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Minder at 40: Arthur Daley's dodgy deals dissected

EDITORIAL USE ONLY / NO MERCHANDISING Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ltd/REX Shutterstock (846221ih) 'Minder' - 'Aces High and Sometimes Very Low' - George Cole as Arthur Daley, Dennis Waterman as Terry McCann. THAMES TV ARCHIVE
George Cole as Arthur Daley and Dennis Waterman as Terry McCann in 'Minder,' which made its debut four decades ago Credit: Ltd/REX Shutterstock

On Monday, October 29 in 1979, your choice of primetime viewing consisted of Butterflies on BBC2 and on the news on BBC1, followed by a screening of Caravan to Vaccarès, a 1974 adventure film with a cameo from Graham Hill as a helicopter pilot. Meanwhile, ITV is premiering a new programme, one which opened with an ex-convict, a middle-aged spiv and a Ford Capri Mk2 2.0S in a Hammersmith car lot. 

Minder came about when, in the words of the executive producer Verity Lambert, Euston Films “wanted to find a vehicle for Dennis Waterman after The Sweeney and a writer called Leon Griffiths sent me a treatment. It was one of the best treatments I’ve seen, actually”.

To re-watch the first 11 episodes is to be returned the time of only three television channels, Austin Allegros and when possession of a microwave oven and a video recorder guaranteed envy throughout suburbia. It is a London where the police favour L-registered Transits and unmarked Cortina Ghias, with background shots of BMC J2 vans, Chrysler Alpines, Moskvitch 412s and other semi-forgotten machinery. 

Among Arthur Daley’s many and various automotive bargains is a Fiat 132 that would now be quite at home at the splendid Festival of the Unexceptional, which celebrates the everyday cars of yesteryear. “Kenny” Rycott is an embittered Detective Constable who drives a Morris Marina 1.3 De Luxe Coupé and “Cheerful Charlie” Chisholm sports long hair and a suit best described as “uber-1970s”.

Cole and Waterman during filming for 'Minder' in 1988 Credit: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy

There was little initial publicity thanks to the ITV strike which lasted from August 10 to October 24. The TV Times eventually described Minder as “a thriller series starring Dennis Waterman as Terry, an ex-convict who must tackle a variety of difficult and dangerous bodyguard assignments arranged by his smooth boss”.  

The mood of Season One is highly reminiscent of The Sweeney, with its frequent use of library music, grim bed-sits and a persistent undercurrent of tobacco-stained violence. The episode “Aces High - and Sometimes Very Low” has a Regan/Carter-style pursuit between a Vauxhall Ventora FE and a Cortina Mk3 and “You Gotta Have Friends” is dominated by George Baker as Bobby Altman, an exceedingly non-comic gang boss. “A Tethered Goat” even has faint overtones of The Professionals, with Nadim Sawalha and Michael Sheard lurking in a W114-series Mercedes-Benz 250. 

The show was intended to be a post-Sweeney vehicle for Dennis Waterman, but George Cole's brilliant portrayal of Arthur Daley meant they soon had equal top billing Credit: Ltd/REX Shutterstock

Yet, several soon-to-be familiar elements were already in place in that original series, including Glynn Edwards presiding over the Winchester Club. From the outset Minder benefited from a first-rate array of guest stars from Dave King, Saeed Jaffrey, Roy Kinnear and Anthony Valentine to Ann Lynn, Lee Montague, Alfred Burke, Kenneth Cope and Derek Jacobi. Above all, there was George Cole as Arthur Daley, claiming “My word is my bond” as he attempts to remain one step removed from both the law and from major underworld figures.  

Euston Films originally considered Denholm Elliott for the part of the businessman who “dresses like a dodgy member of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau”, but Lambert suggested Cole. Daley’s accent is not quite in place – at times he sounds closer to the actor’s own voice – but by the third episode, Arthur is already referring to “’er indoors”. 

A still from the opening credits shows Daley and McCann shaking hands over the bonnet of a Ford Capri Mk2 2.0S Credit: FremantleMedia Ltd / Rex Features

Arthur’s Jaguar XJ6 4.2 Series II (the Daimler Sovereign Series III would not appear until Season Four) denotes his social aspirations. As for Terry, an early plan for him to drive a Ford Escort Harrier was soon abandoned, for Daley would never have issued his put-upon employee with such desirable transport. McCann was to be a tarnished white knight in a down-at-heel Capri Mk2, with the limited-edition Ford relegated to the title sequence. Today the Sovereign and the Capri, registered SLE 71R, are in private ownership.

The show was intended to conclude with the episode “Minder on the Orient Express”, which aired on Christmas Day in 1985. Cole bought the Daimler from the production company, but shortly afterwards it was acquired by the TV Times as a competition prize. However, Waterman did return for a seventh season, but he was to note in his autobiography that Minder “had become the Arthur Daley Comedy Hour” and McCann was last seen in “The Wrong Goodbye”, transmitted on February 6 in 1989. 

Perhaps it was better to remember the hapless bodyguard and his employer from the days when Arthur persuades Terry to become a temporary mini-cab driver in a semi-derelict Austin A60 Cambridge: “I have a pal who has a nice line in cover notes.” 

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