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 1982). From the 1960s films offered him fewer opportunities, despite a brief Hollywood excursion to play a deaf mute slave in Cleopatra (1963) starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. He turned increasingly to the small screen, where he was relieved to be playing, finally, his own age, and in more demanding and rewarding roles; notably as Max Osborne, a middle-aged businessman faced with redundancy in Julian Bond’s A Man of Our Times (1967); as a lonely clerk driven to murder in Hugh Whitemore’s Killing Time (1970); as another businessman who, with his wife, decides to go back to school, in John Osborne’s The Right Prospectus (1970); as struggling playwright Gordon Maple in Charles Wood’s delightful comedy Don’t Forget to Write! (1977–9); and as the unscrupulous Sir Giles Lynchwood MP in an adaptation of Tom Sharpe’s Blott on the Landscape (1985).

In 1979 Cole was appearing in a play he hated, Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle, at the Open Space Theatre when he was shown a treatment for a television series, Minder. He knew immediately that this was something special, and as Arthur Daley, the loveable but distinctly dodgy second-hand car dealer, and a not too distant cousin of Flash Harry, Cole created one of television’s genuine immortals. Arthur Daley, always on the lookout for ‘a nice little earner’, had an irresistible and unconsciously creative way with words; ‘a friend in need … is a pest’, ‘he’s an invertebrate liar’, ‘the world is my lobster’ (which Cole had overheard in a restaurant, and gratefully paid his fellow diner £25 for, knowing it would come in handy), all found their way into the argot of the nation, his disdainful reference to his invisible wife as ‘ʾer indoors’ even making it into the Oxford Dictionary of Slang. Minder also made Cole and his co-star, Dennis Waterman, unlikely pop stars, when their duet, ‘What are we gonna get ʾer indoors?’, reached the British top thirty in December 1983. The show ran for fifteen years (1979–94), with 17 million viewers at its peak, and caught the avaricious mood of 1980s Thatcherite Britain.

George Cole loved to work, and on film he appeared with Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly (1996), his first Hollywood movie since he had played Tylo the talking dog in The Blue Bird (1975), directed by George Cukor, and again with Liz Taylor. There was more good television, including Dad (1997–9), and an episode of New Tricks (2007) with his old ‘minder’, Dennis Waterman. Away from show business, he was something of an outsider. He had no agent, and lived a quiet life in Newnham Hill, near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, happily pottering in his garden, or watching the Saturday afternoon racing on the television (his chosen book on Desert Island Discs The Form Book), puffing on a favourite Havana cigar, or doing The Times crossword, which he had been introduced to by Alastair Sim.

On 4 January 1954 Cole married the actress Eileen Moore (b. 1932), daughter of William Moore, company director. They had a son, Crispin, and a daughter, Harriet. The marriage was dissolved in 1966, and on 26 May 1967 Cole married the actress Penelope Margaret Ann (Penny) Morrell (b. 1938), daughter of Richard Morrell, a university lecturer in English literature. They had a daughter, Tara, and a son, Toby. Cole was appointed OBE in 1992, and published his autobiography, The World Was My Lobster, in 2013. He died from sepsis and pneumonia on 5 August 2015, at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading. At his funeral his coffin entered the church to the theme tune from Minder. He was survived by his wife Penny and his four children.

Sources

Archives

Film

  • performance footage, BFI NFTVA

Sound

  • performance, interview and documentary recording, BL NSA

Likenesses

  • M. Birt, bromide print, 1983, NPG
  • D. Old, bromide print, 1986, NPG
  • D. McGill, two photographs, 1994, Bridgeman Images
  • photographs, repro. in Cole, The world was my lobster (2013)
  • photographs, AP Images
  • photographs, PA Images
  • photographs, Rex Features
  • photographs, Getty Images
  • stills, BFI NFTVA
  • photographs, BBC
  • obituary photographs
death certificate
(1849–)
marriage certificate
British Library, National Sound Archive
British Film Institute, London