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George Cole. And Ordinary Decent Criminals.

August 7, 2015


George Cole was the last surviving cast member from Laurence Olivier’s epic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

He played “Boy”.

“Boy” was one of the late Falstaff’s crew and goes along with Nym, Bardolph and Pistol to the French wars.  He forswears the increasingly ragged and unfunny villainy practiced by Falstaff’s relicts but ends up being killed along with other boys guarding the baggage train.

Cole’s “Boy” was a likely lad who hit a certain wall of self realisation.  One of the few characters in the play to actually undergo a kind of revelation and transformation.  His death is a small tragedy and we feel it.

George Cole’s great salvation was to be effectively adopted by the incomparably wonderful Alistair Sim.  They worked together, praise be, and they both played Ebeneezer Scrooge in the finest of all Christmas movies.  Cole played young Scrooge in an intelligent imagining of Scrooge’s back story.  (Young Marley, incidentally, was played by Patrick McNee who died just recently.)  In this role, Cole played a man slowly being crushed under the weight of his own seriousness, someone who was just becoming addicted to squeezing all the joy out of his own life.

Cole and Sim were of course reunited for St Trinian’s movies.  Sim, in drag, offering the most exquisite faux shocked delicacy in his scenes with the amicable spiv “Flash Harry”.  Just say the words “Flash Harry” and that broken down piano theme will start playing in your head.  Flash Harry was uncle to Paul Whitehouse’s “geezer” from The Fast Show.  An iconic postwar figure whose enormous coat contained any amount of eclectic ration-free consumer goods.

And for the rest of his life he was “around” – George Cole – acquitting himself well in character roles and talking affectionately about Alistair Sim.  That’s a good life and worth smiling about.   When, relatively late in life, he became for the first time an authentic celebrity – Arfur Daley (I can’t spelll out the “th” – I just can’t), he was properly bemused by the phenomenon.  Daley’s greed and manipulative selfishness  offended the decent Cole, who had no problem playing the role but became concerned when children ran up to him and said things like “you’re just like my Dad”.  Cole himself never sentimentalised a character that others were too quick to soften and excuse.  He once said that Daley’s only real redemptive quality was failure.

Arfur Daley symbolised everything that was wrong about the 1980s, but his failure to really flourish and the collapse of so many of his rather shabby schemes should have reminded us that there were far more successful and destructive versions of Daley swimming around.  Cole was playing an irritating minnow is a sea full of sharks.   He was no Gordon Gekko, He thought “greed was good” – but deep down, he never really “knew it”.

George Cole played characters of proximate criminality.  Criminals within spitting distance of decency and law-abiding citizens who functioned in the shadow of something dark and abusive.

Who won’t miss George Cole?  Now there’s a life to have lived and played.


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