Veteran actor GEORGE COLE talks with James Rampton
There was a moment when it dawned on George Cole that Arthur Daley, his character from Minder, had become an icon: "I suddenly wondered what I had got into," he recalls, "when someone overtook me at 70 miles per hour on the motorway and leant out of the window to shout `Hello, Arthur'."

The figure of the dodgy dealer in the camel-hair coat took such a hold on the public imagination in the 1980s that politicians accused their opponents of Arthur Daley economics and catchphrases like "'er indoors" and "nice little earner" made their way into dictionaries.

Even now, Arthur's recognition factor can be a problem for his alter ego Cole. "I never go to supermarkets," he reveals, "but when people do accost me, I just keep on moving. You mustn't engage them in conversation. If you do, you have to listen in detail to stories from the last five episodes of Minder showing on satellite - as if you had never been in them! But if you do something for that length of time, you have to expect to become public property. I have never resented it."

In television terms, Cole certainly puffed Daley's cigar for an eon (in fact, 15 years between 1979 and 1994). But he understood Arthur from day one. "When I read the proposal for Minder, it said Arthur's favourite film was The Godfather, that he was behind the then Home Secretary as far as law and order were concerned and that he dressed like a dodgy member of a Citizens' Advice Bureau. That made me want to do him."

Over the next decade and a half, Arthur held up an uncanny mirror to British society. "He came in in the same year as Mrs Thatcher, but he lasted even longer," Cole reflects. "In an era of greed, he was fairly greedy, but also so unsuccessful. He had the appeal of the eternal loser. Every week you were hoping against hope that he'd pull it off, but he still never managed it. If you counted it up each week, he lost more than the Lottery prizes. We all applauded the fact that he was trying to put one over on the authorities by doing things like not paying his VAT. You could admire his attempts to make a fortune, because you knew he wouldn't succeed. Anyone who tries to sell water-damaged umbrellas is obviously ridiculous."

Another part of Arthur's appeal was his relationship with Terry, the minder of the title, played by Dennis Waterman. "The rapport with Dennis was instant," Cole recounts. "It was a fairly tight schedule, and if something went wrong in a scene we didn't always stop. He'd say something that fitted and I'd say something that fitted, and out of that often came a very good scene."

Done up in a blue pinstripe blazer and looking much smarter than he ever did in Minder, Cole is cute enough to know that loveable as he was, Arthur could never be brought back now. The producers had the nous to quit while they were ahead. "He had his time," Cole reckons. "I wonder how he'd get on with New Labour. They're not in favour of his sort of small business."

Unlike some other stars of huge but deceased hits, Cole has managed to maintain a successful career afterlife. Appearing since the demise of Minder in such shows as Root into Europe, Fine Things and My Good Friend, he was never concerned about being forever cast as a super-spiv. "In the 1980s, I got offered a lot of imitation Arthurs, which I turned down," he remembers. "I wasn't worried about being typecast because I did so much in between series of Minder - things like Pirates of Penzance and The Bounder. Anyway, when you get to my age, you don't worry about getting typecast."

Cole has certainly avoided Arthur Daley stereotypes with his latest role as Brian, an annoyingly pernickety father constantly at odds with his son, Alan (Kevin McNally), in a new BBC1 sitcom, Dad. He's the sort of father who gives his son nightmares for 20 years by always insisting on picking him up from teenage parties at 11 o'clock sharp.

Now Brian passes his time regularly rotating the cushions on his sofa so they don't wear out in one particular place. Like Harry Enfield's Mr "You Don't Want To Do That", he is a know-all who sets people's teeth on edge without even realising it. "Be sure to bend your legs and not your back," he tells his son who is unloading suitcases from the car. "That's how 91 per cent of back injuries occur." Brian likes nothing better than spending the afternoon trawling through scrapyards for car spares. "He has the attitude of `You never know when this might come in useful'," Cole laughs.

In a neat development, Alan, often on the verge of punching his father, has in turn alienated his own son. "One can see how it happens," Cole muses. "In his determination not to be like his father, the son has gone too far the other way and is now an embarrassment to his son, saying things like `groovy'."

Cole hopes that "three generations will all relate to Dad". Like Basil Fawlty or Alf Garnett, Brian is the kind of sitcom monster who holds a grim fascination for audiences. We are drawn to these types, Cole surmises, because "they're extreme. We're all a little bit extreme. They're just more so."

For all that, Cole delivers a nicely judged performance as Brian; painful, yet plausible. Like all Cole's creations, Brian is comic and credible at the same time. "Believability is what I aim for in everything," he observes. "You've got to have a reality. Even in Minder, you had to believe that world."

Over his many years on television, he has learnt that, in terms of performance, small is beautiful. "It's very easy to be exaggerated," is Cole's assessment. "I'm always saying to myself, `Pull back, do nothing till you have to'."

He is going on to appear in Heritage, a new play about Chelsea pensioners, at the Hampstead Theatre in the autumn. Even in his 73rd year, Cole shows no sign of slowing down. "Retiring would bore me to tears," he concludes. "What would I do? I only get away with doing nothing when I'm working."

Dad begins on BBC1 later this month


1925: Born in Tooting, south London

1940s: Appeared in Cottage To Let, Henry V, and Quartet

1950s: Featured in Scrooge, Our Girl Friday, The Belles of St Trinian's, It's a Wonderful World and Blue Murder at St Trinian's. During this period, he met his mentor Alistair Sim, who taught him acting techniques in the most subtle way. "When you're not being preached at, you don't realise you're learning," Cole reckons. "Only later do you realise what you've assimilated."

1960s: Roles in The Pure Hell of St Trinian's, Cleopatra, The Legend of Young Dick Turpin, A Man of Our Times, and The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery. Though he enjoyed filmmaking in Britain, he never fancied Hollywood. He went once, but found it "like a cross between Blackpool and Southend on a bad day"

1970s: Appeared in The Vampire Lovers, The Return of the Saint, Take Me High, and The Bluebird. Made his bow as Arthur Daley in Minder in 1979

1980s: Starred in The Bounder, Minder on the Orient Express, and as Sir Giles Lynchwood in Blott on the Landscape, "the oddest work I've ever done," he says

1990s: Lead roles in: Root into Europe, Fine Things, My Good Friend, and Dad, a second series of which has already been commissioned