George Cole's 60-year career gives the lie to the notion that child actors fail to go on to adult success. He became a major character star, hurdling the decades with ease as he refurbished his persona from that of cockney kid ('I was paid to be cheeky and people clapped me for it', he said in 1990), to awkward, often shy young man, to 'Flash Harry' of four St Trinian's capers, to TV's wonderfully shifty 'Arfer Daley' in Minder (ITV, 1979-84, 1988-94). Yet even these significant transmutations leave out much of a remarkable career.
Born in Tooting, South London, on 22 April 1925, he was on stage from 14, in the chorus of White Horse Inn (1939), in Blackpool, then in Birmingham and London, Cottage to Let (1940), in which the star was Alastair Sim, who took Cole under his wing and would play so influential a role in his career. They were both cast by Anthony Asquith in the film version of Cottage (1941), Cole as the resourceful evacuee who helps unmask an unlikely spy. Looking younger than his years, he played another evacuee in Those Kids from Town (d. Lance Comfort, 1942) and, very touchingly, the boy in Henry V (d. Laurence Olivier, 1944), and was in the RAF (1943-47).
The obsessive kite-flyer in an episode of Quartet (co-d. Ken Annakin, Arthur Crabtree, Harold French, Ralph Smart, 1948) is probably the best of his gauche young men, though he plays his part in the tense build-up of the submarine drama, Morning Departure (d. Roy Ward Baker, 1950).
He played the younger - to Sim's older - Scrooge (d. Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951) and they acted together in eight more films, including the St Trinian's series in which their comic styles complemented each other: Sim is all restrained outrage, Cole grotesque spivvery.
Along the way, there were serious roles, such as the cockney promoted to officer in The Intruder (d. Guy Hamilton, 1953) and the sergeant in A Prize of Gold (d. Mark Robson, 1955), and in 1971 he played the straight role of an anxious husband in Fright (d. Peter Collinson, 1971). He also appeared in two international botches: Cleopatra (1963 - as Caesar's deaf-mute barber) and The Blue Bird (US/USSR, d. George Cukor, 1976 - as The Dog).
Not only are there 40-odd films, but as well Cole was very fortunate with his TV work: not just Minder, but A Life of Bliss (BBC, 1960-61), reprising the shy bachelor character he had played on radio, A Man of Our Times (ITV, 1968), which marked his transition to middle-aged roles, and the broadly droll Blott on the Landscape (BBC, 1985). He also appeared in over 30 plays, including several by James Bridie. He married actresses Eileen Moore (1954-62) and Penny Morell (1964 -).
Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film