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ETCETERA / Long Runners: No 18: Minder

Age: 14. It started six months after Mrs Thatcher arrived at No 10.

Frequency: since then, there have been 107 episodes in nine series.

Formula: in each hour-long episode (by Euston Films, for ITV), shady second-hand-car-salesman-cum-small- businessman Arthur ('Arfur') Daley (the ineffable George Cole) sets up several dodgy deals, which all threaten to backfire. His minder - first Terry McCann (Dennis Waterman), now Arthur's nephew Ray (Gary Webster) - then wades in with a combination of nous and knuckles to bale him out.

Can the formula remain fresh? Surprisingly, yes. The series averages 11.1m viewers and has been sold to 70 countries. But executive producer John Hambley is feeling the strain. He and Cole announced last October that Arthur would be doing a runner from our screens after this series. 'It is now harder to get absolutely top-class scripts,' Hambley says. 'I'd like to go out at the top.' This does not preclude the occasional special. Cf. Minder's cousin, Only Fools and Horses.

What has kept the show going for so long, then? Hambley reckons that Minder's popularity stems from 'the British love of slightly dodgy anti-authority figures. Arthur is someone who gets away with bucking the system.' But, further, he does it with such panache, manifesting a winning mixture of bluster, bravado and bullshit. Malcolm Bradbury described him as 'the Richard Nixon of the forecourt' and compared him to Bardolph, Moll Flanders and the Artful Dodger. So popular is Arthur Daley that his name is regularly invoked - both as an insult and a compliment - in the British and Australian parliaments. Cole also appears as a pretty fair approximation of the character in some building-society ad; no doubt this has proved 'a nice little earner' for the actor. Arthur's lingo, meanwhile, has passed into common usage: ' 'er indoors' is in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Other good points: Arthur's wardrobe - he is rarely seen without his camel- hair coat and trilby - and his joyous malapropisms: he tells people 'the world's your lobster', calls a priest 'your honour', and bids a Swede goodbye with the word 'smorgasbord'. The programme titles are also a source of pleasure - 'Guess Who's Coming to Pinner', 'Gunfight at the OK Launderette'. The theme tune, 'I Could Be So Good for You' - a version of which by Dennis Waterman reached No 3 in October, 1980 - is a classic of laddish charm. And the supporting cast - invariably featuring characters with such names as Dipso Pete and Hacksaw Harry - has no weak links. Vide Patrick Malahide's Inspector Chisholm, one of the best baddie coppers on the beat.

Anything that makes you want to kick the set in? The Arfur Spin-off Industry - viz, politicians trying to play the cred card by invoking Arthur, and that building-society ad campaign.

Little-known facts: in the first series, the focus was on the minder (hence the title), as after the success of The Sweeney, Waterman was Euston's 'house star'. Denholm Elliott was originally lined up to play Arthur. Cole and Waterman released a novelty Christmas record - 'What Are We Gonna Get 'Er Indoors?' - in 1983. And the new boss of BSkyB, Kelvin MacKenzie, counts Minder among his favourite programmes.

Creator: Leon Griffiths, a playwright (Dinner at the Sporting Club). He said Arthur 'was an amalgam of lots of people,' Hambley recalls. 'There's someone like Arthur in everyone's life. He's just a hyper-real version.'

The bottom line - is it good? Po- faced people might knock Minder for romanticising crime, but they misread it; it's now more of a comedy than a drama. The scripts (by a variety of hands, including Griffiths and Tony Hoare) boast gloriously rich dialogue. Confronted by a snarling Argentinian heavy last week, the cowardly Daley wailed: 'I'm on a shortlist of one to be made into a tin of Fray Bentos.' Arthur is Thatcherism's funniest by- product. And you can't say fairer than that, guv.