RICHARD LITTLEJOHN: A wake as we bid farewell to Dennis Waterman

RICHARD LITTLEJOHN: A Winchester Club wake as we bid farewell to Dennis Waterman – who was was truly one of our own

They’re holding a wake down at The Winchester tonight, raising a large VAT to Terry McCann.

Scotch Harry will be there, if he’s not still banned. So will Self Inflicted, Confident Clive, Maltese Tony, The Syrup, Cheerful Charlie Chisholm and the rest of the motley crew.

Propping up the bar, in spirit at least, will be Arthur Daley. Better make it a double-double, Dave.

For ten years, Dennis Waterman, who died at the weekend, starred as Terry, Arthur’s long-suffering sidekick in Minder.

Conceived as a vehicle for Dennis, the show soon developed into one of television’s most enduring double acts. Terry was the perfect foil for the late George Cole’s West London wide boy — the slimline tonic to Arthur’s ubiquitous large vodka.

Minder was Waterman’s second smash hit series in succession, following on from The Sweeney, in which he played Detective Sergeant George Carter to John Thaw’s D.I. Jack Regan.

These two seminal slices of classic British television captured the zeitgeist of the 1970s and 1980s — the first set in a shabby, litter-strewn London, capital of what was then widely considered to be a corrupt, crumbling, crime-ridden society in terminal decline.

Minder was Waterman’s second smash hit series in succession, following on from The Sweeney, in which he played Detective Sergeant George Carter to John Thaw’s D.I. Jack Regan

Minder was born on the threshold of the Thatcher revolution, although it was a difficult birth.

As a young hack on London’s Evening Standard in 1979, I went to the Press launch of the show on a boat moored next to the Victoria Embankment on the Thames.

I was only invited because as an industrial correspondent I’d been covering the nine-week walk-out by ITV technicians, which delayed broadcast of the first episode and just about summed up late-Seventies Britain, where strikes were a daily torment.

After a shaky start, Minder never looked back. Arthur, like Del Boy in the BBC’s subsequently commissioned Only Fools And Horses, embodied the optimism of the 1980s, which held that anyone, with a bit of judicious ducking and diving, could cash in on the ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit and, this time next year, become a millionaire.

Anyone, that is, except the Terry McCanns of this world, permanently potless and condemned to surviving on Arthur’s less-than-largesse.

Dennis was a far more accomplished and versatile actor than his tough-guy persona was given credit for

Dennis played him to perfection. Yes, McCann was an ex-jailbird useful with his fists, but he employed them sparingly and reluctantly.

He was the conscience of the programme, always suspicious of Arthur’s more dubious scams and ready to walk away rather than break the law and risk re-imprisonment.

So, too, Waterman’s George Carter in The Sweeney, which I would argue was his greatest role. Carter was forever pulling Regan’s chestnuts out of the fire, often physically stopping him kicking seven sacks out of suspects.

Don’t do it, guv, he’s not worth it.

The Sweeney is even credited with changing the way police officers behaved and spoke.

During the 1980s, when the pubs closed after lunch until knocking-off time at five, I spent many a happy afternoon in private members’ clubs just like the Winchester. In the West End, there was the Ratkeller, aka the Rathbone Arts Club off Charlotte Street, underneath the kind of Greek restaurant run by Diane Keen in an early episode of Minder.

Mostly, I frequented the Victoria Club, run by an exiled Iranian Christian called Sam, equidistant from the Palace of Westminster and Scotland Yard. It was also popular with certain associates of South London’s notorious Richardson gang.

After a couple of sherbets, it was difficult to tell who was who. The cops looked and sounded like the villains and vice versa.

Waterman pictured in character as Terry McCann on location during filming of the television series Minder in London in October 1979

And they all looked as if they’d just walked off the set of The Sweeney or Minder.

Dennis Waterman was rumoured to be no stranger to such establishments. Certainly, he was a thirsty man, unlike his alter ego McCann, who generally stuck to halves of lager. He was a big drinking buddy of the late Michael Elphick (Boon), who appeared in a terrific episode of The Sweeney, called One Of Your Own.

(I bumped into Mike in Gerry’s Club in Soho one night. He was the only man I’d ever seen carried in.)

Years later, when I was doing a bit of TV, I was with the same management agency as Dennis. It was run by Deke Arlon and his wife Jill Arlon, one of the creators of Minder.

We were invited to spend a weekend with Dennis and his wife Pam at Deke and Jill’s house in the South of France.

Waterman (pictured far right) poses for a photograph with John Thaw (left) and comedic legends Ernie Wise and Eric Morecambe (centre) in 1978

After a long career in Fleet Street, I thought I could drink. That was before I met Dennis and we started on the local rosé.

Not to put too fine a point on it, we managed to fit A Year In Provence into 48 hours.

He could also smoke for Britain, too. On Saturday lunchtime, we repaired to a Bar Tabac, where he bought 100 Gitanes. On the way to Nice airport on Sunday morning, he asked Deke to stop at the nearest convenience store so he could buy some more cigarettes. He’d run out overnight. The beer and fags did for him in the end, aged just 74, but not before he had enjoyed a stellar career, dating back six decades to his childhood role starring in the BBC adaptation of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books.

Dennis was a far more accomplished and versatile actor than his tough-guy persona was given credit for. He starred on stage in Windy City, the musical adaptation of Ben Hecht’s fabulous Chicago newspaper drama The Front Page.

And he played the title role in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, written by the great Keith Waterhouse, formerly of this parish.

Waterman (left) and George Cole at the Theatre Royal in London in 1982. Waterman’s extensive career also included numerous stints on the stage

Some might pigeonhole Dennis as Best Supporting Actor at best, but that would do him a disservice. Neither Arthur Daley nor Jack Regan would have been half the characters they turned out to be without Terry McCann and George Carter, to my mind his tour de force — as John Thaw recognised early in the first series when he asked the producers to write the young DS Carter a bigger role. Dennis didn’t disappoint.

The Sweeney was what’s now called ‘appointment to view’ TV, in the days before you could buy a genuine Bulgarian-made video recorder from Daley Into Europe.

When I worked on a local rag, I remember covering council committee meetings which were cut short by the chairman so we could all rush home in time for our latest fix.

Has there ever been a better theme tune? And speaking of theme tunes, Deke Arlon once told me that Dennis was sorely aggrieved at Little Britain portraying him as a joke figure who couldn’t get parts any more because he always insisted on ‘singing the theeme toon’.

I said Dennis should get himself in on the joke, then he’d own it. Deke called the Little Britain team and they booked Dennis for their live show.

Among the tributes yesterday, Little Britain’s Matt Lucas said Dennis’s guest appearance ‘remains the absolute highlight of my career’.

The Little Britain boys loved him. We all did.

Dennis Waterman pictured leaving Reading Crematorium for the funeral of Minder co-star George Cole in 2015

Waterman with New Tricks co-star Amanda Redman arriving for the Galaxy British Book Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel in March 2007

One of my most prized possessions is an original London Underground poster promoting Minder On The Orient Express. It’s on the wall of my office as I’m writing this and never fails to cheer me up.

The BBC is currently planning to spend £50 million finding out what most licence-payers like to watch. I can save them the time and money. Not the new Dr Who, for a start.

Heaven knows what Dennis would have made of the latest ludicrous successor to William Hartnell and Tom Baker. Words fail even me.

Instead of chasing woke millennials who watch everything on their phone and don’t pay the licence fee anyway, the BBC bigwigs should tune into ITV4 late afternoons any weekday.

There they will find the answer staring them in the face — Dennis Waterman starring in The Sweeney or Minder.

As we say down The Winchester, call it a monkey for cash.

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